Overcome With Paschal Joy

It’s remarkable that during this triumphant Easter season I’ve been led to meditations on death. Could there be a better time for that topic?

First, regarding how we refer to that dread event: “death.”

We usually prefer to use a euphemism for that experience: passing away; meeting our Maker; or even the more flippant buying the farm. We save blessed event for the happy birth of a child, but we could just as easily and accurately apply that phrase to death, especially during this holy season when we are “overcome with Paschal joy.”

At Easter, we refer to Christ’s victory over death. It’s easy to grow over-accustomed to phrases like this and lose the depth of their meaning. Only recently have I come to a discovery of what this phrase means. Jesus obviously did not “conquer” death by eliminating it. Instead, he ran to meet it, even though his was the very worst kind of death, having been unjustly convicted of the most heinous crime, so far removed from the very purpose of his existence: total dedication and fidelity to God’s message and his mission. His was a cruel death to both body and dignity.

The victory was in his resurrection, attested to by so many so that we latecomers might be convinced of an unending future with him. At his farewell, Christ told his Apostles:

You have faith in God; have faith in me also!
I am going first to prepare a place for you,
so that you may be with me and the Father for all time.

What a blessed season for dying! A few days after Easter, our loving Benedictine Brother Justin died unexpectedly. Two of my own siblings also died during Easter week some years ago. I’ve always considered this a great grace: to enter heaven accompanied by our resurrected Savior.

I’ve also found myself inspired with a new appreciation for the famous poem of John of the Cross. The translation as the “Dark Night” is really inexact. The poet writes of a blessed night that may be obscure for sure, but not totally dark. He speaks of a graced obscurity where a divine light serves as his guide. Like St. Paul, he sees only “darkly” now. He knows there is something behind or within this obscurity; it is neither totally black nor totally empty. He has the certain expectation of finding a splendor beyond imagining. The light of faith assures him that there is a brilliance to this particular night, a brilliance hidden from his understanding, but no less true and blindingly beautiful. He knows that human understanding is too weak and limited to grasp, except through grace, what is really happening and why. While John of the Cross refers to the spiritual journey in life, his description can be equally applied to the process of a Christian death.

These contemporary Spanish mystics, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, both wrote poems on the theme of longing for the only way to see God: in death. I die because I do not die!

John of the Cross:

I live, but not in myself,
And I have such hope
That I die because I do not die.

Teresa of Avila:

I live only with the confidence
that I have to die . . .
Death, do not delay,
for I await you,
for I die because I do not die.

These poet-saints echo St. Paul’s utterly consoling statement: For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

To die is gain. No longer will we need to content ourselves with fleeting glimpses of God’s love. Paul realized that the most beautiful aspect of being alive on this earth is knowing Christ, being certain of his love and brotherhood here, and our relationship coming to complete fruition after death. We know that a faith-filled death assures us of an enduring and ever-increasing joy in God’s presence, along with the presence of our loved ones previously considered lost to us.

I certainly won’t deny the pain that we, the survivors, must endure when a loved one dies. When a beloved friend leaves us, that death creates a large hole of emptiness and grief. But even that space is a blessing. For into that crater of grief, God pours the ever-increasing and certain comfort of His presence, love, and compassion.

This is the true joy of the Paschal season, in that we have been gifted with knowledge of Christ’s own death and resurrection. We can never again view death as a terminus, but as our third birth: birth as a human in a universe of time, space and matter; rebirth as Christians in a baptism of faith and love; and the final, culminating birth-in-death when through Christ we are transformed and welcomed into an unending union with the All-Loving Trinity.

Easter Joy
Life is changed, not taken away.

 

 

 

 

Behold, I Make All Things New!

We are still, liturgically, in the Easter season. We still hear the wonderful phrase at Mass: Overcome with Paschal joy!

So now that we’ve come through Lent, the sacred Triduum and Easter, has anything changed?

If we are thoughtful people, in love with God, we can’t be the same as we were last February before Lent began. Is there anything different in how we perceive Christ now?

Christ seemed to change for his disciples after his death and resurrection. Or rather, was it their ability to perceive Christ that changed? Consider these post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus:
Mary at the tomb

  • Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener.
  • The Emmaus disciples saw only a fellow traveler.
  • The disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee heard a stranger calling out to them from the shore.

 

In each situation, the disciples were given a subtle hint, a reminder that served as a wake-up call: the memory of a special time with the Lord; a moment of intimate friendship recalled by the divine Voice speaking to them once again. He was not recognized until . . .

  • Mary heard him say her name.
  • He broke bread with the Emmaus disciples.
  • He called to his disciples to cast their nets one more time.

What does this have to do with us?

For the most part, we have become a ho-hum people. Easter is politely observed as a feast day, but we can hardly grasp the truth of this most extravagant of mysteries.

Belief almost descends into a platitude that we casually recite in the Creed every Sunday. For that matter, almost all that we hear on Sundays falls on ears that have become over-familiar with the sound of Scripture. The newness and wonder of Easter has, for many, been buried in new clothes and chocolate.

Surely, arriving at a kind of tepid faith is not why Jesus came, died, and was resurrected. Hopefully, as we celebrate this season annually, a light is switched on, a spark within us ignited. A seed planted deep within our spiritual ground (close to being forgotten) suddenly sprouts as the waters of faith revive it. How can we find that spark of belief, that flood of understanding, that fire of trust? We need to be awakened by the light of the Paschal candle, our thirst satisfied by the Easter waters. Such symbols and metaphors have been given to help teach us the reality of the living Christ. St. Paul tells us that  we Christians are poor indeed if we do not believe in the Resurrection. Nonetheless, Easter presents me with so many questions about how the Resurrection of Christ affects my life.

  • Why did Christ come?
  • Why was he executed?
  • How did Christ’s life and Resurrection change the disciples?
  • How has Christ’s life and Resurrection changed history?
  • Mostly, how has it changed me?

These are questions that are most often answered by platitudes, answers that have been fed to us without our understanding, without moving us, answers that we in turn parrot to others, answers that do nothing to change how we live and interact with the Christ in others. And I certainly can’t pretend to answer them for you personally when I can barely approach them myself.

Of course the disciples couldn’t recognize Jesus! Don’t you think he would have looked different? After all, his humanity had been totally deformed by torture — unpleasant as it may be to think of — and then totally re-formed through the miracle of his resurrection.

But most of all, what this tells me is about the ever-changing yet always the same face of God and how he re-reveals himself to us each time we seek to know him in prayer and study. Each year our liturgy brings us back to the same situation, the same Scriptures, the same rituals. If we have grown, if we open our eyes and ears, these “same” things differ from year to year.  We are invited to deeper understanding and consequently to greater love and admiration.  This is part of God’s making all things new, just as Jesus told his disciples about the kingdom of heaven: “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” (Matthew 13:52) Though we read and hear the same stories over and over, we are continually enabled to find something new within the familiar.

The important thing is to put our questions to the only One who knows the answers. We have so many pat answers and certitude about so many things that we risk losing a sense of wonder in the face of an infinite Being. In the delusion of having figured everything out, we remain locked within that spiritual cave-tomb, never knowing the resurrection that makes all things new. Instead, we can look forward to an eternity of ever-increasing amazement .

Every year Easter can present us with a new understanding of what our life is about, what it is for. First, ask the questions. Next, listen for the answers with the “ears of your heart” that remain open to the wonder of Christ’s existence on this earth.

Behold, I Make All Things New!
(Revelation 21:5)