Maggie Duncan Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith (2015) University of Notre Dame, Class of 2017
Have you ever been jealous of Kim Kardashian? I have. Not directly, of course. But when it comes to social media—Instagram, Facebook, Twitter—I do like a good “like.” If anyone knows how to get those, it’s our friend Kim K. I don’t bring this up because I think we can draw heavenly similes from the Kardashians’ tweets. I bring it up because in my journey with God, I struggle with a similar vice as Miss Kardashian—the need to brand myself and control how I rank among others.
Social media is a weird beast, and it’s something for which I’ve never been very good at controlling my desire. Some people can look at a few pictures or comments and be happy, but not me. Facebook became a way for me to check how my life ranked. It became a tool I used to distort and manipulate myself. I used social media as a way to craft an image of myself to try to get people to like me, admire me, or want to be me.
My misuse of social media was not just applied to my own profile. I also used it to judge others. How many likes did they get? Where did they go this weekend? How good is their life? How worthy can they—or rather, we—prove that we are to each other?
I tried to limit social media to heal these patterns a little bit. This past winter, though, I couldn’t tell you how many times I checked, scrolled, liked, and “hearted” per day. That scared me. Where was my heart if this was where I put all my time? Were my thoughts ever on things not relating to my own image or the images of others? Because of this wake up call, I decided to give up social media for Lent.
After I gave up social media, I felt like I was going through a social withdrawal. When I couldn’t be on Facebook or Instagram or the #Twittersphere, I found myself feeling isolated. I couldn’t be affirmed by random virtual entities anymore. I still had my real life friends—but I could no longer spend time crafting my persona.
During Lent, I realized that I wasn’t really living for God or for love, but for likes. I had learned to see myself as worthy only if a certain number of people approved of my image. I ignored the real connections—the “have a good morning” texts or the excited hug from a friend I hadn’t seen in two weeks—for the number of tiny “thumbs ups” I could get on a good profile picture.
As Lent went on, it got easier to be away from it all. In pulling away, though, I saw that my lurking Facebook account was not the only flaw. The whole reason social media is such an issue for me is because of a deep need in my heart to be seen as important.
As Christians and as humans, we are supposed to put our sisters and brothers before ourselves. My whole sense of self-worth came from how I could do better, be better, be more than others. I found the idea of truly being seen—really seen, live and unedited and sprinkled with imperfections—terrifying, to say the least. I rejected it because my groaning pride and my trembling insecurity would not have it.
When social media, the broken toy that it was, was taken away, I stopped being able to mold myself into a “perfect” person and stopped seeing others as simple categories. I slowly discovered the possibility of seeing us all in an honest light. We weren’t reduced anymore. Rather, we became as detailed and complex as we actually are—we became real humans again. Without this all-consuming project of crafting myself and others, I had some spare time. I used some of that time to pray, to be mindful, to be where I was supposed to be: here, in my real life, not just in the imaginary one where my ego had trapped me.
Letting go of the control I wanted wasn’t easy. A friendly, local priest told me one night when I was struggling that I should say a simple prayer to give up on my willful control, not just in social media but in life: “Dear God, please help me ask You to Help me.”
Dear God, please help me ask You to Help me.
That’s a hard prayer. But it brings a lot of peace.
As I got help from God and from the lovely people in the real world, I slowly started seeing more and more loveliness. I was able to be more grateful. My brain was freed up to love people more instead of insta-judging them. I was able to be myself because I was released from thinking about me and my persona all the time. I was finally not all tied up in the stress of trying to brand myself. I had no social media image to lean on during times of insecurity. I could only leap into trust with one fact: I was specifically and intentionally made in God’s image, and that is enough.
But Lent was ending soon. If I told you that Easter came and I stayed off of social media and lived a perfect life, I would be SO lying. Easter did come, and I fell down in the “ashiness” of my own sin, spending four hours on Facebook that day. (That’s five and two-thirds episodes of Keeping Up with The Kardashians, for those of you wondering.)
Acknowledging this failure, I reflected on what I learned during Lent and what I should do going forward. I now have timers on my computer and blocks on certain websites, but most importantly, I now understand how much easier it is to rest in how God sees me—beautiful, flawed, and good—instead of how I want people to see me.
No lasting peace comes from likes, double taps, followers, or creeping around on the “interwebs.” Not even Kim Kardashian, God bless her, can promise that twitter fame or a show on E! will bring peace. Lasting peace, a gift from God, is only present in a heart that rests in God, open to loving the people He gives you to love.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27).
Indeed apostolic preaching with all its boldness, and passion would be unthinkable unless the witnesses had experienced a real encounter, coming to them from outside, with something entirely new and unforeseen. Only a real event of a radically new quality could possibly have given rise to the apostolic preaching, which cannot be explained on the basis of speculations or inner mystical experiences. In all its boldness and originality, it draws life from the impact of an event no one had invented, an event that surpassed all that could be imagined. (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pg. 275)
Recently, I was leading a group of seniors at our high school in a discussion of Fr. Jim Martin’s “Six Paths to God”, detailed in his The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. After briefly recapping what we had discussed the day before, the students’ assignment was for each of them to identify which path they were on, and to journal for several minutes about said path. Suddenly, I had a revolt on my hands.
From all corners of the room, complaints were volleyed at me: Ms. Roden, Ms. Roooodeeeennnnn, why do we have to do this? One student’s voice rose above the throng, protesting that this course was supposed to be a chance for the students to reflect on their own lives, and was not supposed to be “just another religion class.” According to my student, religion had absolutely no application to their story whatsoever, and it was an oppressive waste of their time to make them reflect on religion at all. “And I’m not the only one that thinks that; I’m just the only one that’s saying.”
In the (surprisingly fruitful) discussion that ensued, I found that my students’ attitude towards religion shed some light on my own attitude towards Resurrection.
In daily speech, I often find myself using the death and Resurrection of Christ as symbols of sorts. “Death and Resurrection” is a template for our spiritual lives, it provides a lens through which to view the failures and triumphs of our lives. We see the pattern of death and resurrection stamped into the natural world all around us. They are a mystic blueprint through which I can understand my own story.
This is, perhaps, why the Paschal Triduum is so moving. Because they are not about the pattern of Death and Resurrection, but they are about a death of one man. The focus of the Triduum liturgies is the actual moment in history when Jesus was crucified. During this time, we address the fact that this story happened, to a particular person who was not us, in a particular moment that is not now. So, in this sense, my students are correct: this is a story that is not theirs. It is a concrete reality outside of their own experience.
The Triduum begins with this particularity: with the stories of the Passover meal, and then the horrible tragedy of crucifixion. These are images we can understand, we can grasp. We know what it is to share a meal with a community, we can watch a re-enactment of the Christ being scourged; we have all seen men and women in pain; we look at images of Jesus of Nazareth nailed to the cross every single day. These are images within the boundaries of our imagination.
When the Easter Vigil mass begins, however, we have entered a more mysterious realm. The Resurrection eludes the grasp of our comprehension; its relationship to history is not as simple as Jesus’ life and death. Pope Benedict XVI describes the Resurrection:
As something that breaks out of history and transcends it, the Resurrection nevertheless had its origin in history, and, up to a point, still belongs there. Perhaps we could put it this way: Jesus’ Resurrection points beyond history, but has left a footprint in history. Therefore, it can be attested by witnesses as an event of an entirely new kind. (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pg. 275)
What exactly is this event?
The Gospel narratives of the Resurrection indicate the novelty and mystery of this moment: the Resurrected Christ eats fish and breaks bread with them, and still bears the wounds of the Cross, yet He also walks through closed doors, and even His dearest friends and closest companions fail to recognize Him.
This is an event beyond the realm of our imagination. I can picture the crucifixion, I am moved by the images that present themselves of the Suffering Servant. But images of the Resurrection lack that pathos, and they somehow fail to capture the glory of what it means to be a risen man–one who will die no more, who has passed to whatever lies on the other side of death. This new leap into the future, a new mode of being with God; a new mode of being alive baffles our imaginations.
But, the Resurrection was not just a moment of glory for Christ alone. It is truly God’s triumph of love for the entire human race. God submitted to the bonds of death, which the human race imposed on each member through sin. But, through His love for us that feared no death, He broke a barrier, and opened a new way of being, of union with God. The mechanics of the Resurrection defeats my imagination and intellect, and I imagine it did the Apostles as well, but the potency of the event occurring has not diminished, even til today.
We are, most of us, all too familiar with the words of Paul that sprinkle the Easter liturgies: If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again. (Romans 6:8-9) And too often, I think of these words as a vague promise of life after death. The Resurrection of my own self seems to be in the future. But that is not what Paul is saying. He is proclaiming to the New Church that the lives they are living right now are transformed by Christ’s Resurrection. We, too, can live in this ontological leap forward, in this new union with God.
The entire world has been transformed, now that this new mode of being has opened up, now that Christ has opened up this life with God, all of us are invited into it here and now. The Apostles were essential in spreading not only the good news of Christ’s Resurrection, but in spreading, in fact, the Resurrection. Their role in the Resurrection is essential and irreplaceable. And so, too, is ours. Apostolic teaching in all its vigor was driven by their knowledge that the Resurrection, by necessity, has remade the whole world. It is not just that Christ’s Resurrection makes us impervious to death after death, it is that Christ’s Resurrection opens up to us a way of being that is Resurrection.
The entire point of Christ’s death and Resurrection is that so we might have life, and have it in abundance (John 10:10) right now. The Resurrection is not simply a prophecy of what we may inherit after death; it is an event that has drastically shaken the core of human existence.
Thus, as I suggested to my students, perhaps the stories outside of our own can shed light on the narrative of our lives. And, if we give these stories a chance, we may be shocked to discover that they are an essential part of our own story. The story of the Resurrection has a starting point: the third day, when Christ left behind an empty tomb, but there is no ending. We are living in the story right now. Each day, we are living in the Resurrection, and the Resurrection requires our participation, because the Messiah suffered these things so that not just he, but we, might enter into His glory (Luke 24:26).
She was allowed to hold her dead son in her lap one last time; she attended his burial and then endured the night after this fateful Friday. In her grief she pondered all that had happened. Life had ended so cruelly for Jesus. Not even a week ago, the crowds were hailing him as their king, spreading their cloaks and leafy branches on the road, and shouting their Hosannas! And then things changed so abruptly. On Monday, Mary of Bethany used costly perfume to anoint the feet of Jesus, which irritated Judas the Iscariot. Jesus calmly reprimanded his disciple, prophesying his burial. The drama reached a highpoint at the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his twelve closest friends. He had chosen each one; they had dropped everything to follow him. Yet, Jesus knew that among them there was one who would betray him and one who would deny him three times. He knew that Peter, James, and John would not be able to stay awake and pray with him during the night of his agony—and still: He washed the feet of all of them. He offered to each one his own Body and Blood. And then he faced the trial; he humbly and lovingly accepted the Cross, and carried it all the way up the hill to Golgotha.
By then, all but one of his apostles had disappeared. This did not weaken his love for them as he willingly let himself be crucified. In his final torment, he was consoled by the few who loyally had followed him. Among his last words and legacy was the entrustment of the beloved disciple to his mother, and of his mother to the beloved disciple. Thereupon everything was fulfilled.
On the following day, while she profoundly felt the wound of her own pierced heart, she could still thank her Son for his ultimate sacrifice. Yet along with her own sadness, she was deeply concerned about Jesus’ disciples. She sensed that the experiences of the previous days affected them to the core, and possibly also destabilized their belief in Jesus’ message. Moreover, their relationship to one another now lacked its uniting center. She was the only one whose faith was unbroken; she trusted his words: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again” (Lk 24:7). Just as at the Annunciation, she did not know how this would happen; but she held silent vigil and believed.
And then she heard the Good News: “We have seen the Lord! He is alive! Be happy, Mary, all is well again!” How much she rejoiced as she listened to the stories of the women and of the disciples: the removed rock, the empty tomb, the encounter in Emmaus! And again she treasured everything in her heart: the angel’s greeting to the women echoed her encounter with the messenger at the Annunciation: do not be afraid! Is anything impossible for God?
Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia. The Son whom you merited to bear, alleluia. Has risen, as He said, alleluia. Pray for us to God, alleluia. Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia. For the Lord has truly risen, alleluia.
During the Easter season, this prayer—the Regina Coeli—takes the place of the Angelus, and it is also the Marian antiphon at the conclusion of the Church’s evening prayer. What an emotional roller coaster: in an instant, the Mother of Sorrows is transformed through the victory won by the risen Lord! Suffering and death do not have the last word; at the end of the dark tunnel rises the sun of a glorious Easter morning! “Death where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!” (Lk 1:46) Mary’s Magnificat takes on a fuller meaning now that she has witnessed “the great things” he has done for her and for all of us! This is the message Mary wants to teach us: all our mourning and sorrow will turn into joy and dancing!
Fittingly, Easter is celebrated amidst the blossoming of spring. The budding growth of nature resembles the new life we receive through baptism in Jesus Christ. In the power of the paschal mystery, we can rise above mediocrity and live in the freedom of the children of God. Like Mary, and through her intercession, we can endure the night of darkness, of broken relationships, and of mourning for—like her—we trust that there will be a new morning with new hope, a surprising encounter, and new life!
Springtime means a number of things. It means the smell of freshly cut grass, the return of thunderstorms, and the bane of allergies. But this springtime through this reflection brings together two of my favorite things in a new way. It brings together a) baseball and b) a concrete example of a way that theological thought—the way we think about and grow in our faith—truly does impact our daily lives.
The connection here is a little more subtle than a church softball league, so I will explain. In the baseball movie classic Field of Dreams, a down-on-his-luck Iowa farmer begins (without really understanding why) building a baseball diamond in his cornfields. He is prompted to do this by a few rather mystical experiences, including the whispered, repeated phrase, “If you build it, he will come.”
My home diocese, the Diocese of Knoxville in Tennessee, isn’t building a baseball diamond. But she is embarking on a building adventure of her own. This past weekend, members from all corners of the diocese (along with leaders of the wider Church) came together to celebrate the groundbreaking of the building project for a new Cathedral. Originally, when Pope John Paul II created the Diocese of Knoxville in 1988 by splitting it from Nashville, the already existing Sacred Heart Parish was chosen because of its size and central location to serve as the Cathedral parish. But the diocese has grown and changed in the last twenty-five years, and with it, the Cathedral parish demographics have increased and changed dramatically. In deciding to build a Cathedral, Catholics of East Tennessee are coming together to build; we are remembering and honoring the past and (short) history of our diocese and we are getting ready for the future, for a new chapter in which we will stand more on our own feet as a maturing diocese.
Although I was privileged to go home for the weekend and participate in the events associated with the groundbreaking, I have mostly been watching this entire process unfold from afar. My home diocese has been my home in many ways for nearly my whole life. As a daughter of the Diocese who loves her home, while living (in happy exile) away from home and majoring in Theology at Notre Dame, I have been geeking out quite a bit as it all transpires.
I am watching my home Church come together, work together, and learn together about why and how we think about our sacred spaces in the way that we do. I am seeing tutorials on the meaning behind church architecture reach people; I am watching as people transition from hesitancy about the need for a new Cathedral to excitement, pride, and willingness to go the distance and to be a part of this effort. I am seeing a countless number of individuals devote their time, their talents, and their efforts in order to make all of this happen. And most importantly, I am seeing first-hand the way that physically building a new Cathedral church is teaching, forming, and building up the Body of Christ in East Tennessee.
This weekend, I saw hundreds and hundreds of people work together and come together for this moment. (Apparently the final count was 1200 local folks, 12 bishops, 3 cardinals, a governor, and two mayors.) This time in Knoxville diocesan history clearly has become a teaching and formational moment. It has taught and re-taught us about our need to worship God rightly so that we may live rightly, not just as the parish of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but as the entire diocese and all of her members. The tagline of the Cathedral campaign itself packs a theological punch about this rightly ordered way of looking at church building: “Home, Where We Worship, Teach, and Serve.”
Thinking about building, thinking about the seasons of life, and deciding to build has helped all of us who call ourselves a part of the diocese of Knoxville to realize that the Mass, the liturgy, and the life of the Church (both local and universal) is not simply about “we the people.” The Church is actually about the Trinity; the Church only exists because the love of the Trinity overflowed and continues to overflow to creation. God’s overflowing, self-giving, and ever-expanding love explains the basic fact of why we are here. But reflecting on God’s love also helps us understand the fitting priority list for our lives and that if we don’t worship rightly we cannot live rightly—and this is why I’m so proud of the “Worship, Teach, Serve” tagline.
Reflecting on worship and on what it means to build a fitting space for the “home base” of the Diocese (the baseball jokes continue) also means something else. It means that we realize our lives of faith mean more than the sense of community or feeling of belonging that we encounter when we gather for the liturgy. In the Mass and in other liturgies, we (the people of God) participate and pray in hope and in confidence of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us.
But we ourselves, though we are the people and the assembly of God, are not actually the main focus of the liturgy. The Mass and the liturgical life of the Church is not meant to inspire and entertain us, so that we come back next time for more. The liturgical life of the Church is meant to take all of us up into the love of the Trinity, so that we glorify our Creator and are strengthened by the sacraments in order that we may then go out and participate in the work of the Trinity. We do this by helping to sanctify the world with Christ’s love and Christ’s beauty. Paraphrasing Mother Teresa, we make something beautiful for God by our lives and our loves.
There’s a pertinent phrase in liturgical theology “lex orandi, lex credendi” that can help us think about this. It means that the law of prayer is the law of belief, or more colloquially, what we say in prayer reflects what we truly believe. Building decisions with churches and with this cathedral extends this “lex orandi, lex credendi” to “lex aedificandi, lex credendi.” Aedificandi means build, and so what we build and the way we build it reflects what we believe, too. In his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, Denis McNamara says that “architecture is the built form of ideas; church architecture is the built form of theology. As go the ideas, so goes the architecture . . . all architectural decisions are theological decisions.”
Actually, the self-gift (kenosis) of Christ on the Cross forever changed the way that we see our lives and think about beauty. Because Christ’s gift of Himself to the point of death transformed even the worst suffering into the opportunity to give and in that giving to become something beautiful for God, everything in our lives can be transformed by Christ’s work on our behalf. Here and now, in our local churches, we have a chance to give of ourselves, in our daily life. This occurs for Christians all over the world in a significant way through the celebration of the liturgy. By investing prayer, thought, time, energy, and our own personal resources into the building of our local churches (both physically and metaphorically) we also participate in another way in that mystery of self-gift and self-emptying in order to help build the Kingdom of God in new ways.**
In the book Theology in Stone by Richard Kieckhefer, this theological understanding that what we build and the way we build it says something about what we believe is inferred from the title itself. Kieckhefer also makes the comment that
“art in a religious setting can serve as a sacrament of grace, and the capacity to see oneself as worthy of beauty is one dimension of recognizing oneself as by grace made worthy for grace—the sole condition for beginning to receive it” (99).
Our churches should be fitting, beautiful places for God to be housed, where we can enter more deeply into the mysteries of the Faith so that we can recognize that we are called to be where God is—because God is worthy of the beautiful. And since God is the author and source of all beauty, and since our ultimate call is to become more like God, we are worthy to sit and contemplate God’s love and God’s beauty in beautiful places so that in better understanding God’s beauty we can go into the world and share that beauty.
So how is a building project or thinking about building up and supporting a local church practicing Easter?
Many of our first readings in the Lectionary this time of the year are drawn from the Acts of the Apostles, where we hear the stories of the early Church growing and building, coming together to break bread and to hear the Word of God. In East Tennessee, we are building and re-building our growing local church, so that we may have a place to come together as an entire diocese. Like the members of the early Church, we do this so that we may hear the Word of God in the Scriptures and break bread together in the Eucharist. The book of Ecclesiastes helps us think about this in another way highlighting tbe seasonal, liturgical factor of life. There is a season for everything. The season of spring is baseball season, like I mentioned earlier. But in East Tennessee this year, spring is also church-building season. It is a stone-moving season, and a planting season for the seeds of faith.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together” (Eccl 3:1–5a)
At the end of his own season of building in Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella realizes that his baseball diamond building project was not about the baseball players who came, or the field for its own sake. Instead, it was actually about re-building his relationship with his own father, through a simple coming together in playing a game of catch. At the end of Field of Dreams, Ray is asked by his father, “Is this heaven?” Ray responds by stammering out, “…This.. it’s… it’s Iowa…”
In the movie Field of Dreams, because of his building project, Ray experiences the healing and growth of relationships in his life, including his father. The comparison with the Cathedral project in Knoxville wasn’t meant to be trite. Because in the building and completion of a Cathedral for the Church in East Tennessee (or anywhere where the people of God continue to build) we see a closer glimpse into the call of our eternal relationships with our Heavenly Father and with each other. Our Father in Heaven wants much more than the time spent in a game of catch with us; He wants time with us for all of eternity. The glimpses of that heavenly call show us little glances of the beauty of God’s image for the world in His new, restored creation made possible for us by Christ’s defeat of death and promise of eternal life.
East Tennessee isn’t heaven. But I swear, sometimes, it is pretty close. And I do think that the new Cathedral, upon its completion, will be a little bit like a glimpse into heaven.
**We obviously do this too by the way we serve the wider people of God. The website for the campaign, http://www.sacredheartcampaign.org/, puts it this way: “While we aspire to glorify God through our worship, we plan to continue our work to help the poor. The Diocese of Knoxville provides over $6 million in ongoing charitable services to the poor and marginalized every year. Over the next 5 years, we will have spent more on charitable initiatives than we will have spent on the building of the cathedral.”
What better way to celebrate Easter than to think about Lent? On Lent’s second day the Office of Readings shares this from Leo the Great: “What the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion.” If in Lent we do more eagerly the things we should always do, how much more eagerly should we do them in Easter? Almsgiving is as important to Easter as it is to Lent.
Lenten fasting reveals man can in fact live without as much bread as he normally eats. When you’re fasting perhaps you don’t think you can make it, but afterward you realize it’s quite possible. In Easter, we can examine ourselves: What do I really need? Lent primes us to realize the only thing we really need is God. We see this but find it so easy to return to what we don’t need. In Easter doesn’t this excess still belong to the poor who do need it?
In Easter, God reveals more and more of His Trinitarian life. He startles us with the mystery and promise of Resurrection in Jesus Christ, who then ascends to the Father and pours out the Spirit. Will we live more of this life? Will we pour out any of what God constantly pours on us? The Resurrection should press us to imitate Christ more fully. This should drive us toward the poor.
Jesus’ Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection clarify human life, especially poverty and suffering. God’s love for His impoverished, suffering people drives Him to take flesh. For all time He illuminates His presence in people, which was already emblazoned there since creation. He dwells in people, especially the poor and pained, since He has known poverty and pain. They dwell in Him because He has dwelt with them.
Christ becomes poor because He loves the poor. Yet His coming and conquering do not end immediate suffering. Jesus’ life on earth instead simply endears the poor to Him more. And He shows us where to find Him. Perhaps the statements “The poor you will always have with you” (Mt 26:11) and “I will be with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20) belong together.
Jesus’ Resurrection drives home that He lives in the flesh, as a person. When we seek Him we should seek Him in people. In our neighbor. We should seek Him out even where we’d prefer not to find a neighbor. Like the women on Easter, we should go in search of His body. And we can find Him, in the bodies of our friends starving, reeking, and begging. These people too were created for the Resurrection.
We might not expect to find Him there. But there was no reason to expect to find Him when He first came to earth. “He had neither beauty, nor majesty, nothing to attract our eyes” (Is 53:2). There was no reason except Mary’s desperate hope to think He would come again, this time from the dead. Again He comes. Would that we were already ablaze with charity.
But God can show Himself to us, just as He did to the incredulous disciples, though He doesn’t always point where we expect. This may be clearest in Peter’s post-Resurrection confession of faith. He reverses his threefold denial of Christ by saying three times, “You know that I love you” (Jn 21:15–17). Christ’s response to Peter’s love is: “Feed my sheep.”
Maybe Peter thinks his love for Christ can be a simple two-way street. But Jesus is clear: if you love me, it’s going to involve other people. If you love me, feed them. And somehow this “them” is also “Him”: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). The Easter encounter does not let us cling to Christ when we find Him. He sends us to those who need to find Him. He sends us to the hungry.
Feeding the hungry is, perhaps more than anything else, God’s work. The Psalms say it: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it” (Ps 81:11). Mary says it: “You have filled the hungry with good things” (Lk 1:53). And Christ says it: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger” (Jn 6:35). As people, we are fundamentally starved. We are not entirely starved, but at our core is the desire to be filled and satisfied. Because we are God’s creatures, this hunger is for nothing other than Him.
God recognizes this desire and answers it recklessly. He even gives Himself as food, since we’re hungry for Him in the first place. The Resurrection and Eucharist remind us: Christ is alive and with us always.
This is wonderful but disconcerting: if we need to be fed, this means we’re weak. People who need a Father’s hand to feed them aren’t the autonomous adults we like to think we are. “As once for the disciples, so now for us, he opens the Scriptures and breaks the bread” (Masses for Various Needs, Roman Missal). What we can provide—our understanding, our bread—is not enough to satisfy our hunger.
If we realize our weakness, “the poor” become less scary. “The poor” are not someone else. We are poor. There is nothing that should keep us away from the poor. God sees our hunger and feeds us. In this Paschal time, why should we do anything else?
This past fall, I experienced one of the fearsome nightmares of most college students: my laptop began to die a slow and painful death. When it came to the point of not saving my work, or moving so slowly that I could not do my work, I started panicking. My life as a student and the tangible witness of what I have do learned, and really all that I’ve managed to do in the last few years is all on this machine. I love to write! And so without my computer, I feel like a carpenter without tools, or a surgeon with no hands.
Enter in the engineers. Most of my extended family has an engineering background, and so this means some funny things for family gatherings. We discuss computer chips and 3D printers at Thanksgiving dinner (3D printers made the conversation three years in a row; I kept track).
We take apart old computers and play with circuit boards for fun, and nearly everyone (even those of us who aren’t engineers) generally know what’s going on in the tech world due to the engineers and those who aren’t engineers but still managed to inherit engineering brains. While I’ve long been awed by the things that many of my family members seem to know instinctively, my computer crisis gave me a reason to appreciate their place in the world even more than normal. My laptop was healed, just in time for me to write 50some pages and do all the research I needed to do for finals season.
That was the windup, and here’s the pitch: I will never forget the text my cousin Chris sent in to the family group message, after I sent a celebratory message proclaiming the laptop fully cured.
His quote there had my brain buzzing instantly about the idea of vocations. Chris’ comment- whether he realized it or not- showed an insight that said his role in the world and the gifts that he has- his role of a “fixer,” bound-to-be-a-brilliant-engineer, is somehow intertwined with mine: the cousin who is a student, a writer, and an aspiring catechist.
Now, Chris would not be offended if I said that he was not the most theologically minded high schooler on the planet. Theologian he may not be, but he’s wise about a lot, and his statement made me start thinking about the universal call to holiness, and yet the particularity of the vocations that God gives each one of us. My cousins’ (and dad’s/grandpa’s/uncles’) tech geniuses have helped support my work as a student and writer before; this isn’t an isolated incident. Maybe, in turn, the way that I can support the engineers is to hope that a few of the things I write help the Christophers of the world to understand that this “religion stuff” isn’t just for a class in school or sometimes on a Sunday morning, but rather is about responding to God’s love by the way we live our whole lives. If Chris’ job was to help restore me to my full capacities and functions as a Theology major, maybe part of my work is to help instill in him an understanding of realities and calls outside the tech world and to show that it is just as necessary as the work of the engineers. [Disclaimer: Chris gave me permission to use and twist his words in this piece].
Chris’ statement acknowledged an understanding of the importance of different types of work, but it also made me think about the fact that we have different gifts but the same call and destination ultimately. There has been a lot of discussion about this- what we call the universal call to holiness- especially since Vatican II. By virtue of our Baptism, all Christians are called to respond to the triune God who has out of love created, redeemed, and saved us:
“The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one—that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity” (Lumen Gentium, 41).
Maybe my cousins don’t consider helping their technologically deficient cousin a work of charity, but I certainly do, and it is a classic example of a way in which they used the gifts that they have been given and worked to acquire. They use and will continue to use their gifts to do great things. And they can do it and be holy, too. Holiness does not mean boringness. Sometimes we joke at home about the “dark side” being more fun, but what’s more exciting than literally being a part of the side of good to fight and save the whole world? C.S. Lewis once made the comment, “‘How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints” (Mere Christianity).
Sometimes, though, there is such a tendency within many of us- myself included- to delegate holiness to the saints of old, to nuns and monks in garb that seems foreign to our own; at best, sometimes we delegate holiness to the “nice, boring guys” historically. And yet among the canonized communion of saints we find carpenters, doctors, writers, artists, teachers, nurses, priests, soldiers… and that’s just the start. The point is that to be a saint does not mean to become boringly identical; it actually means to be sometimes startlingly unique and yet working for the same goal of glorifying God.
This what I mean by the “particularity” of vocation. The God who has created each of us in His image and likeness has always recognized that we are unique individuals. We all are called to the same thing- holiness, and we are all called to same final destination- heaven, but we aren’t all called to make our way there in the exact same way. We have our own personalities, our own families, our own life stories, our own gifts, and our own messiness. The magnificent thing is the fact that our Lord wants all of us, and can use all in our uniqueness of us for His glory.
As Chris recognized (or at least, like I’ve argued that he recognized) our vocations and our gifts are given by God to support one another and yet can all those different gifts be used together to help sanctify the whole world. I’m going to let St. John Paul II’s papal exhortation Christifideles Laici have the last word here on how to think about the particularity of our own vocations. It’s a lesson for the engineers of the world, the writers of the world, and all of us who fall somewhere in between:
“The “world” thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation, because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ… They [the laity] are not called to abandon the position that they have in the world. Baptism does not take them from the world at all, as the apostle Paul points out: “So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God” (1Cor 7:24). On the contrary, He entrusts a vocation to them that properly concerns their situation in the world. The lay faithful, in fact, “are called by God so that they, led by the spirit of the Gospel, might contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially in this way of life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they manifest Christ to others.”
To live out our call to sanctify this world, the Church militant needs the engineers, the doctors, the writers, the teachers, the artists, the lawyers, and everyone in between. All of our collective work can be sanctified and participate in Christ’s work of leading the world to its proper end: that of heaven, if we all remember the source of our gifts and for whose glory we should offer our lives.
Now, a year and a half after my awkward first encounter with the Catholic Mass, I still have no intention to be converted or baptized. But I frequently go to the small chapel in Lyons Hall and simply stand there and watch my friends praying. I still talk with Nina about my life here at Notre Dame and listen carefully to her perfectly logical responses. The reality is that there are irreconcilable conflicts in the world and they are probably going to exist for a long time. The question is: How can we each fight for our deepest belief with whatever we have but without demonizing those who hold equal passions on the other side?
Buddhism has a concept called “absolute see.” It means seeing without judging. Through the “absolute see,” we fully accept the world as it is and give up those useless attempts to change others or ourselves. Finally, we are able to truly face up to those irreconcilable differences in the world and start to appreciate them. The “absolute see” of the world does not ask that we change ourselves and abandon our deepest convictions. But it should humble us, temper our passions, make us realize our excessive self-righteousness, and compel us all to open our hearts and minds to new beliefs.
All of which brings me back to my crush on South Dining Hall Guy. I understand now my crush was not actually on the guy. I realize now that I was not drawn to his words or gestures or even to his subtle, peaceful smile as he finished his prayers. Rather, my crush, my feeling of pure happiness, was on that flashing moment when I accepted the common beauty of human beings shining through our irreconcilable differences. This conflicting world is beautiful, especially when we choose to fully accept it.
We are trained, Griffiths says, in “radical gratitude.” The liturgy trains us as recipients, as “being one who who has received” and received gratefully (234). The liturgy doesn’t leave any corner of life untouched by its habituation. What Griffiths calls “the liturgy’s imperialistic omnivorousness” involves “a complete embrace of those who undertake it.” We die and rise n baptism, having received a “renaming, reclothing, the gift of something radically new” (234-5). Other liturgical acts “depict and endlessly repeat the subsumption of the individual into, first, the community, and then, second, the LORD.”
Griffiths means this quite literally: “The individual’s language is overtaken and framed by the language of the canon of Scripture: he is written into its margins as an ornament to the illustrated capitals of its pages. And the individual’s very physical life is shown to him to be given its meaning by his membership in the communion of saints, a body of people extending far in time and space beyond what he can directly sense.”
The liturgy “constantly signals that there is nothing external to it, nothing belonging to the individual that cannot be taken p into it, and nothing anywhere that will not, finally, be embraced by it.” Even the inner theater “is gradually transformed by participation in the liturgy from a private spectacle into an iteration of a public drama. It becomes an instance of the liturgy that claims it” (235).
History isn’t cancelled by heaven. Eternity doesn’t annul the work of earth. The cosmos will have a consummation, the final revelation of a resurrected humanity, one rent yet redeemed. To borrow from the Bard, the winter of our discontent shall yet be made glorious summer.
In grade school, asking the question of your friends, “What are you giving up for Lent?” sometimes garnered the response, “Homework!” coupled with a fit of giggling at the cleverness of fasting from work. I usually laughed along, all the while knowing that I could never bear to do such a thing. I was the self- and other-proclaimed “smart kid.” Without homework, who would I even be? Work wasn’t just a matter of duty, it was a matter of identity.
As an adult, this mindset has accumulated a world of implications beyond any teacher’s opinions, and I know that many people (and perhaps students in particular) would agree: work is a part of who we are, a constant drone accompanying the rhythm of our lives, a solid floor to stand on when recreation and relationships are too chaotic, a thing we both control and cling to. When we get stressed, we don’t take a break… we update our to-do lists. When we feel overwhelmed by life, we don’t retreat… we update our Google Calendars. And if we do retreat, we carry the thought if not the action of work with us. Without work, who even are we?
Work has gained a place in our mental scapes that it was never meant to hold. We would not call it our god, but we treat it like one. St. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing. Left on my own, I ruminate on my work, schedule, and responsibilities without ceasing. The culture of ambition created around and inside us has produced an oblique example of a classic problem: something given to humans by God as a way to serve and enjoy Him has become instead our ultimate end, and a rhythm established for our good has been replaced by a steady hum that drowns out thought.
But God does not call gluttons to cease to eat, nor does He call the lustful to cease interactions with any person they might desire. Rather, when we begin to value the gift above its Giver and to seek fulfillment in the finite, we must first deny our dependence on that thing, and then restore it to its proper, proportional place. One way in which we step towards this is by fasting: when the glutton goes a day without food, he declares that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Likewise we who worship work must fast from it. We must rest. In doing so, we declare that my salvation is not the result of work, therefore I can not boast. We affirm that our work is insufficient to add even one hour to the span of our lives, it is not the rock on which we may build our identities, and it is valuable not because it adds value to us but because it is a reflection of God’s work. In short, to fast from work renews its image as a means of worship, not an object of worship.
Fasting from work looks different for everyone. For many people, however, it may follow the rhythm established from the beginning:
“Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. … For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Ex 20:9-11)
To fast from work means to take Sabbath rest. This does not mean it must happen on a Sunday, but it does mean it must be part of the regular rhythm of our lives: work, and then cease to work, and then resume work.
In true rest, when one ceases to work, it is an entire cessation. The Sabbath laws were shadows of true Sabbath rest, where not only our bodies but our hearts find repose from the labor of self-definition and self-proof. True rest is what the author of Hebrews is speaking of when asserts that after the “rest” of Joshua “there remains, therefore, a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has rested from his works as God did from His” (Heb 4:9).
God rested from His work with the statement, “It is very good.” We do the same not by asserting the perfection of our completed work, but that of Christ’s. So when my heart asks, “Without work, who even am I?” my rest answers, “I am God’s beloved child, in whom He is well pleased, for His work is very good.”
For further reflection on the necessity and practice of rest, I recommend this sermon by Timothy Keller, delivered at Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
I’m sitting in the theater with my brother watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. As Harry dies and comes back, the light goes off in everyone’s heads around me, “It’s about death and resurrection.” The weirdo light goes off in my head. “Of course it’s about resurrection…they’re playing an 11th century Easter chant!” This, my brother will gladly tell you, is why you don’t bring Sam to the movies.
Hagrid drapes Harry’s limp body in his arms and carries him back to Hogwarts. For 50 seconds the soundtrack’s strings saw away at a haunting melody. A little obsessively on one line from the first verse, then a line from the second, then back to the first. Composer Alexandre Desplat has included the Victimae paschali laudes, sung before the Gospel during the Easter Octave. By including it Desplat heightens Harry’s Christian overtones. It’s right out of the Easter story…
Harry dies to rescue Hogwarts,
Harry’s friends get scared
It looks like evil has won
Harry comes back from the dead.
…not so subtle.
(verses 1 and 2)
Christians praise the Paschal Victim
Offer thankful sacrifice.
Christ the Lamb has saved the sheep;
Christ the Just One paid the price,
Reconciling sinners to the Father.
It doesn’t hurt the track is rather liturgically entitled “Procession.” It doesn’t hurt Hagrid and Harry look suspiciously familiar.
This isn’t a good-versus-evil tale hastily dubbed as Christian by an admittedly biased moviegoer-chant-geek. Potter’s climactic message is Christ’s: you must love your neighbors as yourself and you must love them so greatly that you’ll lose your own life to preserve theirs.
Harry Potter’s self-emptying love does not start with him but with his mother. Voldemort explains in Goblet of Fire: “Shall I divulge how I truly lost my powers? Yes, shall I? It was love. You see, when dear sweet Lily Potter gave her life for her only son…she provided the ultimate protection. I could not touch him.”
By Deathly Hallows we learn that Dumbledore thought Harry was a Horcrux and Voldemort had put a piece of his soul in him to keep from being killed. Voldemort can die only if all the Horcruxes are destroyed. When it is time for Lily’s only-begotten son to choose, he too dies to save what he loves.
Meanwhile, back at the Victimae:
(verse 3) In a dark mysterious strife
Closed the powers of Death and Life,
And the Lord of Life was slain:
Yet He liveth and doth reign.
When Harry returns from death he kills Voldemort. Because Voldemort’s soul is scattered around he is reduced to an eternal in-between state, neither alive nor dead. It’s not far from that confounding aspect of the Paschal victory: We profess evil is defeated forever, yet we see it persist.
But there’s something rotten beyond Platform 9 ¾. As Tim O’Malley pointed out to me, Harry Potter’s resurrected life disappoints in comparison to the Christian one. Harry’s life after he wakes up is no different from the one he had before: no restored body, no new virtue, no heaven.
While his self-offering and death is prominently Christian, it turns out his death isn’t really needed to save Hogwarts. He was acting on Dumbledore’s mistaken belief Harry was a Horcrux and needed to die. Is this a Christian allegory or a depressed parody?
Harry wins the battle against Voldemort, but there isn’t much more to it. While there’s victory at Hogwarts, death isn’t vanquished forever. Nothing transcendent, no new life.
The book’s Epilogue follows immediately on Voldemort’s defeat and explains the characters’ later lives. Nineteen years after the battle, Harry and Ginny lead entirely normal, domesticated lives — boring compared to their action-packed school years.
Harry isn’t any more resurrected than the ethereal images from the Resurrection Stone. Harry Potter has resurrection for the contemporary reader. Harry is resurrected unto the ’burbs, a day job and 2.1 children. The post-resurrection universe is nothing but the real world.
I’m not dismissing Harry Potter as un-Christian. As John O’Callaghan has marvelously explained, there are gobs of Christianity delicately placed in plain sight. Allegory isn’t analogy; not everything needs to line up. The fact Harry Potter isn’t a Christian copycat can strengthen its Christianity. But Harry Potter is missing a real resurrection.
That said, our lives after the Resurrection maybe aren’t so different from Harry’s after his. We’re at desks, not on rooftops. Stuck in traffic to school, not the road to Emmaus. Is this God’s victory? Actually, yes.
Harry’s boring post-victory life has something to say about the mundane Christian life we lead even in Easter. Christ has not rescued the world from being boring. He has rescued it from evil and all death, framing the universe anew: “I will draw all things to myself” (Jn 12:32); “I will make all things new” (Rv 21:5). God is restoring all things, but not restoring them to exciting and interesting. Restoring them to lost goodness.
Laboring to become good, as Harry learns over seven books, is an arduous task. Earthly life trudges on through long papers, irritating projects and boring prayers. But as Albus Dumbledore has taught us, “We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”
Christ is risen. It is too late to put our fingers into what is easy. Something has changed.
And whatever slowness we may feel, faith gives us something to know, something solid to stand on. Under the dryness, our heart’s orchestra rumbles out a tune:
(verse 8) We know that Christ indeed has risen from the grave: Hail, thou King of Victory! Have mercy, Lord, and save.
When Mary Magdalene encountered the Risen Lord in John 20 she was told to not hold onto him. Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father,” (John 20:17). We however are on the other side of the Ascension and can cling to Jesus. In fact, I think we should see the season of Eastertide as an invitation to cling to the Risen Lord! The post-resurrection accounts of Jesus show him teaching his disciples and followers the meaning of the Scriptures, how the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms had been fulfilled, and how he was leaving them with peace.
As we await the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, may we cling to Jesus with joy and gratitude for all he has done.
May we observe a holy Eastertide with feasting and celebration.
May we tell time according to God’s righteous acts.
May we proclaim with our lips and lives, “Alleluia, He is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!”
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life