Tag Archives: Resurrection

Musical Mystagogy: All Souls Day

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Today the Church observes the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, better known as All Souls Day. Indeed, the entire month of November has come to be associated with the remembrance of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, and the music of the Church in no small way helps us to remember and to grieve, but ultimately, to find hope in the promise of the Resurrection.

Today’s piece is one that finds a balance between acknowledging the human struggle in the face of death and upholding faith in God as the only answer to that struggle. Welsh-born composer Geraint Lewis (b.1958) began composing his All Souls Day anthem The Souls of the Righteous in December 1991, and finished the piece in 1992, in the wake of losing his close friend and colleague—fellow composer William Mathias—to cancer. The piece testifies not only to his grief, but also to his faith in God as a source of solace and comfort even in the midst of that grief.

The text for this piece is taken from chapter three of the Book of Wisdom, which is one of the optional Old Testament readings for All Souls Day (Wis 3:1–9). It is also one of the optional Old Testament readings listed in the Rite of Christian Burial. Rather than set the entirety of the passage, Lewis distills the Wisdom text down and focuses on the texts that convey its two most essential truths: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them,” and “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are at peace.”

Musically, Lewis conveys these two truths by constructing the entire piece around two central motifs. The first of these motifs unfolds in the extended organ introduction; the second is sung by the choir at its first entrance. The first motif consists of two brief phrases followed by an extended phrase—each phrase feeds into the next, and the effect here is evocative perhaps of the shortened inhalations and exhalations of a person in the final hours of life, culminating in the breathing forth of one’s spirit in the soaring extended phrase.

The second motif, in contrast, is constructed of long, even, sustained notes as the choir sings the text, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them.” The simple yet noble choral melody seems to suspend the text in mid-air as an object held up for our contemplation. Here is the consolation offered by a loving God—the truth that never wavers, that sustains both those who face their final trial and those who mourn them after they have passed from this life into the next.

The organ and the choir engage in a dialogue, each repeating and developing its own motif as though the music is trying to help the listener come to terms with these truths which are ultimately beautiful and hope-filled, yet still challenging in the midst of grief. This dialogue continues until the piece reaches a turning point and, after an extended organ interlude, everything fades away save one low sustained note. It is in this moment, suspended between time and eternity, that the choir takes over the first motif with the text, “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are at peace.” This is what the organ has been trying to tell us all along. The souls of those whom we love and mourn are at peace, and we, we are the foolish, the slow to understand, the ones who struggle against their passing in our limited human ability to perceive the truth—that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them.

Aladár Körösfói-Kriesch, All Souls Day
Aladár Körösfói-Kriesch, All Souls Day

Even though we might assent to this profound truth intellectually and spiritually, the process of grieving is still a profound human and emotional struggle, because the experience of death remains shrouded in mystery. To gloss over this struggle or seek refuge in worn-out, shallow platitudes is to reduce the gravity of death. Yet, every moment of heart-rending grief can become a moment in which we who mourn can make an act of faith by acknowledging our devastation and, from the depths of our grief, placing our trust in God and the souls of our loved ones in his hands.

Lewis reflects this continuous struggle to seek and find consolation in God through his gentle use of dissonance in the organ accompaniment. Every so often, a chord grates against our ears as a reminder that there will always be moments in which we rail against the harsh realities of death; nevertheless, by turning to God in faith, even these moments of struggle will become moments in which we are drawn ever closer to the One who holds our beloved dead in his care.

The final phrase captures this mysterious juxtaposition beautifully: the choir sings “but they are at peace” one last time in a return to the sustained notes of their original motif, and the final chord of the organ lingers in its dissonance as a musical symbol of the fact that we who are left behind will continue to struggle with the mystery of death, a struggle that can only be ultimately resolved for us when we ourselves pass from this life, for it is only when our own souls are in the hands of God that we will truly be at peace. Nevertheless, in the meantime, we are comforted and sustained by the truths that invite us to put our faith and place our trust in God, even—and especially—when we are confronted by the mysteries of death.

Follow Carolyn on twitter: @carolyn_pirtle

Practicing Easter: Almsgiving

Samuel BellafioreScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.43.20 PM

Undergraduate Fellow

B.A. 2015 Philosophy, Vocal Performance

 

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 ways-to-help-the-poorHis 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). surrender-hands_1And 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?

Harry Potter and Easter

Samuel BellafioreScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.43.20 PM

Undergraduate Fellow

B.A. 2015 Philosophy, Vocal Performance

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.

Victimae paschali laudes
immolent Christiani.
Agnus redemit oves:
Christus innocens Patri
reconciliavit peccatores.

It doesn’t hurt the track is rather liturgically entitled “Procession.” It doesn’t hurt Hagrid and Harry look suspiciously familiar.

Pieta-cu5067

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.
(C.S. Calverley)

00Harry_Potter_and_the_deaathly_hallows_-_the_final_battle_sceneWhen 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 ChristianResurrectionIcon 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.
Amen. Alleluia.

 

 

Practicing Lent: Illness and the Frailty of the Human Condition

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Several weeks ago, I received (as a dear gift from my undergraduates) a flu-like illness. The sickness started out as what seemed like a mere cold with the arrival of congestion in the middle of the night. Yet immediately after teaching an 8:00 AM class, my body began to rebel against my plan for a full day of work. Chills overtook me. Fever increased. I felt like someone had smacked each of my joints with a hammer. I traversed home, quarantining myself in the bedroom. For three days, as I let the illness unfold, I was cut off from seeing my toddler son and my wife (except for the briefest moments). My self-inflicted quarantine ended only after going to the doctor, where I received the news that my illness was not the flu but some other virus (which incidentally leaves open the possibility of getting the flu in the future).

Suffering through this rather marginal illness was an invitation to reflect upon the frailty of human nature in the early days of the season of Lent. An academic, fall and spring semesters are (in my own imagination) meant to function devoid of any interruption to my well-laid plans. Courses must be taught. Emails must be sent. Meetings must be had. Writing must be done.  Any interruption to my very rigid and important schedule must be avoided at all costs.

Yet, this virus was not particularly interested in assisting me with Virusstaying on schedule. The idol of routine was interrupted by the sickness, forcing me to recognize (once again) that despite my ambition to master human existence, I cannot do so. That I am not a disembodied will, capable of carrying out whatever I hope to achieve. Rather, as an embodied creature, existing in time and space, I am subject to atrophy. It is not just my schedule or routine that is falling apart. With the passing of each day, I move closer to the reality of my own final act of dying.

Modern life has (thankfully to a certain extent) isolated us from the fact of our own death. Most illness is generally treatable. Fever and joint pain can be lowered and alleviated through the taking of  Advil. Congestion can be cleared through cold medicine. We experience such illness as a momentary interruption to our schedule, rather than the shadow of death. Suffering can be eased.

Yet, there is something about such illness (even when marginal) that serves as a salutary sign of that final illness of which there will be no healing. That sickness in which pain and suffering will pass not through the instruments of medicine but only because we have taken our final breath. Sickness, in such moments, forces us to examine the purpose of our existence. Is my life full of meaning? Have I loved well? Have I conformed myself to the Eucharistic gift of love revealed in Christ? Have I given all away in love?

Of course, there is a further foretaste of death that often takes place in such illness. The communion with one another that we practice on a daily basis (conversation with co-workers, intimacy with family members) is at least momentarily snuffed out. After two days of being at home, my son finally realized that I was in fact in our house, hiding from him. He broke into my room of convalescence, seeking a hug. Denied this hug, he left the room, aware that for some reason I was avoiding physical contact with him. Indeed, is this cutting off of communion, of contact, not that which is most terrifying in sickness and death alike? As Joseph Ratzinger writes:

Sickness is described within the epithets that belong to death. It pushes man [and woman] into a realm of noncommunication, apparently destroying the relationships that make life what it is. For the sick person, the social fabric falls apart just as much as the inner structure of the body. The invalid is excluded from the circle of his [her] friends, and from the community of those who worship God. He [she] labors in the clutches of death, cut off from the land of the living. So sickness belongs in death’s sphere; or better, death is conceived as a sphere whose circumference is dereliction, isolation, loneliness, and thus abandonment to nothingness (Eschatology, 81).

Sickness and death are so terrifying, not simply because we are Aloneafraid to deal with physical suffering. Rather, sickness and death alike function as temptations to perceive in the world nothing but meaningless. To see all love as nothing but a fading light, the sunset of meaning itself.

In coming face-to-face with the frailty of the human condition in the midst of sickness, we are not like those who gaze into the darkness devoid of hope. Rather, the isolation that we experience while immersed in the totalizing worldview of sickness and death is an invitation to thrust ourselves upon the mercy of God, who binds every wound and heals the malaise of meaninglessness. As the celebration of Easter itself will demonstrate, we do not worship a God, who spurned sickness and death but offered himself in love. Jesus Christ, who did not let the meaninglessness of death win out but instead loved even into the creeping darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday alike.

Being sick in the midst of Lent is therefore, in some small way, a gift. It invites the believer to acknowledge the poverty of his or her own existence. And to thrust oneself, if we dare, upon the prodigal love of the God-person, Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the dead. Whose conquering of sickness and death did not erase illness from the human condition. But, through the resurrected light of the cross, has made it possible for all illness to be understood anew in light of the resurrection.

 

Concentration Camps and the Cross: Death Is Not the End

Hope ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

“So much death. . . . What can men do against such reckless hate?” The fictional king Theoden, a character from The Lord of the Rings, posed this question in the midst of a battle full of carnage and the deep human suffering of his countrymen.

As I stood and stared at barracks, wrestling with the sickening horrors of the concentration camp at Majdanek, Poland (and later in the week, at Auschwitz-Birkenau) this line came to mind.

I stared at spaces designed as stables to hold 52 horses, but which the Nazis “re-purposed” as a design for barracks to hold between 500 and 800 suffering human beings—without heat, in areas where the winters get frigidly cold and where I shivered on grey October days. I stood in my jacket, my jeans, my boots, and with my hood pulled up, with the knowledge that I was much better protected than anyone brought to this camp had ever been. My stomach lurched as I saw and stepped into the gas chambers where tens (at Majdanek) and hundreds (at Auschwitz) of thousands had gone to die.blogger-image--1792654982

By quoting a fictional king’s shock and horror in his attempts to save his nation, I am in no way daring to trivialize such a horrific reality. Quite the contrary. I have found that over the years, works that I have studied and loved have become a part of me. Sometimes, in situations like this, they give me words when I quite literally have no others.

Like at a concentration camp.

I walked through the aisles of one building, speechless as I stared at and touched some of the 50,000 pairs of shoes, stacked up nearly to the ceiling. Shoes of infants. Of young children. There were some shoes that were so, so tiny that my eyes welled up with tears. Of course I was horrified by all of the shoes, and the revelation of all of the suffering, but for some reason when you see a baby’s possessions and you deal with the reality that their tiny, innocent lives were just as quickly snuffed out as the adults’ lives, it makes you pause in a particular way.

The character Ivan Karamazov puts it this way, in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov:

“Let us talk simbrotherskply of children. . . . Young children may be loved even when they are close to, even when they are dirty, even when they have ugly faces (though I think that young children never have ugly faces)… I refrain from talking about grown-ups because, in addition to the fact that they are loathsome and do not deserve love, they also have requital for that: they have eaten of the apple and have grown aware of good and evil and become ‘gods.’ They continue to eat it even to this day. But young children have not eaten of it at all and are as yet guilty of nothing! . . . ‘Look, if everyone must suffer in order with their suffering to purchase eternal harmony, what do young children have to do with it, tell me, please?’” (319, 320)

The suffering of innocents is, I think, one of the hardest questions of life—if not the hardest to answer in faith.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha Karamazov’s answer after listening to his brother Ivan quietly suggests the Innocent One who was slain for all of us as an answer to the question of the suffering of innocents. Alyosha’s answer is to turn back to the Cross, to the example of the suffering of Him who knew no sin. His answer does not explain everything away, but it points back to the example of Christ, whose story we know did not end in death.

But to be honest, I only thought about The Brothers Karamazov later. So we will come back to Alyosha’s answer—to the foot of the Cross— in another minute.

At the time, I was thinking about the people in these camps. I thought about all those who had come to these camps on cattle cars. I guarantee that when they were children, none of those who died here had originally thought their earthly lives would be ended in a place designed to systematically destroy human dignity and to snuff out human life.

I kept walking, and I pondered more.

IMG_0426When evil gets thrown into our guts so hard that it knocks the wind out of us, we might pose some different questions. We might, like Ivan Karamazov, ask about the innocent children. But we might ask—or demand—the answers to some other questions along with it.

“Where is the goodness?” “How could the humanity of so many people be so despised, so deliberately cast aside?” “How could human beings commit such unspeakable horrors on fellow humans?”

“What kind of lies had to be told? What kind of twisting of human nature had to take place?”

I don’t know what my thoughts were for a while; I remember we didn’t have too much time in each building, but I kept thinking along the way. Suddenly, a passage from Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place popped into my mind—a description of the horrors of ‘medical inspections’ at the concentration camps (she and her entire family were arrested for helping to provide ration cards for Jews and other underground activities that helped save many lives). At the time she and her sister were sent to Ravensbrück, Corrie was 52.

ten-Boom_Corrie
Corrie ten Boom, at one of her speaking engagements

the hiding place

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nor could I see the necessity for the complete undressing: when we finally reached the examining room a doctor looked down each throat, another—a dentist presumably—at our teeth, a third in between each finger. And that was all. We trooped again down the long, cold corridor and picked up our X-marked dresses at the door.

But it was one of these mornings while we were waiting, shivering in the corridor, that yet another page in the Bible leapt into life for me.

“He hung naked on the cross.”

. . .The paintings, the carved crucifixes showed at least a scrap of cloth. But this, I suddenly knew, was the respect and reverence of the artist. But oh—at the time itself, on that other Friday morning—there had been no reverence. No more than I saw in the faces around us now. . . .

“Betsie, they took His clothes too.”

Ahead of me I heard a little gasp. “Oh, Corrie. And I never thanked Him. . .” (The Hiding Place, chapter 8)

In the midst of  horrific suffering, we can turn to the Cross for our answer. The Cross of Jesus is the only possible, plausible answer. It is the only sane answer. Alyosha Karamazov was right; there is a reason that his brother Ivan (an atheist) goes insane trying to wrestle with the problems of evil, the depravity of sin, and his disordered conscience.  Corrie ten Boom rightly remembered her Savior in this moment, too. The reality of the ugliness and the horrors that sin can wreak in humanity existed in a particular, systematic way in the concentration camps of the Holocaust.

I think, though, that sin in its darkest, most twisted form occurred on Calvary on a Friday, two millennia ago. Augustine tells us that sin is a “privation”—a lack of good. It probably seemed, on that Friday, in gruesome, terrible, there-are-no-words-strong-enough kinds of ways, that good was totally absent. Maybe in staring at the suffering of the Jesus whom they loved, it seemed to Mary and to the Apostles that the world that day lacked everything that is good, right, or just.

final_vows_crosswebsite

And yet, we call that day “Good Friday” because of what came later. We know that the death on the Cross is never the end of the story. In one response during the Eucharistic Prayer, we say, “Save us, Savior of the world, for by Your cross and resurrection, You have set us free.” The totality of the Paschal Mystery and knowing that death—even horrible, gruesome, unjust death—is followed by resurrection and new life is what can redeem the death and the suffering. It is what saves us and sets us free.

But what about for all the victims of the Holocaust? When it comes to the case of peoples suffering genocide and other unspeakable horrors, what can the Cross do? We say Jesus knows the fullness of suffering and what it means to be dehumanized, but what does that mean?

I think it means that Jesus identifies with the cries of mothers as they were torn away from their children. It means that Jesus feels the pain of losing everything and everyone that you know. Jesus identifies with being stripped naked in front of a crowd. He knows what it means to be betrayed by His friends. He knows what it is to be led away to death, while an entire society looks on and does nothing. Jesus knows what it means to have people stand by and watch unjust death unfold.

So, our hope because of the Cross means two things: a) it means that we know death is not the end, but b) the Cross also means that we are never, ever, ever, EVER alone, no matter what we suffer in this life. For Corrie in The Hiding Place, as she stood naked in front of leering Nazi guards, this knowledge that her Savior had experienced the vulnerability of the nakedness and shame she experienced strengthened her. But Corrie’s gratitude does not stop there (as you’ll see if you continue reading The Hiding Place). The realization of what His Cross and Resurrection accomplished ultimately changes the narrative of Corrie’s life and experience. It does the same for all those who suffer. This narrative does not end with the death of the innocents.

Chapter 3 of the book of Wisdom puts it this way (appropriately, we often read this passage at funeral Masses, and it was the first reading for the feast of All Souls):

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
And no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
And their passing away was thought an affliction
And their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
For if to others, indeed, they seem punished,
Yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
Because God tried themthe-resurrection
And found them worthy of Himself.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
And as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
In the time of their judgment they shall shine
And dart about as sparks through stubble;
They shall judge nations and rule over peoples,
And the LORD shall be their King forever.
Those who trust in him shall understand truth,
And the faithful shall abide with him in love:
Because grace and mercy are with his holy ones,
And his care is with the elect. (Wis 3:1–9)

It isn’t that God wants or wanted masses of suffering to happen. It is not the case, because some big miracle didn’t occur to shut down the concentration camps, that God was complicit with the evil or somehow okay with it. Human freedom is a huge gift—it is what enables us to choose to love God, rather than be His slaves, but the realities of what happens when we choose sin instead of love can be utterly horrific. Regardless of what humans do in sin, though, the story never ends with death. God can always redeem that suffering, even if it isn’t in this life. This is because our eternal, beautiful, unique souls have the chance for eternal life. “The faithful shall abide with Him in love.”

God’s mercies and God’s plans will not be thwarted, not even by human sins. And we all have that chance for eternal life precisely because of the Cross.

Still, I will not pretend that since Jesus died and suffered, or since He knew the worst of the possibilities of human experience and that He resurrected, that the suffering of masses of innocents should not bother us: completely, 100% on the contrary. But turning to the Cross is actually the only coherent answer, especially when we think of the suffering of innocents on such a massive scale as during the Holocaust, or during the Rwandan genocide, or in the realities we know exist in the modern slavery of human trafficking, or in absolutely rampant rates of child and spousal abuse worldwide.

Remember the verse from the beginning of the Gospel of John? “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). The reason that darkness has not overcome the light is precisely because of the Cross. It is because He who Himself is the light of the world entered into the darkest and ugliest parts of what sin can do. And He overcame it. As St. Paul exclaims: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55).

IMG_0430
A guard tower at Majdanek concentration camp. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The same professor to whom I am forever indebted for including The Brothers Karamazov on our class syllabus closed his last lecture on the book by talking about what joy really is and how joy can be present in suffering. He defined joy saying, “Joy is a shout of affirmation that no matter how much suffering there is in this world, it is good that we are here.”

Corrie ten Boom found ways to be grateful and thankful that she and her sister found themselves in a concentration camp. We know many stories of the saints and heroes who did so in their own ways. Even today, millions of our brothers and sisters all over the world find ways to persevere in the midst of horrors. We try to persevere in the midst of our own sufferings. Surely, we can pray for the grace to thank God for allowing us to be here, and, in a spirit of joy, to believe that it is good that we are here, no matter what happens.

014_mdd_du_perpetuel_secours
As Jesus looks to the later instruments of His death, Mary holds Him tightly.

So we continue begging in intercessory prayer for the comfort and safety and salvation of our brothers and sisters who have suffered and who continue suffering in our world. We never stop pleading for them, and for mercy on those who sin against the human dignity of others. But when faced with the depravity of sin and the knowledge that we cannot heal or save humanity ourselves—not even the innocent little ones who we wish we could snatch up and carry to safety—we also bow our heads and we pray the motto of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, “Ave Crux, Spes Unica.” “Hail the Cross, our only hope.”

Congregational Seal

Made Alive in the Spirit

John CavadiniJohn C. Cavadini, Ph.D.

McGrath-Cavadini Director,
Institute for Church Life
Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

 

Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Thursday, April 24, 2014 (Thursday within the Octave of Easter). We are grateful for the author’s permission to share it here.

The reason why Christ died for sins once for all,
the just man for the sake of the unjust,
was that he might lead you to God.
He was put to death
insofar as fleshly existence goes,
but was given life
in the realm of the spirit.
He went to heaven and is at God’s right hand,
with angelic rulers and powers subjected to him.
(1 Peter 3:18, 22)

Put to death in the flesh
But made alive in the spirit …

This is a simpler translation than the one above that is printed in the Liturgy of the Hours. This is from the NRSV, translating what is a lapidary and enigmatic passage in the Greek:

Thanatotheis men sarki
Zoopoietheis de pneumati

Emmaus iconThe New American Bible has also left behind the translation of the 1970 version of its earlier self, still alive in the flesh of the Liturgy of the Hours, but made alive in the spirit in the 1986 revised text, having given up trying to micromanage our imagination, and deciding to remain content with the simple opposition presented in the Greek:

Put to death in the flesh,
He was brought to life in the spirit …

I know it is somewhat insufferably academic to attempt a ponderous point about translation from the Greek in a simple reflection such as this, but the earlier translation, and its ultimate death in the flesh, the unrighteous for the righteous, is instructive. It illustrates a tendency that I think we all have, or at least I know I have, in thinking about the Resurrected Lord. We seem to want more, and we are given less.  The Greek text of 1 Peter 3:18 in its simplicity offers an invitation to the Christian imagination by its refusal to give much more beyond a contrast between death in the flesh and life in the spirit, and we don’t even know if there should be a capital “S” in English, as the King James version does supply, along with a “by” instead of an “in”:

Being put to death in the flesh,
But quickened by the Spirit.

I can’t resist pointing out that the 1963 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine version, a revision of the Challenor-Rheims translation, does leave the simple opposition of the Greek intact:

Put to death indeed in the flesh,
He was brought to life in the spirit …

But it reserves its micromanaging for the notes, where it explains that “brought to life in the spirit” is “a reference to the new activity of Christ’s soul in limbo” (let us concede—it is somewhat justified by the next verse, left out of today’s reading, in which also he went and preached to those spirits that were in prison (v. 19).

Even the note in the NRSV, which I won’t quote now, seems to want to get into the act of not allowing the laconic contrast we are given to invite, and so to challenge, the Christian imagination.

The New Testament seems aware that we Christians want to micromanage our Risen Lord. Has it ever made you, as a Christian believer, a little squeamish that it sometimes seems to take so long for the disciples to recognize the risen Jesus? That long, long walk on the road to Emmaus? All that time?? The disciples even tell Jesus about himself without recognizing Him?? And at the end of the Gospel of John, at the breakfast on the seashore, none of the disciples dared ask him Who are you, because they knew, we are assured, it was the Lord (Jn 21:12). Then why would they be tempted to ask? And, of course, Mary Magadalene mistakes him for the gardener. But when she does recognize Him (who actually is the Gardener in the New Garden of Paradise) Jesus tells her, Do not touch me! (Jn 20:17).

The New Testament is aware that we want to “touch” Jesus prematurely, to slap Him on the back like He just made a homerun or a 100% legal return on a really risky investment, — Great going, Big Guy! Glad you’re Back! — reassuring ourselves that what happened is almost next to nothing, now that it is over, here He is, back in the flesh exactly as before …

Noli Me Tangere-Ciro FerriBut He says, “Do not touch me—do not seize me and narrow me down to your terms, I’m not risen on your terms, I’m here to bust up your terms, I am not “yours,” rather, you are Mine. I am the righteous, put to death for the unrighteous; — I joined the unrighteous truly, but on my terms, righteousness; yet I did not shrink from your terms—narrowness, injustice, sin and death—but accepted them, on my terms, the just for the unjust, the righteous for the unrighteous, and so what lives now—in the spirit—is my terms — you are Mine, on My terms — don’t try to go back — THAT’s what you should forget about—those old terms—I died in the flesh and with it died those old terms — please don’t go back — can you recognize Me now? Not in a micromanaged “realm of the spirit” but right here —alive on My terms, in the spirit—can you dare to risk it — life in the spirit? — because if you do, not only will you get a return on your investment, you will forget about your investment completely, the return will be so large, for it is Me, Me Myself—beyond and above your terms and your calculations — that is offered as your return, and — “the wedding feast of the Lamb has begun” — and — “his bride is prepared to welcome him.” Won’t you leave the old terms behind and come? — the Spirit and the Bride say, Come! — indeed — let everyone who is thirsty, come! (Rev 22:17)  Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!  (Rev 22:20)

Holy Week in Art: Easter Sunday—Matthias Grünewald’s “Resurrection”

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Grunewald-Resurrection
“Resurrection” from the Isenheim Altarpiece (ca. 1515)
Matthias Grünewald (ca. 1470-1528)

“O truly blessed Night, sings the Exultet of the Easter Vigil,
which alone deserved to know the time and the hour
when Christ rose from the realm of the dead!
But no one was an eyewitness to Christ’s Resurrection
and no evangelist describes it.
No one can say how it came about physically.”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, §647)

With all of the images of the moment of Christ’s Resurrection that have been painted and sculpted across the centuries, it is perhaps easy to forget that these are images born in the theological imaginations of the artists themselves—that they are not based on any historical account of the moment when the stone was rolled away by angels (or was it perhaps blown away by a strong wind?) and Christ emerged from the tomb in His glorified Body, because there is no such historical account of that precise moment. There is only what happened afterward. As §647 of the Catechism continues, “Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb and by the reality of the apostles’ encounters with the risen Christ, still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history.” Put another way, the Resurrection is, at its very heart, a mystery of faith. In fact, it is the mystery of faith. As St. Paul declares, “If Christ is not raised [from the dead], your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:17).

Given that the Resurrection lies “at the very heart of the mystery of faith,” and given that all visual images of the Resurrection themselves arise out of the theological imaginations of the artists who produce them (in collaboration with the grace of God at work within them), one can make the argument that images of the Resurrection of Jesus are, in a particular and unique way, born of the artist’s faith. Extending this argument further, one could also make the case that every artist who chooses to depict Christ rising from the dead becomes a witness to His Resurrection, and their works of art serve as their testimonies, Grunewald-full Christdeclaring to all who view them that Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead on the third day and lives forever in glory.

Of the myriad paintings of the Resurrection created across the centuries and throughout the world, there are few that can rival the beauty of Matthias Grünewald’s “Resurrection” from the famous Isenheim altarpiece. This painting immediately arrests the viewer with its striking use of vibrant color and dramatic contrasts. In this image, the words of the Exultet find a visual resonance: “Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.” In Grünewald’s painting, the golden light of the sun and the silver light of the moon merge behind the head of the risen Christ, and the stars shimmer with an even greater brilliance in the midnight sky. These are the witnesses to the Resurrection. “O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour when Christ rose from the underworld!” (Exultet).

Grunewald-face of ChristYet the beauty of the scenery is as nothing when compared with the beauty of the risen Christ. Against the black of the “truly blessed Night,” Christ breaks forth from the tomb with the dazzling light of the sun at the dawn of a new creation. His Body radiates with life, a life more real than anything ever experienced on earth before, and His glorified wounds seem to pulsate with light as they testify to the love of the One who bears them—the One who shattered the chains of death in His Death on the Cross. The brilliance of Christ’s face is one with the radiance of the sun and the moon; indeed, in Grünewald’s image, it seems as though Christ’s face is actually the true source of light, and that sun, moon, and stars merely reflect His glory. In addition, Christ’s Body is nearly translucent in its glorified state, reflecting the reality that “in his risen body [Jesus] passes from the state of death to another life beyond time and space. At Jesus’ Resurrection his body is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit: he shares the divine life in his glorious state, so that St. Paul can say that Christ is ‘the man from heaven’” (CCC, §646). Finally, as He emerges from the tomb triumphant over death, the One “through whom all things were made” greets creation with a benevolent smile: now all is fulfilled. Now His joy is complete. “Now have salvation and power come, the reign of our God and the authority of his Anointed One” (Rev 12:10). In the mystery of this smile, Christ, the Incarnate Word, the splendor of the Father, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20), beckons us to imitate His example of love that gives unto the end so that where He has gone, we might also follow.

In this extraordinary painting, Matthias Grünewald conveys the cosmic ramifications of the Resurrection of Jesus: the “things of heaven are wed to those of earth and divine to the human” (Exultet). Moreover, by allowing his faith in the Resurrection to inform his craft as an artist, Grünewald painted an image that continues to inspire within viewers a firmer faith, a deeper hope, and a more ardent love. Gazing upon this image of Christ’s glorified Body cultivates a deeper faith within our hearts that Christ, “coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever” (Exultet). Contemplating the Light of the world as He scatters the darkness of sin and death enables us to sing with the angels, “‘Yes, Christ my hope is arisen!’” (Easter Sequence). And pondering Christ’s once-bloody wounds—the wounds caused by our sin, the wounds by which our sins are forgiven—enkindles within our hearts a greater love for Him who died and rose that we might have a share in the divine life that now thrums through His glorified Body. As we rejoice in the radiant light of the Resurrection, may our faith, hope, and love burn brightly, reflecting the glory of Christ our Light to all the world. Jesus lives! Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Holy Week in Art: Good Friday—Pacino di Bonaguida’s “Tree of the Cross”

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

 

Tree of the Cross (14th c)
Pacino di Bonaguida

In this extraordinary work, Pacino di Bonaguida depicts the Cross of Jesus as the Tree of Life. In a cave at the root of the tree lies the devil (his image was scratched out sometime in the 15th century), and at ground level, the Genesis narrative of creation and fall unfolds, indicating that Christ’s death upon this Cross, this tree, sprouted from the seed of Adam and Eve’s sin. Twelve branches sprout from the trunk, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve Apostles of Jesus. Hanging from these branches are the fruits of the Crucifixion, and each fruit depicts a scene from the life of Christ. Read left to right, beginning with the bottom branch, these images take the viewer from the Incarnation to the eschaton. By depicting the Crucifixion as the central image among many images, the artist establishes Jesus’ complete gift of self on the Cross as the crowning event in salvation history, yet he also declares that the Cross contains within it the entire breadth of the divine plan for redemption. The Annunciation, the Nativity, the Presentation, the Baptism, the Transfiguration, the proclamation of the Kingdom, the institution of the Eucharist, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the sending of the Spirit, the return of Christ in glory—all are rooted in the Cross. “The desire to embrace his Father’s plan of redeeming love inspired Jesus’ whole life, for his redemptive passion was the very reason for his incarnation” (CCC, §607).

To engage in a fully-fledged explication of this rich painting would diminish its power to help us pray through Good Friday. Instead, I offer some of the words the Church herself gives us for our liturgical celebration both as theological commentary on this image and as a means of entering more deeply into the mysteries we celebrate today.

Tree of the Cross-Jesus detailHe grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance
that would attract us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by people,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
one of those from whom
people hide their faces, spurned,

and we held him in no esteem.

 

 

Tree of the Cross-pelicanYet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one punished by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement
that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.
(Isaiah 53:2-5)

 

Tree of the Cross-saintsWe adore your Cross, O Lord,
we praise and glorify
your holy Resurrection,
for behold, because of the wood of a tree,
joy has come to the whole world.
(Antiphon for the Adoration
of the Holy Cross)

 

 

Tree of the Cross-Adam and EveFor, when Adam first offended,
eating that forbidden fruit,
not all hopes of glory ended,
with the serpent at its root:
broken nature would be mended
by a second tree and shoot. …

 

 

 

 

Tree of the Cross-IncarnationSo the Father, out of pity
for our self-inflicted doom,
sent him from the heavenly city
when the holy time had come:
He, the Son and the Almighty,
took our flesh in Mary’s womb. …

 

 

 

 

Tree of the Cross-NativityHear a tiny baby crying,
founder of the seas and strands;
See his virgin Mother tying
cloth around his feet and hands;
Find him in a manger lying
tightly wrapped in swaddling bands! …

 

 

 

 

Tree of the Cross-mockingSo he came, the long-expected,
not in glory, not to reign;
Only born to be rejected,
choosing hunger, toil, and pain,
Till the scaffold was erected
and the Paschal Lamb was slain. …

 

 

 

 

Tree of the Cross-Death of JesusNo disgrace was too abhorrent:
nailed and mocked and parched he died;
Blood and water, double warrant,
issue from his wounded side,
Washing in a mighty torrent
earth and stars and oceantide. …

 

 

 

 

Noblest tree of all created, richly jeweled and embossed:
Post by Lamb’s blood consecrated; spar that saves the tempest-tossed;
Scaffold-beam which, elevated, carries what the world has cost!

Faithful Cross the saints rely on, noble tree beyond compare!
Never was there such a scion, never leaf or flower so rare. …

Sweet the timber, sweet the iron. Sweet the burden that they bear.

(Hymn for Good Friday Adoration of the Holy Cross)

Jesus Lives: Singing the Resurrection

Carolyn Pirtle Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Looking out my window this morning, it’s difficult to remember (let alone believe) that spring has “arrived.” The air is still cold, the skies are overcast, the wind is still bitter. Looking at my life as a Christian, it’s sometimes difficult to remember (let alone believe) that I am still in the heart of the Easter season. Easter liliesAs I walk into my parish, I notice that the Easter lilies are starting to droop ever so slightly, and the other decorations, while still beautiful, have become less dramatic—something to which I am accustomed.

In her recent post, Anna Adams spoke eloquently about the incredible duration of the Easter season and provided some wonderful insight on how to keep the Easter fire burning for those in academia who are now enduring the stress of wrapping up another semester. Maintaining this Easter joy is something that proves difficult for everyone, not just those living in the world of a university—I find myself wondering yet again how the bloom can have fallen off the lily so quickly, and how one can celebrate the joy of Easter throughout the entire season.

But the brilliance of the Easter season lies precisely in the fact that it is so lengthy. Just as our Lenten observances are intended to have lifelong ramifications, so too are our Easter celebrations. We are bathed in the radiant light of the Resurrection for fifty whole days so that it might leave an indelible mark on the way in which we view the world. This is the period of mystagogy for the newly-baptized, and a time of thanksgiving and renewal for the entire Church: we spend these fifty days marveling at the miracle of the Risen Lord, learning from Him how we are to continue to manifest His presence in the world through lives of self-giving love, contemplating the Love that conquers even death itself, so that by the time Pentecost arrives, we are ready to go out and proclaim the Good News as the Apostles did.

Emmaus iconThe time of mystagogy is a time to plumb the depths of mystery; it is a time to learn to see and hear the story of the Resurrection with new eyes and ears that have been purified by Lenten sacrifice and prepared by the celebration of the Triduum. In the early Church, this mystagogical process took place largely through preaching, and today, the weekly homilies can continue to help us understand better the mysteries of Easter. In addition, the music of the Church can provide another source of theological wisdom and mystagogical insight that continues to resound throughout the entirety of the Easter season, drawing our attention again and again to the Resurrection story, opening our ears and our hearts to hear the message anew. The different hymns of the Easter season turn the kaleidoscope of the Story as it were, presenting the brilliant colors in different shapes and patterns, holding up different facets of the mystery for our contemplation. Even those hymns that we hear every Easter resonate within us differently from year to year, for we are different people each time we encounter them, and so they become inexhaustible treasures for continuing to plumb the depths of the mystery of the Christian faith that is (to borrow from Augustine) “ever ancient and ever new.

Since 2008, one such hymn has become a sort of touchstone for my contemplation of the Easter mystery; in fact, it’s the same hymn I chose to feature in my post about Easter this time last year. I write about it again this year because it continues to teach me how to live in the reality of the Resurrection. This Easter hymn, entitled Jesus Lives, presents an incredible catechesis on the mystery of the Resurrection. Moreover, its very title presents a simple, profound statement that can serve as the bedrock for a life of faith, hope, and love. Jesus lives. Jesus lives. And the world is reborn. And I am made new.

Jesus Lives
Text by Christian Furchtegott Gellert (1715-59) from Sacred Hymns from the German
Music by Chrysogonus Waddell, OCSO (1930-2008)

Jesus lives: thy terrors now can, O death, no more appall us;
Jesus lives: by this we know, thou, O grave, cannot enthrall us, alleluia.

Jesus lives: henceforth is death but the gate to life immortal.
This shall calm our trembling breath when we pass its gloomy portal, alleluia.

Jesus lives: our hearts know well naught from us his love shall sever;
Life nor death, nor pow’rs of hell tear us from his keeping ever, alleluia.

Jesus lives: to Him the throne over all the world is given.
May we go where He is gone, rest and reign with Him in heaven, alleluia.

The reality of the Resurrection has a profound impact on the way life is to be lived in the Christian faith. The Resurrection is ever before us as the promise of our hope in Christ: that beyond dark night of suffering, beyond the Cross and the grave, lies the dawn of the Resurrection. This song—the song of Resurrection, of new life in Christ—is what we are called to sing not just during the fifty days of the Easter season, but throughout our entire lives. This is the song that sounds like a clarion call from across the waters when we seem to be lost on seas of turmoil and sorrow. It is the song that should be constantly stuck in our heads—the victory anthem that rousts us from bed each morning and the lullaby that sends us off to a peaceful sleep each night.  This is the song of a life lived in Christ; its quiet confidence and unabashed simplicity implant within us the courage necessary to go out to all the world and proclaim its message to all we encounter. Jesus lives. Alleluia.

The Long Sunrise of Easter

Anna AdamsAnna Adams

University of Notre Dame

Doctoral Student in Liturgical Studies

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The following is a homily given to graduate students and faculty in theology
during an evening prayer service at Notre Dame.

“Brothers and sisters,
are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We indeed were buried with him through baptism into death,
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,
we too might live in newness of life.
For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his,
we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
We know that our old self was crucified with him,
so that our sinful body might be done away with,
that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.
For a dead person has been absolved from sin.
If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.
We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
death no longer has power over him.
As to his death, he died to sin once and for all;
as to his life, he lives for God.
Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin
and living for God in Christ Jesus.” —Romans 6:3-11

Liturgist Confessions #837: I’m always surprised at how long the Easter Season lasts. Not only are we still in the Easter season, this is early in Easter. I never know what to DO with all this Easter. Resurrection - GrünewaldAfter waiting all Lent for the return of the Alleluias and the Gloria, Easter Vigil overwhelms me with joy and beauty. Easter morning celebrating the resurrection only heightens my liturgical delight. But then, I look at my calendar on Easter Monday, and the acidic taste of panic pricks gurgles up in my throat: finals are coming. I am suddenly one of Paul’s unaware ones: “Are you unaware?” “Did you miss what just happened?” Paul asks. As I plug into my laptop, I start closing my academic blinds to Easter’s light. It’s ironic, since a theologian should be basking in and contemplating humanity’s ongoing encounter with the Triune God. There’s just no time for all this rejoicing; there’s work to be done — and besides all that, light causes a terrible glare on the computer screen.

Thankfully, mother Church, in her wisdom, demands of us a great fifty days of Easter to hold all the facets of resurrection up to the light like a prism, and see if our lives are colored any differently by Easter’s dawning glow. For those of us claiming to be theologians, perhaps this is the unintended gift of Easter’s yearly coincidence with what is, for many of us, the most stressful time of the year.

We’re prompted to ask: what does Easter have to do with academics? What’s different about what we read and write and argue and type by the first glimmers of Christ’s resurrection? If our task as baptized Christians is to grow into union with Christ through a death like his and also to share in his resurrection, then this includes not only our personal, but also our scholarly lives. Thus, those of us called to the task of theology share in profound responsibility inherent in our vocation as Christians: we must be transformed into Christ in every way—including the academic aspects of our lives. But how does that work on paper?

I suspect a complete answer  to that question only comes only after an entire life of prayer. But the question demands reflection none the less. And since many of us who are students are pretty newbie priests and theologians, compared to institutional and ecclesial memory, I propose we start simply:

What do the faith, hope, and love of the resurrection have to do with our exercise here as students and teachers of theology? 

Angel of the Resurrection1In this Romans text, Paul challenges us to faith: to “think of ourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.” Faith demands that we hold constantly before our eyes the ultimate purpose of our work: Do we work from life for God in Christ Jesus? Or do we work for ourselves? This is, perhaps, the trickiest distinction: because when ferreting out truth and academic advancement often go hand in hand the distinction is not always obvious. But faithful scholarship in Christ it’s integral to hope and love as well, so beginning with the right end matters.

Doing theology as work of faith demands that our academic exercise also become a study in askesis: in limiting ourselves to work that builds up the kingdom of God rather than aggrandizing our scholarly reputation. I have a close friend who, when advising me on pursuing further academic work said, “Look, I’m not telling you to quit. But if you can do anything else: do it. Because if you choose to pursue a Ph.D., it will bring up every demon inside yourself, and you’ll wrestle with most of them in your head, alone.” And it’s true. Theology is often a work done in a mental desert- an exercise in askesis and asceticism. It is easy in this place to feel deep loneliness; to struggle with insecurity; to fight (and often in my case succumb to) work-a-holism. It is easy to desire notability, advancement, and praise. But if we do theology out of those desires we fundamentally pervert the theologian’s vocation. And we deny ourselves the opportunity to offer our unique contributions of thought to understanding the Life of God in Jesus Christ for the Church we serve. Resurrection scholarship begins in askesis: as we aim to die to self in an effort to find truth rather than simply showing off our own cleverness.

But the fact that askesis that grows from faith of life in Christ Jesus is a proclamation of hope.

Angel of the ResurrectionTheologians must proclaim hope. Paul tells us, “…if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” We, like our Holy Cross family who founded the University of Notre Dame, are a people with hope to bring.[1] We don’t just witness to the Resurrection’s dawn with what we study or teach, but how we study and teach.

Hope produces the humility to be healthy people: to recognize that we will not finish the task of understanding God in one night, in one paper, or term, or even dissertation. (I find this incredibly hopeful.) The hope of the resurrection reminds us that the salvation of the world hangs not on our cleverness, but upon the Cross. The hard work is done. And while the words and hours we pour into our scholarship therefore matter more than anything; they matter only in light of the work that has already been accomplished.

We work harder yet, because we have such weighty thoughts to sift! But our working is not toil. And we need not live in fear of failure any longer. When we die to self and live to Christ, the doing of our work and study can be a proclamation of hope (some might say of sanity) to an academy that grows increasingly frenetic with itself and its own ends. During a particularly difficult time in the Congregation of Holy Cross’ history, Basil Moreau wrote to his Holy Cross family around the world: “Be what you should be before God, and I can assure you of the future.”[2] Our work may be slow, or difficult, or mind numbing at times—we may get it wrong, we may even fail—but that isn’t the end of the story. We do not walk as those who trudge. We stride. Because we have the Hope of being also united with Him in the resurrection.[3]

Jesus, Thomas, and the ApostlesAnd to all this one thing is necessary: and that is love. The fundamental gift of life we received at baptism is the LOVE of Jesus liberating us from the power of death to newness in life. The animating principle of the faith and hope theologians offer is love. To quote Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s opening to Deus Caritas Est:

We have come to believe in God’s love:
in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life.
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea,
but the encounter with an event, a person,
which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.[4]

Love changes everything. Now, don’t get me wrong. We need no more cheap charity that agrees with everything while saying nothing. If the theologian’s task is to seek truth in faith and pursue it with hope, it demands a much more costly and sturdy manner of love. Costly love calls us to seek Christ by any means possible in each book we read, class we attend, and argument we contest. Costly love is never indifferent to the truth, but neither can it abide indifference to the person with whom we disagree over the nature of truth. Costly love holds out hope for finding the Truth, which is magnificent enough to acknowledge the flaws in our own arguments as places for collaboration and revelation rather than weakness to be hidden from the “competition.” Costly love embraces faith, seeing reflected in the faces of our academic companions the first rays of the resurrection sunlight—even as it struggles to plumb the depths of truth through criticism.

At its most basic level, our work as theologians must be a work of love. We must ourselves be a contribution with our unique gifts to humanity’s ongoing encounter with Christ crucified and risen. As a people of faith, crucified with Christ, we think and converse not in the darkness, but by Easter’s first light. We have hope to bring because “We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. … He died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God.” Friends, we must not be caught unaware, for we “indeed were buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” We are, in fact, the workers of a long Easter indeed.


[1] Congregation of Holy Cross, Constitution 8, Constitutions.

[2] Bl. Basil Moreau, Circular Letter, 1847.

[3] Congregation of Holy Cross, Constitution 8, Constitutions.

[4] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §1.