The Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ:
Source of our Hope A Pastoral Letter on the Meaning of Lent and Easter
The Most Reverend Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville
February 7, 2007
My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
On Ash Wednesday, February 21, 2007 we will begin our Lenten days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We are preparing to go up to Jerusalem with the Lord and to accompany our catechumens, our candidates for full communion with the Church, and our confirmandi to the Easter Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. We are looking forward with vibrant faith to celebrating the Paschal Mystery in the powerful liturgy of Holy Week. It is important for each of us to pause at the beginning of Lent to focus our awareness upon the Cross and the world-changing Christian mystery, which we are about to celebrate.
As we begin our communal journey of purification in each of our parishes to the Last Supper meal, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Cross, the Empty Tomb, the encounters with the Risen Lord, the Mount of the Ascension, and the Upper Room of Pentecost, I would like to reflect prayerfully with you about the meaning of Lent and Easter.
Christian Suffering and Easter Hope
Ash Wednesday has a powerful hold upon the religious consciousness of Catholics. This is evident by the number of people who fill our churches on the first day of Lent each year, even though it is not a Holy Day. A number of Catholic people have told me that, when the Sign of the Cross is made on their foreheads with the ashes, they prefer to hear the traditional injunction, “Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you will return,” rather than alternatives such as, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
Lent’s wintry season of nature’s dying followed by the wondrous new life of spring seems to be a time during which people are willing to contemplate the great mystery of suffering and their own deaths. Perhaps this is because during this season we confront the intimate relationship between what we sometimes think of as our “ordinary lives” and the life, suffering, death, and
resurrection of Jesus Christ. In faith we affirm that Christ’s triumph over death is the fulfillment of Good Friday suffering, not only for Jesus Himself but also for all who make their own His selfless, sacrificial, and loving attitude toward others and His Father.
Yet, as we anticipate the liturgy of Holy Week, we seem inevitably to think more of the suffering and death of Jesus than of the Father raising Him to the glory of Eternal Life. This may also explain the enduring popularity of Mel Gibson’s provocative film, “The Passion of the Christ.” For some Catholics, but not all, the film’s dramatic attention to Christ’s excruciating suffering, like the blood covered crucifixes of Spanish cathedrals, portrays Our Lord’s willingness to endure great pain for our salvation, because of the magnitude of human sinfulness. Through the centuries the Catholic religious imagination has focused more on vivid images of Christ crucified than upon “images” of His, literally, unimaginable resurrection.
The great French Catholic philosopher and theologian, Maurice Blondel (1861-1949), reminded us that the word “suffer” comes from a Latin word (patior), which has many layers of meaning. To “suffer” may mean to permit, to allow, to tolerate, to endure, to undergo, and to experience at the deepest level of our being, something over which we have no control. The word “passion” also comes from the same word. (Note the differences between “Jesus said, ‘suffer the little children to come unto me,’” “My wife suffered a massive stroke,” “My husband suffers from depression,” and “St. Brigit of Sweden often meditated on how much Christ suffered during His passion.”) For Blondel our everyday experience of living in the midst of so much over which we have no control is a kind of “suffering,” a kind of “enduring,” that makes us aware of the great Mystery of God, in whom we live, breath, and have our being.
The experiences of the daily limitations of our lives, as well as the experience of pain, sickness, and uncertainty about the unknown “future,” are everyday reminders that our lives on earth are not unlimited. Somewhere on the horizon before each of us is the unknown time, place, and circumstance of our own deaths. It might be well, therefore, for us to meditate upon some of the spiritual and ascetical implications of passion, suffering, and death in our own lives and their relationship to Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.
During the months that have passed since the beginning of Lent last year, each one of us probably has experienced the death of a beloved family member, a cherished friend, a trusted co- worker, or an admired neighbor. At the least, we have seen the sometimes horrifying images of violence, war, natural disasters, suffering, and death in the media.
As human persons, each one of us at times experiences anxiety, fear, dread, and an overwhelming sense of our powerlessness. This is what Milan Kundera calls “the unbearable lightness of being.” Each of these experiences gives us a glimpse of our own deaths. And when we think about it, we are reminded that death is not simply something that happens to other people. We do not simply go to “other peoples” funerals. One day “other people” will come to our own funeral. Nor is death merely a biological event that concerns our bodies and not our real selves. Even for the Christian who believes that in death “life is not ended, but merely changed,” death is an “end” as well as a beginning, shrouded in mystery.
Death, even when it is painless, is the climactic and ultimate act of human passion and suffering. This is true because, from a psychological perspective, it puts the whole existence of a person into question. Death is the crucial reminder that no matter how much we may feel in control of our daily affairs, even with a living will, we do not have the final say over the conclusion of our lives. Nor can we “see” in this life a clear vision of the “life of the world to come.” St. Paul rightly teaches us “we see now through the glass darkly.” The person of faith dies trusting in God.
Our vocation as Christians is certainly not one of waiting passively in morbid anticipation of death. We are confident in Christ’s promise of the great glory of eternal life in Paradise for the just. Paradoxically, however, it is precisely when we come face-to-face with the full implications of our own death, that we become free to live authentic, full, happy human and Christian lives.
The Bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1961-1964) stated that it is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute. Death presses us to think about the ultimate meaning of our existence. For while eternal life is believed in and hoped for, it remains the “not yet possessed.” When death is accompanied by the personal “yes” of the Christian vision of life, it becomes the most definitive act of hoping faith. And this is the real meaning of Christian death.
When we say “yes” to our own personal death, we are able to turn what seems to be a necessary fate into a free and personal act of faith. If we live out our lives in the light of the death we are dying little by little each day we are on the path to a true Christian asceticism. For in the life of a Christian there is an inner connection between passion, suffering, and asceticism. Indeed, they are two sides of the same reality. From the viewpoint of suffering, death is the fateful and inescapable end of life, as we know it. This is due, of course, to our human nature. From the viewpoint of asceticism, however, death can be seen as the total human person freely yielding to this mysterious “finale” in trust.
Therefore, when we face our coming death, unambiguously, and with peace at the center, Christians respond in a profound expression of openness to God. In faith we declare that, in spite of the materialistic view that death is the utter destruction of our very selves, our radical situation regarding death is, in fact, transformed by a God of eternal life. And this transformation is beyond our personal reach or demand. It is an unmerited share in the living gift of Divine love. Ultimately, Christian asceticism is rooted in an anticipated grasp of Christian death, understood as the most radical act of personal and communal faith.
The Death and Resurrection of Christ: Source of Our Hope
Annually, the Church’s Year of Grace beckons us from Advent to Christmas, to Ordinary Time, to Ash Wednesday, to Lent, with it’s focus on prayer and mortification, to Palm Sunday, to Holy Week, to the Sacred Triduum and to the celebration of the Easter Exultet. Christ has risen from the dead. Alleluia! This is the Easter mystery by which we are reborn and the source of our great hope. This hope is symbolized at every funeral Mass, when we place the Paschal Candle, the Light of the Risen Christ, next to the eminently gentle remains of our beloved dead, for the celebration of the Liturgy of Christian Burial.
Holy Thursday, the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday, the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, and Holy Saturday, the Liturgy of the Easter Vigil (April 5, 6, and 7, 2007) are the most solemn, the most moving, and the most important liturgies of the Church’s year, even though they are not “Holy Days of Obligation.” The whole of the liturgical year flows from these days of the Passover of the Lord, the Paschal Mystery.
Good Friday is certainly the starkest of these three days. The one day in the year on which the Mass is not celebrated. There is little or no music and the Church’s ministers lie prostrate in the sanctuary in silent grief and repentance. This is the day commemorating the death of Jesus. We turn our reflection now to the intimate connection between our own Christian asceticism, in accepting certain death in trust, and the Good Friday death of Jesus, who died fully trusting in the Father.
The central importance of Jesus’ passion to the Evangelists is unambiguously clear. The four Gospels give us dramatic, lengthy, detailed accounts of His suffering and death (passion). Christians sometime seem to overlook the poignant struggle of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (absent from St. John’s Gospel), and think that Jesus went to his death in a very unfeeling way. The crucifixion was simply something He had to “do” in order to accomplish the work of redemption. But it did not really “bother Him” since He knew how it would all turn out. To the extent that we take this attitude, we are ignoring the true meaning of the word “passion,” which we discussed in Part I. Thus, we miss the full importance and impact of the Christmas mystery, the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, Emmanuel, God with us.
If we take the Incarnation seriously and embrace the saving truth that Jesus of Nazareth was a human being like us, “in all things, but sin,” then we must acknowledge that, humanly speaking, his death was marked by dread, anxiety, fear, pain, and uncertainty, like our own. This is of tremendous importance for our own personal spiritual development. At the same time, we must be ever mindful that the death of Jesus was utterly unique. As the Anointed One of God, He could have uttered an effective “no” to death. This is stressed in the Gospel of St. John, which omits the “agony in the garden.” The asceticism, the core spirituality of Christ’s death lies, in part, in his full embrace of human suffering and death, when He was free not to. He was faithful to the Father’s call and chose freely to be an example to His followers, who, through Baptism, would be caught up in His life, death, and resurrection.
While the Gospels give us many details about Our Savior’s suffering and death, they are strangely silent about any “details” of the resurrection event itself. Indeed, many careful readers of the New Testament are startled when they first notice that the Gospel narratives provide no “firsthand” information about the resurrection. They tell us nothing about what “happened inside the tomb.” They proclaim Jesus’ death, His burial, the experience of the empty tomb, the awestruck encounters with the risen Christ, and the joyful testimony of Easter faith, “He is risen!” Even though human curiosity stirs our interest in “what happened,” the inspired authors are silent before an ineffable mystery and unspeakable wonder that eye has not seen, ear has not heard, and that the human mind cannot grasp. We must remember that the resurrection was not a grand illusion like a David Copperfield feat that “proved” to the disciples that He was the Son of God. It was their faith in Jesus as the Messiah that enabled them to believe the resurrection. It is very significant that there are no encounters between the risen Christ and those outside the circle of believers, such as Pilate, or Herod.
When we prayerfully enter into the depths of the Paschal event we begin to realize that “theologically” speaking, the Resurrection of Christ is not a separate event that follows “after” his passion and death. It is not as if Jesus died and was buried and then God the Father had to decide whether or not He would be raised to glorious new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. The resurrection is the full manifestation of what took place in the death of Jesus. In an act of total freedom He disposed of His whole life and existence by handing over His whole being to the mystery of “Abba,” His merciful and loving Father.
Since Jesus is the designated Victim, Lamb, and appointed Priest in this total sacrifice, the giving over of Himself is “immediately” acceptable to God. For this reason, Good Friday and Easter Sunday (death and resurrection) must be seen as two aspects of a single and united reality. Thus, there is no need ever to wonder if Good Friday would retain its saving force, even if Easter had not followed. Because Jesus is the Christ, Easter was inevitable.
The radical implication of the Passover of Christ from death to life in the resurrection is not only evidence of His divine authority. In a startling way, it is also the foundation and cornerstone for the future transformation of every believer who dies in Christ. It is the radical source of our confident hope. By our faith and baptism we participate in the total destiny of the One who has incorporated us into the whole structure and meaning of His life. In Christ’s death and transcendence of death, a “part of this world,” real to the core, is surrendered in pure and absolute freedom to God in complete obedience and love.
Something of the richness of this reality is captured by the poet when he writes:
“Smiling, sincere, incorruptible –
His body disciplined and limber
A man who had become what he could,
And was what he was –
Ready at any moment to gather everything
Into one simple sacrifice.”
-Dag Hammarskjóld, Markings
The Easter mystery of the Resurrection of Jesus, therefore, must not be thought of as a legal balancing of the books between God and humanity that happened in the past. God the Father is not the wrathful, angry Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, who would not be placated without the repayment of his loan to Antonio with a literal “pound of flesh.” The Easter mystery is the ratification of God’s irrevocable commitment to mankind in the birth, life, teachings, wondrous deeds, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.
The Easter mystery is now and forever! The Easter event prefigures and reveals the transformation and, yes, the divinization to which each of us is called. But we must freely respond to and accept this divine adoption. And these coming days of Lent are a coveted time to dispose ourselves more fully by asceticism and interior discipline to accept this divine call. Ultimately, of course, our most significant act of asceticism will be our trusting acceptance of what St. Francis of Assisi called “sister death,” with all of its seeming uncertainty. Joseph Cardinal Bernardin spoke of his approaching death with similar trust and familiarity in The Gift of Peace. The foundation of that trust is our faith that if we die with Christ, we shall rise with Him.
As the Bishop of Belleville, there are many ways in which I am called to serve you. A most important part of my ministry is to share with you the treasures of the Gospel. With you, I am a fellow Christian seeking a deeper appreciation of those treasures. For you, I am Bishop and teacher.
This is why I have tried to share with you my personal reflections on the relationship between the undeniable suffering that enters all of our lives and the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have all heard the expression, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It is often said after someone, other than ourselves, has endured a great suffering. It is an expression of gratitude for having been spared. Perhaps this reflection on our suffering and the suffering of Christ has prompted you to think about the appropriateness for a Christian to speak in this way. After all, we do not believe that someone enduring catastrophic suffering has been abandoned by God’s grace. On the contrary, we believe they may be blessed with a greater outpouring of grace from the cross of Christ precisely because of their suffering.
I would like to invite you to strive with me this Lent to do three things that might help us enter most fully into the celebration of the death and resurrection of the Lord, source of our hope.
My first suggestion is that we give serious thought to the meaning of our Lenten asceticism, spiritual disciplines, prayer, and almsgiving. The great Trappist monk, Fr. Thomas Merton, put it this way: “Such exercises as fasting cannot have their proper effect unless our motives for practicing them spring from personal meditation. We have to think of what we are doing, and the reasons for our action must spring from the depths of our freedom and be enlivened by the transforming power of Christian love. Otherwise our self-imposed sacrifices are likely to be pretenses. Sacrifices made in this formalistic spirit tend to be mere acts of external routine performed in order to exorcise interior anxiety and not for the sake of love.”
“What are you giving up for Lent?” There was a time when this was the common topic of conversation of Catholics on Ash Wednesday. The responses often included desserts, cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, and other things that we know we need to cut back on or give up altogether for our health. Today, the Church urges us to assume more personal, adult responsibility in our Lenten disciplines. Our Lenten disciplines are not primarily for the purpose of “losing a few pounds” by summer. They are intended to help us develop a healthy integration of mind, body, and spirit. The money that we are not spending on the things we “give up” really should become alms for those in need. At a deeper level we must “give in” to Christ so he can help us “give up” anger, rash judgment, impatience, prejudice, dishonesty, unkindness, gossip, slander, and other spiritually harmful activities. Over and above these traditional practices, we should each incorporate into our lives genuine forms of penance, self-denial, and prayer. While we all participate with the universal Church in traditional days of fast and abstinence, we should each strive to build into our lives one or two specific spiritual disciplines according to our ability and our honest and humble evaluation of our need for conversion before the Lord.
These practices should not be superficial gestures but an opportunity for us to more fully encounter the Risen Christ. In this way, our penitential activities are intimately connected with prayer in whatever forms are most helpful to us. I would encourage daily participation in the Eucharistic, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, as well as special Lenten services (the Stations of the Cross), prayer groups, and the reading of Scriptures (especially the passion and resurrection narratives). Catholic families would be enriched by the practice of regularly participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation during the season. Confession really is good for the soul. It is an outstanding opportunity for each of us to intensify our participation in Christ’s journey to the Father.
My second suggestion is that we allow our inner life in the Risen Christ to touch others. Good works flow from lively faith. Besides celebrating the mystery by which we are reborn, we must be more generous in love, in works of mercy and compassion. This certainly means a deepening and a renewal of all our personal relationships. Husbands and wives, grandparents, parents and children, priests and people, must all strive to make the bonds of love and service that hold them together strong and tangible. This is the season to forgive and to be forgiven.
We must also open our hearts and our resources to those in need of us: those who have special needs, the elderly, the sick, the grieving family, the unemployed, the hungry, the forgotten, the lonely, and those who are excluded from our company for any reason. They need not be far away. These brothers and sisters to us may be in our household, on our block, in our parish, or where we work. Even if we cannot do a great deal to assist those who need us, this does not allow us simply to do nothing. We can each try to do something.
My third suggestion is that we do all we can to participate in and prayerfully celebrate the liturgy of Holy Week! The Palm Sunday Mass, the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, the liturgy of Good Friday, and the Great Easter Vigil are really different parts of one continuous celebration of the drama of salvation. They are among the outstanding spiritual riches of the Church. I am sure that everyone who generously makes the time to be a part of these dramatic and inspiring ceremonies will be enriched by them. It goes without saying that all catechumens, candidates for full communion with the Church, couples preparing for marriage, and confirmandi should be strongly encouraged to attend the Triduum. Indeed, I have urged all parishes to include participation in the Holy Week liturgies as a integral part of Confirmation preparation. Those who do so will surely hear the Easter message with a new depth.
I wish to express my genuine gratitude to the priests and all those who assist them in preparing for the celebration of these liturgies. All of your preparations are a special ministry for the whole parish family. I appreciate the efforts you are making to prepare these sacred rites in a manner that touches the hearts of your people and is faithful to the Sacramentary.
The last days of Lent leading up to Holy Week can be very busy, especially if there are candidates for the Easter Sacraments. Your parishioners will benefit so much from the full and creative preparation for these very special days by priests, deacons, parish life coordinators, liturgy committees, musicians, choirs, altar servers, and others. When we make the preparations for the Lord’s Passover, a high priority for all involved, the liturgies are well celebrated as true “public prayer.” Celebrants and congregations will be truly moved; indeed, they will “enjoy” these services and God will be praised.
For some of us this may be our last Lent and Holy Week. Let us each, in our own way, prayerfully strive to make it our most meaningful. On Tuesday of Holy Week, I will celebrate the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Peter, during which I will bless the Oil for the Sick, the Oil for Catechumens and the Sacred Chrism to be used in all of our parishes. You are most welcome to attend. At the Chrism Mass, I will rededicate myself as your Bishop to the service of the Church. I invite all of you, priests, deacons, sisters, brothers, and all of the Christian Faithful to dedicate yourselves anew to your Christian vocations as well.
Though we are surrounded by the cold of winter and weighed down by the distressing anxieties of war and conflict in our world, the death and resurrection of Christ renews our hope and pours a balm of Gilead on our suffering. The Lenten Season and Eastertide are like a brilliant golden nugget cast by the Holy Spirit into the baptismal waters of the Church’s life, binding all of us together in the loving communion of the Most Holy Trinity. Its living power ripples through all the Sundays of the Church’s year.
May the coming of the Easter dawn enkindle in each of you the hope expressed by the poet:
“Dark and cold we may be, but this is
no winter now. The frozen misery
of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
the thunder is the thunder of the floes,
the thaw, the flood, the upstart of Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
comes up to face us everywhere,
never to leave us till we take
the longest stride of soul men
Affairs are now soul size,
is exploration into God!”
-Christopher Frye, A Sleep of Prisoners
Prayerfully and sincerely yours in the Risen Christ,
The Most Reverend Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville