Holy Week: Suffering and Life
The 24th chapter of the Gospel of Luke is proclaimed at the Easter Vigil liturgy. In the midst of that proclamation of ultimate joy the angels posed a question to the women, friends of Jesus, who had gone to his tomb, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised.” This question changes everything; not only in the personal world of those friends of Jesus, but in all the world at all times. The Living One is not among the dead. He is alive. But implicit in the question and the statement is an acknowledgement that Jesus died, that he had been among the dead. As the Christian tradition has steadfastly maintained, based on Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels, he had to die first.
The epistle that precedes Luke 24 within that most marvelous of all liturgies is taken from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 6. It is worth quoting here in its entirety:
Brothers and sisters,
Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We were indeed 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.
What is Paul saying to us this Holy Week? In the light of the Gospel passages that bring us face to face with Jesus dying on the cross, Paul is asserting without any doubt that our way to life is likewise through dying, by entering into and being embraced within Jesus’ own death. Many of us acknowledge this scriptural truth, one hallowed by tradition, in our personal way of life, in the path we aim to follow, in our own spirituality. Perhaps less attended to is the complementary truth that this coming-to-life, to lasting life, by dying is also true of us corporately. In other words, as Jesus suffered bodily death on the cross, so also in the Eucharistic celebration the species of bread and wine comes to be no more as they become the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar and in the hands and on the lips of believers. And further, the Body of Christ, which is the Church, also comes to true life by dying. The Body of Christ, which is the Church, comes to true life by dying to those things in each epoch that are false or harmful or wrong. As the Fathers of Vatican Council II phrased this in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium 8): “While Christ, holy, innocent and undefiled knew nothing of sin, but came to expiate only the sins of the people, the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal.”
Cardinal Newman expressed it in his own inimitable manner in his Occasional Sermons:
No Catholic will deny it [that the Church has scandals]. . . . If there was a Judas among the Apostles . . . why should we be surprised that in the course of eighteen hundred years, there should be flagrant instances of cruelty, of unfaithfulness, of hypocrisy, or of profligacy, and that not only in the Catholic people, but in high places, in royal palaces, in bishops’ households, nay, in the seat of St. Peter itself? Why need it surprise, if in barbarous ages, or in ages of luxury, there have been bishops, or abbots, or priests, who have forgotten themselves and their God, and served the world or the flesh, and have perished in that evil service? . . . What will come of it, though we grant that at this time or that, here or there, mistakes in policy, or ill-advised measures, or timidity, or vacillation in action, or secular maxims, or inhumanity, or narrowness of mind, have seemed to influence the Church’s action or her bearing towards her children? I can only say that, taking man as he is, it would be a miracle were such offences altogether absent from her history. Consider what it is to be left to oneself and one’s conscience, without others’ judgment on what we do, which at times is the case with all men; consider what it is to have easy opportunities of sinning; and then cast the first stone at churchmen who have abused their freedom from control or independence of criticism. With such considerations before me, I do not wonder that these scandals take place . . . . (“Occasional Sermons. pg. 144)
So the Church in every age ‘embraces sinners in its bosom,’ indeed is made up of sinful human beings. But this means that the call is before us, in every generation, to die to the ‘cruelty, unfaithfulness, hypocrisy, profligacy, mistakes in policy, ill-advised measures, timidity, vacillation in action, secular maxims, inhumanity, narrowness of mind, easy opportunities of sinning, and scandals’ that live among us, that live not only on the periphery but within the Body of Christ. The most direct way to say it is that in every age, in every portion of an age, the Church is called to repentance, to conversion, to metanoia.
This Holy Week, as the communication channels of the world are filled with word and report of woeful allegations of abuse of children and failure to effectively respond; as opinion pieces in-print and online are calling in every direction for all measure of response; as the Vatican in the Irish letter of Benedict XVI and in editorials in L’Osservatore Romano are speaking directly of this state of affairs, what are we called to do?
Let me make one recommendation:
We are called, as a Church, to come together and to discern where are the things among us that must die so that we may be reborn with Christ. They may be attitudes. Are we overly defensive? Are we arrogant? Are we in some measure still in denial? They may be emotions. Are we so angry, saddened, or distraught that we cannot clearly see either the present situation or the path forward? They may be ways of being the Church. Are there structures in place that theologically are recognized as not being of divine origin that may need to be altered?
How the Church as a whole could enter into this discernment is a matter itself for sound and prudent planning and leadership. But the fact that such discernment across the Body is necessary is evident. Are we willing? That is the first question of many that are vital to pose.
We stand on the verge of the celebration worldwide of the very heart of the mystery of divine love poured out for us, Jesus going to death for the sake of life. As always, we are called to follow after Jesus and to bear our share of the Cross. As I wish you a full share of Easter joy, hear again (now from the translation called The Message) the final words we will hear on Holy Saturday evening from the Apostle Paul: “From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That’s what Jesus did.” And that’s what we, his Body, are called to do as well.