“We are an Easter people, and ‘Alleluia’ is our song!” Saint John Paul II spoke this phrase at least twice: once, during an address at a black parish in Harlem in 1979, and again before leading the congregation in the Angelus at a Mass in Adelaide, Australia, in 1986. The Pope was paraphrasing a quote from St. Augustine of Hippo, some 1,500 years before: “We are a resurrection people, and our song is ‘Alleluia’.” Far be it from me to suggest that either Ss. John Paul or Augustine was in error by saying so.
However, it would be just as true to say we are a crucifixion people. In fact, to be an Easter people, we must be a Good Friday people first.
The Road To the Empty Tomb
A priest, delivering his Palm Sunday homily, handed me the key to this conundrum when he said, “The road to the empty tomb had to pass by a hill called Golgotha.” Christ’s passion was an essential precondition to his resurrection: without Good Friday, there would be no reason for Easter. It’s also the reason for the Incarnation: the Son of God could not taste death unless and until he became a son of man. Christmas and Easter, the two uplifting episodes of the Christian story, are ends of a story the climax of which is the tragic episode of Good Friday.
To understand the joy we find in Christ’s resurrection, we must first acknowledge the reality of human sin. Of all Christian doctrines, this is the one most easily demonstrated; G. K. Chesterton called it “a fact as practical as potatoes.” You don’t need to be religious to believe in sin. You only need to read the news or watch how people treat each other. Even in a time of declining religious affiliation, our society is defining ever new and more subtle sins of which we can be guilty, not all of them wrong-headed.
Yet sin is the one doctrine of which postmodern culture is seemingly most ignorant, the one fact about which Christian preachers are seemingly least interested in preaching. Oh, they’ll preach about evil, and the evil that men do, but not of original sin and how it separated us from God. Society’s new sins, it seems, are rooted in politics and culture, and are to be cured by a combination of indoctrination, peer pressure, and ostracization. Or, at least a stern talking-to in an encounter session that more or less resembles an intervention.
Flesh and Spirit
In a sense, as a culture we’ve grown too fast; in reaching for the furthest extremes of human knowledge and development, we’ve forgotten first principles, the bases of wisdom. We’re like adults who have lost their memories of childhood, mathematicians who have forgotten their multiplication tables. To paraphrase George Orwell, we’re now in such a condition that restating the obvious — recovering the basics — is our first duty.
A person who has grasped the resurrection has only got hold of one half of the equation. If Christianity is all about resurrection, why is our primary symbol the cross? Why is our liturgy not centered on the empty tomb?
It’s been said that St. Paul preached the centrality of the resurrection; why did he not say that, when we eat the bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the resurrection of the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26)? Fr. Dwight Longenecker recently tweeted that the late Rev. Billy Graham “preached Christ crucified. Who does THAT nowadays?” Fr. Longenecker’s reference to 1 Corinthians 1:23 had a point: It was Christ’s crucifixion, not his resurrection, that St. Paul called “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
Man is not simply imperfect — Man is broken. That which was created to be whole, a perfect integration of body and spirit, suffered an injury which imposed a separation between the two. This Cartesian separation of spirit and flesh, of mind and body, gives us both an awareness of the evil we do and the propensity to do it, as though we were helpless bystanders to our own acts. We serve the law of God with our minds, but the law of sin with our flesh (cf. Romans 7:14-25). Nor is the knowledge of this split local; every culture has known, to some extent, that the good man is separated from the beast within himself only by an act of a fallible will.
Reaching Across the Divide
By damaging the communion between flesh and spirit, original sin also separated us from the immediate knowledge of God. “For what can be known about God is plain to [the nations],” wrote St. Paul, “because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:19-20).
Yet this mediated knowledge was and is insufficient. The proliferation of gods and spirits among men are imperfect human attempts to recreate the knowledge lost with original sin — a thousand blurred and distorted reflections of a single Face.
The Word became flesh because no ordinary man’s death could reach across the divide. Only an equal to God could make a perfect atonement by death. But only a man could die; equality with God is beyond man’s reach (cf. Philippians 2:6). And so the Son of God took on the form of man, not as one wearing a costume or some centaur-like crossbreed, but fully integrating divinity and humanity, so that the Author of Life could drink fully of death (cf. Acts 3:15).
Embracing the Crucifixion
The resurrection is about more than just life after death; many cultures have suspected that death isn’t the end of our stories. It’s about more than divine judgment; many people other than Jews and Christians have suspected that we’re accountable to something other than ourselves for our actions.
Rather, the Risen Christ, shining with new life, was the promise and firstfruits of our reintegration in a new and different life. We shall not merely inhabit some subterranean chamber as mindless shades or haunt the living as spirits. We shall not be condemned to endless reiterations of this life, as if we were given so many mulligans on a cosmic golf course, to keep playing until we get it right. We shall not be subsumed into some formless All, like so many ingredients in a cake batter.
We shall all be made new; we shall be united again within ourselves; we shall be united again with God.
The beginning of this transformation, however, is the acknowledgment that we need remaking. We must not only embrace the cross of Christ but take up our own (cf. Matthew 16:24). We must stand next to the tax collector, and cry with him, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (cf. Luke 18:13)! To be an Easter people in truth, we must first be a Good Friday people, with Miserere mei, Deus as our song.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Catholic Stand on April 2, 2015.