“We are an Easter people, and ‘Alleluia’ is our song!”
These words are attributed to St. John Paul II. And, indeed, he did deliver them; 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. However, 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’.”
If you don’t hear or read these words again this Easter, you probably will next year. If nothing else separates the post-Vatican II Catholic from the traditionalist, it’s the trope of “the resurrection people”. I’m not trying to import what’s been called the “hermeneutic of rupture”, the belief that the Second Vatican Council changed the DNA of the Catholic Church or the substance of Catholic dogma. However, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Council created, or at least promoted, a different style — a different perspective from which to view our doctrine and expound it. And the “resurrection people” trope is a key to that difference.
Error usually begins with the emphasis of one doctrine, or a collection of related doctrines, over the rest. For instance, had Martin Luther truly understood what St. Paul meant by works, he might have ended his days still an Augustinian priest in communion with the Church. Far be it from me to suggest that either Ss. John Paul or Augustine were in error by saying “we are a resurrection people”; for both men were well-versed in the evangelium. However, the saying can be easily misunderstood.
For it would be just as true, if not more, to say we are the “people of the crucifixion”.
The Road To the Resurrection
The key to this conundrum was handed to me many years ago, when a priest, delivering his Palm Sunday homily, 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 comic episodes of the Christian story, are ends of a lever whose fulcrum is the tragic episode of Good Friday.
The story of Christ’s death has been told many times, in many different ways. The most recent portrayal is the National Geographic special, Killing Jesus, based on the book by conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly; the hands-down best — and most disturbing — is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. However, the movies and TV specials have significant difficulty conveying the real reason for Jesus’ death, which was not the political fears of the Sanhedrin, the moral cowardice of Pontius Pilate, or the game of first-century Realpolitik played between Rome and Jerusalem. In these media, entertainment value trumps soteriology.
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 even need to be religious to believe in sin. You only need to read the news, or watch how people treat each other.
Yet, it is the one doctrine of which the 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.
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)?
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 disjunction 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 monster within himself only by an act of a fallible will.
In damaging the connection 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 invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:19-20) Yet this mediated knowledge was and is insufficient; the proliferation of gods and spirits among men are imperfect creations made to replace what was 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, being God (John 1:1), 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 Cross
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 of our reintegration in a new and different life. We shall not merely fall asleep, to 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 cosmological 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 in 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)
For we are also a crucifixion people. And Miserere mei is also our song.