Are Catholics the “Resurrection People”?

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“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.

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34 thoughts on “Are Catholics the “Resurrection People”?”

  1. Pingback: Lent and the People of the Crucifixion - Catholic Stand : Catholic Stand

  2. I am 62 years old. This Lent, for the first time in my life, I am beginning to grasp the real meaning of what you have written. For the first time, it helps make sense of St .Therese of Lisieux spirituality, also. Thank-you.

  3. Pingback: Pastoral Sharings: "Second Sunday of Easter" | St. John


  5. ” We shall not be condemned to endless reiterations of this life, as if we were given so many mulligans on a cosmological golf course,…”

    Anthony, show some respect and humility; you don’t KNOW this is not part of God’s plan, you believe it is not – unlike the one quarter of humanity who believe it is so..

    1. No, actually, that it’s not part of God’s plan is one of the things that has been revealed. To say that someone else is in error is not to disrespect them; respect for others’ religions doesn’t require indifferentism or a pretense of uncertainty.

    2. Such an intelligent man and he doesn’t understand the profound
      difference between “know” and “believe”. Buono Pascha, Anthony !

  6. “Oh, they’ll preach about evil, and the evil that men do, but not of original sin and how it separated us from God.”

    The notion of “original sin” is not consistent with how we got to where we are today by evolving from lower life forms. At what point in our evolution did we commit this sin? Through evolution, things become better and better, new and improved. We are at our high point in development today and will be even more highly developed tomorrow. There never was a point in time where we were just as we were meant to be but lost that greatness by disobeying a deity. That’s not how it works. That’s not what happened.

    1. Through evolution things become more complex; but “more complex” =/= “better”. Please keep the scientific theory of evolution separate from the humanist myth of perpetual progress.

    2. “Please keep the scientific theory of evolution separate from the humanist myth of perpetual progress.”

      Really? Evolution is all about progress. Where do you see original sin fitting into the evolution of humans? When would such an act of disobedience have occurred in our history?

    3. “Through evolution, things become better and better, new and improved.” No, no, that is not how evolution works. If you are going to be so rude as to try to derail the work of a writer, at least open a biology text book before revealing you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    4. As things evolve, the hereditary features that promote the ability of whatever is evolving to continue to survive and reproduce are passed on due to this survivability and reproducibility. This generally results in improvement over many iterations. Hunters get better at hunting. Prey get better at escaping. People become more adapted to their surroundings. Useless, antiquated ideas like original sin lose their relevance.

    5. The evolution and adaptation is in response to changing survival conditions; it results in “improvement” only if you deliberately ignore trade-offs, ambiguities, and every glass-half-empty piece of evidence in a “Whig history” of human evolution. “Progress” has meaning only when there’s a goal to be reached (you’re getting closer or you’re not); unless you’re substituting “Progress” for God as a preter-real, Hegelian force, evolution can’t be both directional and blind.

      As for original sin, it’s still highly useful; that people don’t make use of it doesn’t render it useless. And age has absolutely nothing to do with truth-value.

    6. I’m confused. Are we arguing whether the concept of original sin is useful or useless or whether it is true or false? I called it useless because I believe that it is. But more importantly, there is no conceivable time in our evolution when there was even a chance for anyone to commit the “original sin”. So it is just a myth, perhaps useful to teach the value of obedience, although I doubt it.

    7. Truth has been a part of the discussion from the beginning of it; I think it’s more than a little disingenuous for you to imply you weren’t arguing to the falsehood of the doctrine of original sin. I’m sure you believe the concept useless, just as you believe there’s no conceivable time when there was a chance to commit original sin. The facts of the matter, however, are that it’s highly useful, and that the chance to commit original sin came with the development of free will, which is a necessary precondition of reason. Put a date on the latter two, and you have the date for the former.

    8. There are two questions. 1. Was original sin a real or mythological event? 2. Even if it just a mythological event, is it useful to teach it as a lesson on obedience?

      You seem to answer that it is not only a useful lesson but a real occurrence. My opinion is that it could be argued that it is a useful lesson in obedience but it is just a story that some teller of fables made up to teach about obedience. I’ll just leave it at that.

    9. Real, but not a scientific question. Seriously, if you think this is some gotcha question that no scholar ever thought to ask before, then you are about 150 years behind the times. Darwin beat you to it.

      Evolutionary biology tells us that somewhere in time (maybe around 45,000 years ago) behaviorally modern humans emerged, as opposed to anatomically modern humans who did not exhibit intelligence, so the story goes, and it is still debated among scientists. Paleoanthropologists look for signs of intelligence (i.e. art, religion, language) to figure out when behaviorally modern humans emerged.

      There is no way the genetic or fossil record could show whether there were literally two humans who rejected God and ate forbidden fruit. Evolutionary science deals with populations of species over thousands of years at a time not individuals in terms of days and minutes.

      Catholics take the truth of Original Sin seriously (dogmatically) because it reminds us we are not perfect and will fail at times in life, but that we also can seek the grace from our Creator to pursue virtue and do better. I can’t see how that would bother someone unless you just can’t handle the thought you are not perfect.

    10. “Seriously, if you think this is some gotcha question that no scholar ever thought to ask before, then you are about 150 years behind the times. Darwin beat you to it.”

      Exactly. Darwin did away with the Creation Story, Eden, Adam and Eve and…,(wait for it…) Original Sin in one theory, Evolution. Noah’s Ark was also debunked.

    11. You must be working from the “opiate of the masses” theory of religion, which tries to explain away all religious revelation as efforts at social control. The positive theory says, “Well, yes, hmm, quite useful and good; but we’re all adults now and in no need of fairy stories.” The negative theory merely yells, “YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!” The doctrine of original sin isn’t about obedience; and its truth is not tied up in the literal accuracy of Genesis. Let me close off that rabbit hole here.

    12. “Well, yes, hmm, quite useful and good; but we’re all adults now and in no need of fairy stories.”

      Ok then. So we agree.

    13. It was you who said “and its truth is not tied up in the literal accuracy of Genesis.”

      I am just agreeing with you that Genesis is fiction. Unless that is not what you are saying. I don’t really know at this point what you actually understand literally and what you take figuratively. Sorry.

    14. “I am just agreeing with you that Genesis is fiction. Unless that is not what you are saying.” Exactly — that isn’t what I was saying. If you weren’t in an all-fired hurry to clip statements out of context to use them as cute “gotchas”, and actually took the time to understand the statements Stacy and I have been making, a real discussion might be possible. The statement which you excerpted was directed at your belief that the story of the Fall was about “obedience”, which misses the mark by oversimplification. You chose to treat it as an admission that Genesis is “fiction”.

      You wonder what I understand literally and what I understand figuratively. That’s not a question to which I can do justice in a combox reply. If you want a really good treatment of the story of the Fall that takes science into account, I suggest In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of the Creation and the Fall, by Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI). For the rest, let me just quote Ven. Pius XII, Humani Generis 38-39:

      “… [T]he first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, … in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people. If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations (and this may be conceded), it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents.
      “Therefore, whatever of the popular narrations have been inserted into the Sacred Scriptures must in no way be considered on a par with myths or other such things, which are more the product of an extravagant imagination than of that striving for truth and simplicity which in the Sacred Books, also of the Old Testament, is so apparent that our ancient sacred writers must be admitted to be clearly superior to the ancient profane writers.”

    15. It doesn’t take a book by Ratzinger or a convoluted explanation to know that the Old Testament consists of stories that were made up to give an ancient people a sense of identity and purpose. We’re not going to see this the same way. You have too much invested in your understanding of these myths.

    16. Actually, no one — believer or not — who actually knows anything about the Old Testament, history, or story makes such an assessment. We may never see eye-to-eye on this. But consider just how much you have invested in your position. You’re not nearly as open-minded as you think. Pax tecum.

    17. If evolution is about progress and improvement, then note that cetaceans are more modern than land mammals (having returned to water and evolved features necessary to live there), and land mammals are therefore an evolutionary dead-end.
      Go jump into a lake. See if you develop fins. If not, does that make you an evolutionary failure?

    18. What is your point? I am talking generally about the evolution of anything, not just biological evolution. I don’t see why the term “new and improved” elicits such an adverse response from people. Whether you want to admit it or not, we are, in general, new and improved.

    19. Why are you suggesting that I don’t believe in the evolution theory?
      As for your assertion, everything that the humanity is currently going through has already been tried before — eugenics by Spartans, euthanasia and abortion by Romans, broad acceptance of homosexuality and pedophilia by Greeks.
      Let’s focus on eugenics for a moment. They were very widely attempted in the early 20th century (sweeping across Europe, Asia and America) and taken to the logical extreme by the totalitarian governments in some of the adopters. Eugenics were hailed as a very progressive measure and I can imagine you would have been one of the people extolling its virtues.
      If, therefore — generally — evolution is about progress, about being “new and improved”, the logical conclusion that led to eugenics being completely discredited, was also an example of evolution. However, this social development led to status quo ante, but a lot of people were murdered or mutilated in the name of — yes! — social progress. If it wasn’t attempted, those people would have stayed alive or happy.
      Now, is all evolution indeed positive progress?

    20. “Now, is all evolution indeed positive progress?”

      Evolution is just a natural process that results in survival and reproduction advantages surviving and reproducing. This does not guarantee improvement but the tendency is in that direction. It all depends on how one defines “improvement”.

    21. Actually, to even import “improvement” is to import a standard or a goal towards which evolution struggles. The scientific theory holds that evolution is blind; it can’t be blind AND purposive.

    22. Evolution tends to result in improvements whether that is its purpose or not. Survival of the fittest has a way of bringing out the best.

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