Easter: The Defiant Feast | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 15, 2006
Easter: The Defiant Feast | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | IgnatiusInsight.com
"Wine is of such divinity that it refuses to change its name.
It has kept the same name since it was first pupped.
Mark my words,
you my readers who are destined to live for ever, it will not change."
Hilaire Belloc, "About Wine," Places (London:
Cassel, 1942), 276.
"God raised up Jesus on the third day and granted that he be seen,
not by all, but only by such witnesses as had been chosen beforehand by
Godbut us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead."
Acts, 10:40, Reading, Morning Prayer, Easter Sunday.
Easter is a defiant feast.
At the tomb we hear it said, "you seek Jesus of Nazareth; He is not
here. He is risen." And earlier, in words that were remembered later,
"Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again."
Those who remembered said, "He was speaking of the temple of His
Body." The risen Christ was not seen by all, but only by those witnesses
chosen beforehand by God. Is this unjust, that all of us were not there?
Or are in fact all of us there because of the witnesses chosen beforehand?
"Unless I put my finger into His hands and my hand in His side, I
shall not believe." The challenge of the man who said these defiant
words was literally accepted. His only response when so confronted was,
"My Lord and my God." He was told, almost as a reprimand, that
those who did not need this direct evidence were "more blessed."
We wonder why? Certainly the witnesses remain necessary. The account is
The greatest of the heresies is that this world is enough for us. The
second greatest of the heresies is that God could not have asked us to
live in this world because it is so full of evil and imperfection, including
our own. Therefore there is no God. Or is there yet another even greater
heresy? That we can by ourselves make a perfect world, a world created
in defiance both of the natural order and of revelations relation
to it? Is the "will to power" the only reality? Are we subject
only to ourselves?
It is easier to comprehend the Passion of Christ than to comprehend his
Resurrection, though we cannot understand the one without the other. The
alternative to the Resurrection is never to die in the first place, something
evidently once offered to us. Men misjudge when they think that the most
difficult thing to understand is "Why do we suffer?" and "Why
do we die?" No, the most difficult thing to comprehend is "Why
do we know joy?" Ultimately, joy is closer to the heart of things.
We do not cause it to be what it is.
Belloc, in a whimsical moment, addresses his audience: "Mark my words,
you my readers, who are destined to live for ever...." That is precisely
who we are. Yes, this form of address does speak to what we are, to people
who are destined to live forever. C. S. Lewis said somewhere that "you
have never met a mere mortal." He did not mean that we are not "mortal,"
in the sense that we will not die, that we do not know that we die. But
he did mean that we are not "mere" mortals. The light in our
eyes is from eternity. Pure passing-ness is not what we are. We are not
merely mortal in being really mortal. As St. Thomas says, in a phrase
that I love to cite, homo non proprie humanus, sed superhumanus est.
We were not created to be simply human beings, but something more than
human from our very beginning, which beginning ultimately was not ours
to set in motion.
In many places in the world we are not allowed even to speak of the Resurrection
in no public schools, in no Muslim space, not in the land of the
Great Wall, and only cautiously elsewhere, usually in restricted places,
as quietly as possible. Some of the worlds greatest music, to be
sure, has been written because of this feast and what lead up to it. We
think of "The Passion according to Matthew," the "sacred
head surrounded," and the Resurrection Symphony. Even when it is
officially avoided, the Resurrection cannot be totally avoided.
Easter, as I say, is a defiant feast. The real reason to reject it, I
often think, is not that it is not true, but that it is too good to be
true. If Christ is not raised, Paul tells us, the rest of our faith is
in vain and probably everything else. The history of thought is
filled with efforts to show why and how the Resurrection not only is not
true on historical grounds, but cannot be true on scientific or philosophical
grounds. Yet, it seems, that every historical analysis of why it could
not have happened brings forth counter-evidence suggesting that it just
might have happened. Every scientific effort to show that it could not
have happened leads to other scientific evidence that it perhaps could
happen. Every philosophical argument against its logic leads to an expansion
both of what we mean by logic and what we mean by philosophy. If one does
not want to believe it, be warned: it is a dangerous doctrine to investigate.
Even from earliest times, we have all sorts of efforts to explain the
Resurrection in a different way. The leading Jews wanted to put up a guard
so that the disciples, who were in no condition to give the matter a second
thought, would not steal the body away. So that was to be one explanation:
somebody stole the body and hid it away never to be found again. Apparently
The Da Vinci Code has Jesus managing to slip away to marry
Mary of Magdala no mean feat, but many want to believe it,
whatever the evidence (or lack thereof). One of the taunts against Christ
was to come down from the Cross, then everyone would "believe."
All of these approaches are combinations of the same thought: we can explain
the Resurrection by some other hypothesis. Of course, there can be a million
different plots that might be thought up, and have been thought up, by
the literary mind for any fact, including this one.
But all these theories at least suggest that something objective must
be explained, if only to be explained away. The Muslim theory that Christ
was only a prophet, but not God, a theory the implications of which we
are reluctant to face head on, simplifies the matter. If it is true, there
is nothing to explain. Christ then died like other prophets, whatever
the details. Others go in the direction that the "resurrection"
was a kind of spiritual thing. The "empty tomb" tells us nothing.
But to be a Christian, it is said, we do not have to take the Resurrection
of the body literally. We do not have to be burdened with all those impossible
problems about how it happened or that it happened. It was meant merely
to lead us to lofty thoughts. We are to be, as it were, "uplifted"
by the "spirit."
All such earnest and convoluted theories need not
be seen in too bad a light. They are efforts to explain what supposedly
cannot be believed or what cannot happen. They all suspect that the orthodox
theory, in its correct form, had best not be allowed to be presented.
Thus the disciples imagined these things. The Resurrection was a psychological
theory explained by a projection of some hidden desire. What the disciples
saw was what they wanted to see; therefore they thought that they saw
it. So the theory goes, rehashed in a thousand ways.
But, of course, the account of the disciples we actually have shows us
a group of men and women just about as reluctant to believe that the Resurrection
happened as the most inveterate skeptic. Without themselves checking things
out, none of the disciples were ready to believe the reports that the
women brought. And the leading lady of the story, Mary of Magdala herself,
thought the risen Christ was the gardener, (who, according to The
Da Vinci Code, she subsequently ran off with, presumably
finding him not dead). The women who were actually recorded, however,
were just as surprised as the Apostles, if not more so, by what they saw.
To give them credit, the disciples, even under pressure, held firmly to
the view that they saw what they saw. In Acts, to recall, they
are called precisely "witnesses," that is, they testify to what
they knew from their own experience. We may not believe them, but that
is our problem. We would not want them to change their minds because we
had some strange theory about knowledge or experience that deflected us
from understanding or admitting the possibility of what they saw.
The Resurrection of the body, on examination, is more paradoxical than
we might at first sight give it credit. It is said to prefigure our ultimate
destiny, so we cannot look on it as merely something that happened on
that distant Easter morn "behold He is risen and has appeared
to Kephas." One does not have to be a genius to understand that if
this doctrine is true in even this one case, the one case is not likely
to be the unique case. It is certainly not presented that way. Indeed,
it is presented as the Word was made flesh, suffered, died, was buried,
and rose again. We too are made ultimately in this image, for this destiny,
after our own manner. We do not become gods. The Resurrection of the body
is the great doctrine that we remain ourselves precisely forever.
Aristotle had remarked, in a rather prophetic statement, that we would
not want our friend to be someone else. Nor would we ourselves want to
be someone else even if we could have all the riches and power of the
world. I have never met a student who, when he read of these two remarks,
ever doubted them for a moment. It seems obvious that the remaining of
ourselves to be ourselves is at the bottom of the whole structure of what
The Resurrection of the body is likewise the denial of all those theories
about re-incarnation, whereby we are given a second and third and thousandth
chance to come back to try again when we fail on our times around. These
theories are efforts to solve the problem of justice and injustice, usually
without a doctrine of forgiveness, (though in Plato there is also a doctrine
of forgiveness, that is, the one against whom we sin has to forgive us).
Christianity solves this problem at a higher level, but in solving it,
we remain ourselves, either in glory or in punishment. No one else becomes
Ultimately, we are not merely "souls." Nor are we angels. Nor
bodies without immortal souls. We are and remain human beings, body and
soul, one person, who and what we are. Needless to say, this is what we
would want if we could have it.
Moreover, we have other Aristotelian problems that we need to address.
Can we be friends with God? And do the loves that we in fact have for
other finite persons do what we want or think love can do namely,
do they last? Or are they merely passing, of no ultimate meaning?
How could we be "friends" with God? Obviously, by ourselves,
we cannot. But we are not the only innovators in the world. It might be
possible for God to figure out a way to make this possible. What if God
is not lonely? What if there is an inner and complete life in the Godhead?
The teaching on the Trinity, of course, means precisely this, that God
is Himself sufficient. He does not need anything but Himself, certainly
not the world. He does not "need" us in order to be what He
is. But if something besides God exists, it would have to exist from the
divine abundance, out of kindness or love for what is not God. This is
the spirit in which we exist.
The Incarnation of the Word, the Word made flesh, makes the possibility
of being friends with God much more intelligible. If Christ, the Word,
is true God and true man, then we could be His friends if He invites us
and we respond. The gap between God and man is breeched.
Thus, on Easter, the joy of the great feast is itself connected with our
understanding of both what we are and what we are given. We know even
that in some sense what we are is given to us. We also know that there
is a strange incompleteness even in our completeness.
If we think about the Resurrection on this Easter morning, it becomes
clear that it responds to many puzzles of our being. We can sympathize,
perhaps, with those who seek to explain it away. But we do not have to
follow them, for the attempt to explain what in fact it is, when
spelled out, seems to be the more dramatic and, yes, more joyous enterprise.
Belloc was right. We are all indeed "destined to live forever,"
destined to live as the individual, personal being we are created to be.
The Resurrection of the body is defiant. And perhaps only if we see what
it really "defies," will we then see it for the glorious future
that it is, for each of us, if we choose it.
The fact of the Resurrection does not destroy or obviate the fact of free
will. The truth is that we must also choose to be what we are given to
be. Christ was seen by those who "ate and drank with Him after He
rose from the dead." Those who ate and drank (perhaps they drank
Bellocs wine "which has kept its name from the first")
are witnesses, chosen beforehand. What is witnessed to is thus not an
"idea" or an illusion or a fraud, but something that was seen
by men and women who, that Easter morn, did not expect to see it.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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