Easter: The Defiant Feast | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"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 not imaginary.
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 we are.
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 us, ever.
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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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
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 website.
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