The Dead Body

The Body of Christ Dead in the Tomb Hans Holbein

They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with spices, according to the Jewish burial custom. They laid Jesus in the tomb. (John 19:40, 42)

God willed to be laid in a tomb. Sacred Scripture refers to the wounded dead body, taken down from the cross, as “Jesus.” They laid Jesus in the tomb.

We know what happened then. And what didn’t happen.

What happened: Jesus’ body lay quietly in the tomb Friday evening, Friday night, and Saturday. His soul visited the saints of the Old Covenant, who languished in the realm of the dead. Then, during the night, before dawn on Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead, bodily.

What didn’t happen, thank God: Nobody read the poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye that goes, “Don’t stand at my grave and weep, because I am a thousand winds the blow and diamond flints of snow.” No one burned Jesus’ body to ashes. No one put the ashes in an urn on the mantelpiece, or sifted them into necklace pendants and charm bracelets, or scattered them at the beach.

vitruvian-man

The Lord had said, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” He spoke of the Temple of His body.

Back in the twentieth century, we had one problem, when it came to funerals. The 20th-century atheist did not believe that the human soul lived on after bodily death. We Christians had to remind the world that our souls are immortal, and the death of the body does not mean the final end of life.

Now, in the 21st century, we have a different problem when people die. The 21st-century pagan does not respect the beauty and integrity of the human body. We Christians have to remind the world that our bodies will rise again.

Our limbs and sinews and musculature; our ribcages, kneecaps, and little fingers; our teeth and glands and earlobes—God formed it all with His masterful hands. He regards the whole thing—head to toe—as immeasurably precious.

As He faced imminent death, did the Lord Jesus take comfort in the idea that His “spirit” would live on in peoples’ memories? Did He regard His teaching and good example as some kind of ‘legacy’ that would endure through the generations?

Hardly. Human memories don’t last very long. If our hope for life beyond death rests solely on the fickle memories of our fellow man, then immortality doesn’t really amount to much.

Nor did the Lord imagine Himself getting absorbed into some kind of cosmic unity when He died. He did not say:

I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight
I am the soft star-shine of the night.

No. Christ gave practical instructions. He said to His disciples: “After I have risen from the dead, I will go before you into Galilee.”

Our Christian reverence for the bodies of the dead began on Good Friday. We read in the Church decree which establishes how Christian funerals should be conducted:

By means of funeral rites, the Church, as a tender mother, not only commends the dead to God but also raises high the hope of Her children and gives witness to Her faith in the future resurrection of all those baptized into Christ.

They lovingly laid Him in the tomb. We Christians do not cast the body aside and then delude ourselves, imagining some kind of purely spiritual triumph over death. No. Christ rose in His body. We believe in the resurrection of the body.

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Not a Trophy but a Dagger

For a week now, a great number of people all over the world have gotten themselves obsessed with the troubled interior life of a German pilot.

king kong biplaneLast week, Holy Father condoled the families of the dead. He prayed for the repose of their souls. May they rest in peace. May the grieving find comfort.

Meanwhile, the television-viewing public wants to know: How could he do such a thing? How could the good-looking, athletic young pilot do it?

Also, the inveterate technocratic impulse of our age sounds-off in frantic sparks of pseudo-scientific desperation. How can we fix this? He can we prevent people from doing evil?

Change the cockpit door-lock system? Change the cockpit personnel requirements? Change the mental-health privacy rules? Change laws? Change policies? Lawsuits? Corporate cultures? Expert consultants? Fix it! Fix it! Fix it!

And there, standing right in the middle of the whole disaster, looming over the Alps like a giant gorilla, like King Kong, but a thousand times taller, standing with a truculent and boastful grin on his mangy face: Mysterium iniquitatis. The mystery of evil. Also known as: the unfathomably crafty Old Scratch.

The malice of Satan defies our humble human capacity for reason. Satan’s intelligence dwarfs ours by so many orders of magnitude, plenty of pagan people have believed that the evil power is equally omnipotent, right alongside the good power. Evil is a mystery of equal transcendence.

Actually, that’s closer to the truth than our contemporary delusion that we can somehow “solve” the problem of evil by using our human ingenuity. Evil actually is a lot more like a god than it is like a scientific problem for man to solve.

Yin and YangThe Passion of Christ teaches us with perfect clarity that malice is a force capable of crushing human intelligence, like the tire of a tractor-trailer crushing an acorn on the macadam. Is there anything even remotely reasonable, sensible, or intelligent about the human actions involved in the spectacle that we hear recounted in the gospel?

“Here’s the gentlest person who ever walked the face of the earth. Let’s kill him! What good will it do us to kill him? Will it make our city more livable, our religion more practicable, or our political situation more secure? Hardly. But who cares! Will we feel good about this tomorrow? Shush! Who cares! Crucify him! Crucify him!”

That said, the Passion of Christ teaches us a second thing, too. Satan is neither as intelligent, nor as powerful, nor as crafty as God is.

Satan thought he had had a good day that Friday. Injustice, irresponsibility, craven dishonesty, and abject cruelty—all rolled into one spring morning. Satan was buffing his demonic fingernails.

But then God took it all—every malicious deformation of the human will that Jerusalem saw in its streets that day—God took it all, and, like an artist working with brush, palette, oils, and canvas, He took Satan’s best moves and produced the most beautiful moment of all time. God took every ugly aspect of the spectacle of Golgatha and painted a picture.

A picture of divine love. A picture of heavenly love. Of the triumph of love. Not mayhem, not destruction, not life-crushing cynicism. No.

Love.

Satan thought he had a trophy in his mangy hands. But the crucified Galilean rabbi is not Satan’s trophy. Gargantuan as Satan’s craftiness is, skillful as he is in leading people, and communities, and whole nations down the path to the smoldering fires of hell on earth…

God turned what Satan thought was his trophy into a dagger. Then He ripped Satan’s guts out with it. Because the crucified Galilean rabbi is not the ugliest, but in fact the most beautiful spectacle in the history of the world.

We human beings can do acts of unfathomable malice. But love wins. Love stands taller than the Alpine peaks. Love is inexhaustible.

From our humble vantage point, we do well to acknowledge that Satan has some serious game. Probably best for us to stop trying to outsmart him and focus instead on praying.

Praying to the King of Love, Who reigns on high. Christ has every human soul in His loving Hand. And Satan is not smarter than the Crucified.

No King but Caesar?

Pontius Pilate appears to have been genuinely confused by how much the High Priests and the crowd hated Christ.

At first, Pilate did not want to judge Christ at all. Then Pilate tried to appease the people by having Jesus scourged, instead of crucified. But only death would satisfy the angry mob.

Then Pilate asked them a question, full of contemptuous irony: “Shall I crucify your king?”

He received the answer: “We have no king but Caesar!”

We have no king but Caesar.

Continue reading “No King but Caesar?”

Come, O Sacred Days

The most sacred days of the year are upon us, the days of the sacrifice of Christ.

The Lord never takes a day off from us, of course. But we have a tendency to take days off from Him.

So, in His mercy, God gives us the holy days to draw us back to Him. During Holy Week the Lord reaches down from heaven and grabs the cosmic remote and turns off the stupid t.v. that fills our heads with noisy nonsense.

Then He brings His people and His priests together in church. On Monday evening, the priests of the diocese were together with the Bishop in the cathedral. Tomorrow evening, the Sacred Triduum will begin, with God’s priests and His people together, in church.

Because of God’s love, we can say—we priests—we can honestly say: Being in church on the holy days is the most important thing in our lives. We can honestly say—not because we are particularly heroic guys, but simply because of Christ’s love: We would sooner die than let Holy Week pass without celebrating the sacred rites.

Let’s just say hypothetically: If the powers of the world tried to lay down a law that made celebrating Mass on Holy Thursday a capital crime, you would find us priests in church anyway. What else would we do? Are we going to spend Holy Thursday evening relaxing, watching a George Clooney movie on DVD and throwing back some popcorn? No.

All this is a gift from God; the holy days are a gift from God. Why does He do this for us? Why does He renew the world with His goodness every year during Holy Week–without fail, year after year, century after century? Why does He call men to His priesthood in every generation, in an unbroken march down the ages? Why does He feed us with His Body and Blood at the holy altar whenever we come to Him?

He does it now for the same reason that He did it in the first place, in the first Holy Week: Because He loves us. He loves us with an ardor that cannot and will not be thwarted. The passing of time does not diminish the intensity of divine love.

So the same goes for you: What else are you going to do, other than keep the holy days in faithful prayer? Are you going to spend Good Friday lounging in a recliner and saying to yourself, “Who cares about God? Who cares about my neighbor? All I want to do is watch t.v.” No.

Even if the powers of the world tried to make it illegal to love Christ and your neighbor, you would do it anyway. You would sooner go to jail or die than pretend that Christ the King of love is not the Lord.

Praise God. Let’s let the Lord hush us down, so that we can keep the great feast.

Friday Penance

The Lord Jesus died for us on Friday, and He arose from the dead on Sunday. It happened nearly two millennia ago. But the significance of these events does not fade. We want to keep them in mind.

The death and resurrection of Christ took place in the springtime, at Passover, at the first full moon after the vernal equinox. So we keep Holy Week and Easter every year, to make sure the events of salvation stay fresh in our minds, at the time of year when they originally happened.

But, obviously, commemorating our salvation once a year is not often enough.

We need to commemorate it at least once a week.

So every Sunday we remember the resurrection of Christ in church. We keep the Sabbath by remembering the resurrection of Christ.

Every Friday, we commemorate the Passion of Christ. As the Lord Jesus tells us in today’s gospel reading:

The days will come when the Bridegroom is taken away from the wedding guests. They will fast in those days.

He was taken away from us on a Friday; He returned to us on a Sunday. So, on Friday, we fast; we do penance; we keep the Passion of Christ in mind.

The traditional way to do this is to abstain from eating meat on Fridays. A generation ago, the shepherds of the Church decided to leave it up to us individually to decide what we would do to commemorate the Passion of Christ on the Fridays of the year outside of Lent.

Abstaining from meat still makes for a good Friday commemoration of the Passion. We can abstain from meat every Friday, just like we all do together during Lent.

Also, there are other options. Coming to Mass, visiting the Blessed Sacrament, saying the Rosary, making the Stations of the Cross, sacrificing some time for the good of others, visiting the sick, abstaining for some food or drink we like—all these make for a good Friday commemoration of the Passion, too.

Now, outside of Lent, the choice of how to remember Christ’s death on Friday is ours. But God forbid that we let a Friday pass without giving a thought to what our Lord did for us.

Did He Have to Do It?

the_passion_of_the_christThe Lord Jesus freely laid down His life for the salvation of the human race. He offered Himself to the Father as a sacrifice for our sins. He did it today, on Good Friday.

Good Friday is therefore a sacred day, one of the most sacred of the year. There are a number of ways to keep the day holy—going to church for the Sacred Liturgy, or Stations of the Cross, going to Confession, prayer, fasting, abstinence from meat.

These days, though, for some people, Good Friday passes more or less unnoticed. For some people it’s as good a day as any to go to a baseball game, or watch a movie, or go out to eat.

We live in a society in which some people do not keep Good Friday holy. This forces us to confront a serious question. How we spend Good Friday is not just a matter of personal devotional choice, of private preferences. The question we have to ask is a question about the human race as a whole.

Let’s put the question like this: Did Christ really have to die for us? Did mankind need Him to make the sacrifice He made for us today? Does the human race need a Savior?

kobe-lebronOr are we really just fine on our own? Is the human race okay by itself? Can any human being say to Christ crucified: “Hey, thanks—but you went to too much trouble. Don’t do me any favors.”

Christ is a unique human being—He is the only divine human being. With Him, the human race as a whole can stand before God and say, “Lord, we are a race of sinners. We are dust and ashes before You. You made us out of love, and we have poured contempt on You in return. But we can boast of your only-begotten Son. He is just and true—He bore witness to You unto death—and He is one of us. See and love in us what You see and love in Him, O Creator, and have mercy on us.”

On the other hand what do we human beings have to show for ourselves without Christ? Left to ourselves, what are our hopes? Let’s consider…

We humans are ingenious. We have tall buildings. We have many, many cars, many television shows, a lot of guns and ammo. Our race has produced both LeBron James and Kobe Bryant at the same time. We have invented pizza, modern medicine, cellphones, umbrellas, space shuttles, and numerous other accomplishments. Splendid.

ipod-handBut when we go to meet God at the end of our lives, what will we do with all these things? Will they do us any good?

None of our accomplishments can exactly recommend us to God. God is perfect, and we are not. We have no claims on Him. Before Him, we have no rights. He owes us nothing. Everything we have, He gave us in the first place.

Without Christ we would come to the end of our earthly life in a state of terrifying weakness. We would be utterly bereft.

Are you or I going to go to judgment and then pull out an iPod and say, “Look, Lord—look at all this great music I put on my iPod. Shouldn’t you reward me for that?” Or am I going to say, “Look, Lord—I was a great cook. I grilled some killer hamburgers. Send me to heaven for my hamburgers.”

It really is ridiculous, the idea that we would be alright without Christ.

Do we need a Savior? We need Him more than we need oxygen. We need Him more than we need gravity to keep us from floating into outer space. We need Christ more than we need our incorrigible selves.

There is only one thing more desperate than the suffering Christ had to endure to save us today. The only thing more desperate is just how desperately we needed Him to do it.