Sense and Nonsense: Surrexit Enim, Sicut Dixit

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Respondens autem angelus dixit mulieribus: Nolite timere vos: scio enim, quod Jesum, qui crucifixus est, quaeritis: non est hic: surrexit enim, sicut dixit . . .

These Latin words are from the Gospel of Matthew, from the twenty-eighth chapter, the fifth and sixth verses. The scene is the resurrection morning. The women encounter an angel who has apparently arrived in an earthquake and removed the stone covering the grave. In fact, the angel is sitting on the gravestone. His lightning-like aspect and white garments, however, do not much deter the women. The guards, on the other hand, were so frightened they became petrified.

But the ladies wanted to know, “just what was going on here?” We seem to tune in just after they had put this question to the angel. The angel, who seems rather a gentle sort, tells them not to be frightened. Notice, though, that he tells them this after he knew they weren’t afraid to query him. He informs them that he knows what they are after, namely, this Jesus Who was crucified. “He is not here,” the angel affirms. This absence is apparently evident to the ladies, hence their question.

The angel explains the reason Jesus is not here, “for He is risen, as He said.” What is important in these latter words, surrexit enim, sicut dixit, is not just that Christ is risen, but that He is risen precisely as He said He would. The ladies, who no doubt had heard that Christ spoke about rising again while He was among them, should thus not be overly surprised or frightened. They were prepared and were to expect nothing less.

In a class I was teaching on Saint Thomas, the question of the resurrection of the body came up. After I explained the basic Christian doctrine on the subject, a perplexed student put up his hand in some astonishment. He wasn’t hostile or skeptical; he had just never heard of such a teaching. To clarify, I said something about Christ’s resurrection. He replied that he had heard of that, but he had never heard of the general resurrection. He did not know that the orthodox Christian teaching included the resurrection of each human being who ever lived, whether old or young at death, whether saved or damned.

Well, to be sure, hardly anyone, let alone hapless students, themselves unaware of the general resurrection, ever hears explained today the possibility that anyone is damned, let alone resurrected and damned. Our sentimentality insists that, no matter what anyone has done, he is saved. As I keep suggesting, however, if we are all saved, no matter what we do or do not do, no matter whether there is repentance or not, then nothing in the world is serious. Actually, I find that most students understand the implication here—that something fundamental is really at stake if all are automatically saved no matter what they do.

One does not have to teach much in universities anymore to know that the basic teachings of the faith are practically unknown, or if known, grossly misunderstood. After a while, you find you can take nothing for granted, even from students with the best intentions, often these above all. I think today that this basic ignorance of what Christianity is about goes with the territory. If you expected otherwise, you’d be a fool. This ignorance—often coupled with a bad conscience for not wanting to know—is not confined to students, of course, and does not originate in them, though they too are responsible.

I would not be wholly unsympathetic, in this regard, with Thomas Sowell’s position (though at the beginning of my career, I never wished any such thing as he did!):

At the beginning of my career, I thought it would be wonderful to be a college president some day. But now I feel almost insulted when someone approaches me with such a prospect. Do they think I have no principles and no backbone? . . . Teaching is what attracted me into the academic world and was at one time a source of great fulfillment. Yet I have not taught a course for more than a dozen years now, and have no plans to teach one in the future. Teaching has become student public relations . . .

These remarks about teaching are harsh, perhaps, and I have not had the same dire experience (see my September column, “On Teaching”). And yet, when I have students who tell me, as they have, that they have never heard of the general resurrection or of the Ten Commandments, I shake my head. I wonder where to begin.

The problem is compounded in various ways. The following account is from a letter from a law school student somewhere in this land. I leave out names, gender, class, and places; everything else is verbatim. I add that neither the student who wrote the account nor the student quoted is a fool:

A young law student at a formal dinner of law students and faculty corners Father President [of said university] at the end of the affair. And he’s like, “Well, I have to be going now.” But the law student goes, “Oh, Father, you’re a priest; you have to listen to me! This isn’t a Catholic school; we get no support in trying to live our faith.” And I am sure the President is like, dying to get out of there. The student says, “I would never send my children to this school.” (The President thinks: “Thank God!”)

In academia, there are certain things we do not want to know.

Recently, to continue the compounding, I saw an account of the funeral service of a priest. The service was not called a Mass or a Funeral Mass or any such thing. Apparently, the notion that a service for the dead has anything to do with death itself is forbidden by some law I do not know about. It was called in this instance, “A Celebration for the Life, Work, and Ministries” of the man. No one, evidently, was asked to pray for his soul, or to “remember man that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” Frankly, I always liked the idea that someone would be concerned about the repose of my soul, that I would be pardoned my sins, and that I would rise again on the last day (but not before).

Usually at funeral Masses any more, the Easter Allelujah is sung, as it was at the funeral of another priest I know. So I wonder to myself with some anxiety, “Isn’t the assumption here that the resurrection has already taken place, as on that Resurrection Morning when Christ was raised from the dead? No more Purgatory? No more worry about salvation; all are saved and celebrated and eulogized?” Then I debate with myself, “No, there is not any question of resurrection here at all. The only thing that comes up is the man’s this-worldly record.” I reluctantly suspect that the implicit belief in such services is not what the Church teaches about judgment, repentance, and punishment, about death and resurrection, but a kind of this-worldly redemption. We “celebrate”; we do not mourn.

Frankly, I still like the idea of surrexit enim, sicut dixit. I like it because first of all, it is not just an “idea” but the account of a fact. This was why the women, the angels, and, yes, the petrified guards were there. Secondly, I like it because it prevents us from substituting our own ideas of what is going on in the spiritual world with those that the Church teaches about what is going on. I am not consoled at a funeral if we “celebrate” life, work, and ministry, but forget to pray for the dead and look for the resurrection.

I do not think we save ourselves, nor do I think that our life on earth is all there is, but it is a real life, whence we begin. Likewise, I think that this life of ours is serious enough that, if we will, we can lose it, lose it forever. And the moral condition of our society would suggest that many of us are so at risk.

At Easter, during the Pascal Season, we do sing the glorious “Allelujah”—not because we are already risen, but because Christ is risen. He is our pledge. His nativity, life, death, and resurrection do not signify that we will be saved no matter what we do, but that what we do is so important, so eternally important, that He came among us, wherein He was finally tried and crucified. That He rose again as He said is His final importance to us, not just what He did during His “life, work, and ministries.” If we only had accounts of the latter without the surrexit enim, sicut dixit, our hope would still be in vain, as Saint Paul said.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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