“Behold! I tell you a mystery.” — Corinthians 15:51
How many of us have been energized by that line from Handel’s “Messiah”, which leads into the magnificent trumpet flourish and aria, announcing the resurrection of the dead? But what is a mystery? Let us say what it is not: it is not a story akin to the who-dun-its of Agatha Christie or Perry Mason or Columbo. Theologically and even sociologically speaking, a mystery refers to the whole plan by which God saves us in Christ.
And so, it is proper to speak of the two fundamental doctrines of Christianity, the Incarnation and the Resurrection of the Lord, as “mysteries.” When presented for belief, both call for a response of humility. Is it mere happenstance that to enter the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one must bow low, in order to enter (the original door being partially blocked, so that the invading Muslim horsemen could not defame the holy site); likewise, entering the edicule, or burial site of Our Lord in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher requires the pilgrim to bow low to enter?
It is interesting to observe that not a few of the Fathers of the Church conjectured that Lucifer’s revolt was occasioned by God the Father’s declaration that He intended His Son to take on flesh. That God would become man was so repugnant to Lucifer that he shouted out his Non serviam. The enfleshment of divinity was too much for that brilliant and proud angel of light.
Similarly, for two thousand years “brilliant” men have declared the notion that a dead Man could be raised was just too much, a lovely fairy tale perhaps, but certainly nothing that a “modern” person could swallow. I vividly recall getting a call from CNN on Spy Wednesday of 1994, informing me that the radical Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, had just published a new barn-burner: Resurrection: Myth or Reality? Needless to say, the point of his book was to assert that all the “empty tomb” stories were nothing more than charming myths, in the sense of fables. Would I (they asked) be willing to debate him on Holy Thursday? I agreed.
The experience was most unpleasant but ultimately successful. Spong declared that my idea of a real, bodily resurrection was absurd and untenable for contemporary men. I replied with the line of St. Paul: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). He smiled condescendingly and proceeded to say, “Father Stravinskas represents a point of view that no serious Catholic scholar would hold to today.” He proceeded to hold up Father Raymond Brown as an example of such scholarship. I knew Father Brown personally and, it should be noted, Brown had been appointed to serve on the Pontifical Biblical Commission by none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger; in fact, on Ratzinger’s American lecture tour of 1988, at Dunwoodie Seminary here in the Archdiocese, he cited Brown as an exemplary Catholic biblicist.
Interestingly, Brown had written a small work on both the virginal conception of Jesus and His bodily resurrection, called The Birth of the Messiah, affirming both scripturally and dogmatically, a work Spong either did not know or chose to ignore. Short of divine inspiration, I pulled a line out of Brown’s commentary on the infancy narratives, in which he mentions Spong: “Spong is complimentary in what he writes of me as a New Testament scholar;… I hope I am not ungracious if in return I remark that I do not think that a single New Testament author would recognize Spong’s Jesus as the figure being proclaimed or written about.” The would-be bishop was reduced to silence.
Spong’s position is that it doesn’t really matter if Jesus rose from the dead in a physical body. What matters is that He is risen in our hearts. If that’s the case, then why not follow Socrates, who was surely a good man and who likewise died an unjust death? Can’t we remember Socrates as effectively as Jesus? There’s only one problem with that approach: Socrates never even remotely suggested that he would rise from the dead, and not a single one of his disciples ever hinted at such a prospect. Jesus Christ makes that declaration numerous times, and His disciples took it very seriously—as did the Jewish religious authorities, so seriously that they prevailed on Pilate to put a guard at the entrance to His tomb! If He didn’t rise from dead, as He prophesied, then He is a fraud and we should have nothing more to do with Him.
As you undoubtedly know, a few years back, a restoration project was embarked upon in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, with particular attention given to the edicule or place of the Lord’s entombment. As scientists, archeologists and other workmen reached the “slab of anointing,” Geiger counters went berserk and other instruments died, affected by strong electromagnetic disturbances. This led some scientists to connect this phenomenon with the commonly accepted hypothesis on how the bodily image was transmitted onto the Shroud of Turin.
Someone might ask why I am spending so much time on technical, even scientific, evidence for the Lord’s Resurrection. “Isn’t it enough just to believe?” To be sure, belief is essential, but it is the final step, not the first. The act of faith must always be the act of the whole person, intellect and will. Therefore, what we believe can never be irrational. Suprarational, yes, but never irrational. That is why the Evangelists go to such great lengths to highlight the reality of Christ’s true bodily resurrection: He eats, He speaks in a familiar voice, He can be touched, He bears the wounds of His saving Passion and Death.
A priest, recently returning from a Holy Land pilgrimage, recounts the excitement and anticipation of his group as they waited in line to enter the edicule. What would it be like to enter the place where Christ the Morning Star, “coming back from death’s domain… shed his peaceful light on humanity,” as the incomparable Exsultet has us sing? The priest says that he bowed low to enter, knelt and was overcome by the emptiness of the space. “There was nothing there,” he exclaimed. And then it dawned on him, “Of course, there is nothing there. He is risen!” Wasn’t that the message of the angels on Easter morning?
Now, how does this saving truth apply to us? How does it “save” us? Knowing of G.K. Chesterton’s firm belief in Christ’s bodily resurrection, a skeptical reporter asked him what he would do if he found the Risen Christ standing right behind him. To the amazement of the reporter, Chesterton retorted, “But He is!” He is with us, not merely in some kind of “spiritual,” ethereal way; He is with us in a real and substantial way in the Holy Eucharist. Hence, St. John Chrysostom urges his congregation—and us—“What does it matter if you do not hear His voice? You contemplate Him on the altar.” He goes on:
Believe with living faith that this is even now the same supper in which Christ took part with the Apostles. Indeed, there is no difference between the Last Supper and the Supper of the Altar. Nor can it be said that this supper is celebrated by a man and the other by Christ, because Jesus Himself performs them both. Well, then, when you see the priest present this sacred food to you, do not think that it is the priest who gives it to you, but know that it is the hand of Christ outstretched toward you.
Chrysostom was merely putting into elegant language the equally elegant scene portrayed by St. Luke in that most charming and moving of Resurrection appearances, the Emmaus story. You remember it well, I’m sure.
It’s Easter night, and two disheartened (seemingly former!) followers of Jesus are hightailing it out of town, lest they endure the same fate as their former Master. They are approached by a Stranger, who inquires about their distress and who eventually leads them through the Sacred Scriptures, so as to revive their hope in Jesus. So buoyed up by Him are they that they invite Him to have dinner with them, during the course of which, the Guest becomes the Host, as He “breaks bread” for them and, in that characteristic gesture, they finally recognize “the Stranger” as none other than the Risen Christ. At which point, He vanishes from their sight!
How bizarre, until we realize that St. Luke wants to teach his readers and us today that having the Eucharistic Christ, one has the very same Lord who traveled the roads of Galilee. We are not at all disadvantaged; in fact, we can say that we are even more highly blessed than the Apostles because Jesus’ presence to us constitutes an indwelling, whereas their experience of Him during His earthly life was external. Permit me to suggest a way of prolonging this liturgical celebration: as your grace before your festive meal today, read out Luke 24. Invite the Stranger of Emmaus to dine with you and you with Him. Thus, fulfill the petition of that lovely hymn, Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether, which asks “may all our meals be sacraments of Thee.”
We have now come full circle. The mysteries of the Incarnation and Resurrection are re-presented in every celebration of “the sacred mysteries”—Holy Mass—as Jesus is born in us, dies in us, and rises in us. There is nothing in the edicule because Christ is in His Church, most especially in the Holy Eucharist. At the Communion Antiphon, Mother Church will have us echo St. Paul: Pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus: itaque epulemur in azymis sinceritatis et veritatis, alleluia (Christ our Passover has been sacrificed; therefore, let us keep the feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth, alleluia.).
In that haunting and venerable Victimae Paschali, in a play of holy paradoxes, the Church gave us the reason for our boundless joy. Agnus redemit oves: “The Lamb has redeemed the sheep.” Christus innocens Patri reconciliavit peccatores: “The innocent Christ has reconciled sinners to the Father.” Dux vitae mortuus regnat vivus: “The Prince of Life who died now reigns alive.”
With believers across the ages, we asked the Magdalen, Quid vidisti, Maria?—“What did you see, Mary?”—to which she gleefully replied: Sepulcrum Christi viventis: “I saw the tomb of the Christ who lives.” Her proclamation of the empty tomb caused us to shout out with all the fervor and faith we could muster, Scimus Christum surrexisse a mortuis vere: “We know that Christ has risen from the dead.” Therefore, with eminently good reason, we plead, Tu nobis, victor Rex, miserere: “Have mercy on us, Victor King.” Amen. Alleluia.
Image: The Resurrection by