"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, April 13, 2009

If Christ be not risen...

In this year of St. Paul, it's worth noting for the Easter season something he says about the Resurrection: "If Christ be not risen, our faith is vain and we are the most pitiable of men" (1 Cor 15: 14). That statement is just as fitting today as when Paul made it. The Western world as a whole is sliding into a new paganism as hopeless as that of late antiquity. Even the U.S., still a "religous" country, is headed down the same path as Europe and Canada; we're just not as far along yet, but the secularist rot is clearly setting in. Many "theologians"—i.e., professors of various academic disciplines pursued within theology departments—treat the Resurrection as theory not history. In such a cynical, sterile environment, it is fitting that the Pope transmits Paul's message in the following paragraphs from his urbi et orbi address last week:

The resurrection, then, is not a theory, but a historical reality revealed by the man Jesus Christ by means of his “Passover”, his “passage”, that has opened a “new way” between heaven and earth (cf. Heb 10:20). It is neither a myth nor a dream, it is not a vision or a utopia, it is not a fairy tale, but it is a singular and unrepeatable event: Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, who at dusk on Friday was taken down from the Cross and buried, has victoriously left the tomb. In fact, at dawn on the first day after the Sabbath, Peter and John found the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene and the other women encountered the risen Jesus. On the way to Emmaus the two disciples recognized him at the breaking of the bread. The Risen One appeared to the Apostles that evening in the Upper Room and then to many other disciples in Galilee.

The proclamation of the Lord’s Resurrection lightens up the dark regions of the world in which we live. I am referring particularly to materialism and nihilism, to a vision of the world that is unable to move beyond what is scientifically verifiable, and retreats cheerlessly into a sense of emptiness which is thought to be the definitive destiny of human life. It is a fact that if Christ had not risen, the “emptiness” would be set to prevail. If we take away Christ and his resurrection, there is no escape for man, and every one of his hopes remains an illusion. Yet today is the day when the proclamation of the Lord’s resurrection vigorously bursts forth, and it is the answer to the recurring question of the sceptics, that we also find in the book of Ecclesiastes: “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’?” (Ec 1:10). We answer, yes: on Easter morning, everything was renewed. “Mors et vita, duello conflixere mirando: dux vitae mortuus, regnat vivus – Death and life have come face to face in a tremendous duel: the Lord of life was dead, but now he lives triumphant.” This is what is new! A newness that changes the lives of those who accept it, as in the case of the saints. This, for example, is what happened to Saint Paul.

Most of us are not saints and do not experience what Paul did. We get knocked off our horses and blinded, but we do not hear the risen Lord himself asking us why we persecute him or telling us which Christian house will be the place where we come to our senses. To be sure, it is a commonplace of preaching and spiritual writing to claim that committed disciples will and ought to undergo much "dying and rising" in the course of their journeys of faith. And that is true. But without faith, it will not serve either to hear that or undergo it; for "without faith one cannot be saved." And that faith would be vain if the Lord did not rise as the Apostles and the current pontiff say.

The Resurrection has everything to do with history, even with evolution, on which the "new atheists" stake their worldview. In his Easter-Vigil homily three years ago, the Pope preached:

Of what exactly does this "rising" consist? What does it mean for us, for the whole world and the whole of history? A German theologian once said ironically that the miracle of a corpse returning to life - if it really happened, which he did not actually believe - would be ultimately irrelevant precisely because it would not concern us. In fact, if it were simply that somebody was once brought back to life, and no more than that, in what way should this concern us? But the point is that Christ’s Resurrection is something more, something different. If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution, it is the greatest "mutation", absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development: a leap into a completely new order which does concern us, and concerns the whole of history.

The Resurrection is the "great mutation" pointing to what we are destined for and making it possible. We are animals destined to become gods; but God himself had to make the transition so that we can. It is up to each of us to choose whether to hitch that ride or not. We can choose to see ourselves merely as animals with a better computer in the cranium, or we can treat that status as the biological base for a great transformation that animals and computers cannot make.

If we choose the former, we will eventually destroy ourselves: we will effect, as CS Lewis said, the "abolition of man." For our power over Nature will increasingly become that of "some men over others with Nature as its instrument," and those wielding such power will acknowledge no higher norms than their own appetites. We will have "evolved" into a particularly savage animal hierarchy. If we choose the latter, we will be spared none of the difficulties of life. But we will be able to bear them as instruments for being taken up, obediently, into the life of infinite love himself.

Our hope, then, lies in receiving divinity as a gift rather than striving to be gods while denying God. Even the God-man received it as such, from all eternity and by being raised. He is thus "the source of eternal life for all who obey him" (Heb 5:9). To obey him, though, we need to believe he lives as a transformed man even now. Otherwise he is an abstraction, the kind of god who leaves us alone, the kind many seem to want. But of abstractions the world has more than enough.

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