"I believe in the resurrection of the body." We proclaim these words every morning and every evening praying with the Church all over the world, who has professed this faith from her beginnings. Remembering that God is Spirit as we see in the Gospel of St. John and the Pauline Correspondence, this is an astonishing belief .... especially as we consider Ezekiel's Valley of Dry Bones. Nonetheless, an encounter with the Risen Jesus, Who embraces us and eats with us and walks with us and Whose feet are heard treading over gravel on the road when He walks with us transforms astonishment to practical expectation.
We will be resurrected in our bodies! What will this body be? Will it be the ninety-year-old who died or that same person at age thirty? Will the paraplegic walk? Will the lisp of speech or the cast in one eye be amended? Will the blind man see, the deaf hear? I recall the words of a holy mentor from seminary, a religious sister: "We will be resurrected in all of our beauty .... whatever that might mean." Here on Passion Sunday, we recall that the human body of Jesus was resurrected still bearing the wounds of His crucifixion. He is thirty-three-years-old, and His hands and feet and side are pierced .... by us. He invites us to peer into these wounds, as he invited Thomas, for through His wounds we learn a great deal about Heaven and its mysterious cousin, earth.
During this past week in our Eucharistic readings, Jesus describes Himself again and again and today as One Who is sent and His Father as, "the One Who sent me." In no other Gospel do we have such a keen sense of Jesus the visitor. Yes, He is here with us, but He is from another Land. What is His Homeland like? It must resemble our world in some way, for Jesus is not so different from us. His Homeland is a Kingdom, ruled by a King, not so different from first-century Palestine or the Roman Empire. Most important, He is not there; He is here with us. That is the greatest clue we possess concerning this Visitor Who was sent.
Yes, I know that Jesus is the instrument of Creation and knows our world very well, but let us imagine for a moment a scene in which His Father prepares Him for His journey to our world. "In many brief moments," the Father tells Him, "the world where you are going will seem like our own. You will behold its beauty, its perfection, its harmony, and its love. In these fleeting moments you will be tempted to believe that you are not there, but rather here in Heaven. And yet, that world is completely different. For within each perfect flower and behind each radiant human face lies a horrible, irrevocable disease. It is called Death, unknown in our world. It is a cruel disease, for each beauty that you behold all too soon collapses in on itself, and the fullness, the colors, the spritely animation that has filled you with wonder .... are the very details that will shrink and dull and wither and then resolve into a grey, dry dust. The promise of our infinite world is in each thing but then it follows a twisting path toward hideous finitude."
No wonder Jesus was begotten with two wills, two awarenesses! He is fully aware of the Valley of the Shadow of Death as no other has ever been aware. Yet, He was sent from deathless realms of eternal spring. At all times, Jesus lives in two worlds and is filled to overflowing with the sensibilities of each. For us to imagine this — two wills dwelling within one person — might be a mind-bending task, utterly beyond our grasp. But it is not. This fact about Jesus turns out to be one more thing that makes Him familiar to us. We too understand what it is to stand in both worlds — perfect and deathless, yet fading and hideous. Has not each of us stood in moonlight gazing into the face of our one true love, certain that this perfection can never die? Has not each of us bent down to marvel at a wildflower impossibly intricate and endowed with colors and fragrance utterly beyond our skill? Has not each of us beheld an evening sky built up with topless canyons of white clouds flooded with orange and red and yellow shafts of light? We are sure that each of these somehow is a show of perfection that might be hidden for a time, but kept forever and soon to return.
Like Jesus we live in two worlds, for each of us, to paraphrase William Butler Yeats, is an immortal soul lashed to a dying animal. Yes, the animal will die, but the soul, which has no age, is eternal and testifies loudly and clearly to the excellences and perfections that recur all around us, which death and disease cannot touch. We live for these moments, for they define us. They are our hope.
That we should define ourselves in terms of deathless perfection is not hard to understand. Much more difficult to grasp is God's desire and will to define Himself in terms of us, so imperfect. And the resurrected Body of Jesus is pierced .... by us. Moreover, Jesus is a Person of the Holy Trinity, which by virtue of the Son is likewise marked forever by these grievous wounds. This, to be sure, is a deep, deep mystery.
If the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are inseparable, then the wounds of Jesus invite us into a meditation that many may reject. For we think of Heaven as the place where we finally and definitively leave behind our earthen brokenness, that we are done with the weight of this world. Even here on earth, people do not want to hear reflections about our brokenness and suffering; they want only rejoicing and happiness. But that is not the nature of Heaven nor of resurrected life. How many people have reported that they have been visited by their loved ones from the greater life, not in a joyous family reunion, but on the occasion of suffering and crisis. The greater life is a place of watching, of compassion, and of prayer. Do we not constantly ask the saints to intercede for us in prayer? And the undoubted appearances of the Mother of God, seen by as many as 100,000 people in Fatima, always include her cares for us.
Escapism is not one of the Heavenly virtues, and those who have attained to that blessed country are not escapists. Far from it! In our desire to be "taken away from all of this," we underestimate the importance of our life to God. Or, to say it from the other direction, we fail to appreciate the godlike character with which each of us is endowed, though our divine image may be badly faded in many cases. God's image is human; humans bear God's image. mysteriously the Holy Trinity's nature is human insofar as the Son is fully human. And more mysteriously, God will not, cannot within the scope of His own integrity and self-definition, leave us behind. Indeed, much of the Old Testament is an ongoing agon as God suffers because of us yet cannot forget us, can never finally be done with us.
We are puzzled when Jesus, upon hearing of Lazarus' death, wept. He wept. But isn't He the Lord of life? What is death to Him? You see, we survey this scene from the perspective of our own selfish desires. We want Him to resurrect us, too. Death, where is thy sting? Those present in Bethany said, "See how He loves him!" But it is not for Lazarus that Jesus weeps; soon He will raise his friend from death. No, it is for us, our entire lifeworld and its long, sorry history, for which Jesus weeps. Death is a symbol, the fatal particle that separates us and all from Heaven, for which Jesus weeps. Jesus weeps for us. He invites us to weep with Him and become compassionate and therefore suffering people like Him. In the Son of God we see that Heaven is about sacrifice; it is about leaving Heaven for the sake of those we love. But this Heaven is so different from the one that so many imagine and want.
May I leave you with a brief story? Arriving to a university where I was to spend the next seven years, I sought out a reverent and consecrated space where I might come each day for silent prayer. Eventually, I discovered a simple chapel with a long nave and thirty-foot ceiling that afforded a deep quiet. It was nearly always empty. Perfect. But there were two peculiarities that I did not understand. First, the Stations of the Cross had been removed with only patched holes remaining on the walls. Second, and more puzzling still, where the great crossing Rood must have hung, a large golden donut was now suspended over the chancel step. I prayed here each day, and as my surroundings became more and more familiar, and I became more comfortable, I began exploring this place following my time of prayer. I noticed two rooms, one on either side of the chancel. They had no doors but were pitch black dark. One day I walked into the one on the Gospel side of the Altar, inching slowly into the darkness. Slowly my eyes adjusted to this dark, and then I conceived the unmistakable conviction that I was not alone and that, in fact, someone was staring at me. I looked up over my right shoulder, and immediately I was face to face with the Lord Jesus Christ, His suffering eyes looking directly into mine .... as He hung on the great crossing Rood that had been placed upon the wall of this large storeroom. It took my breath away. And, then, unaccountably, I began to weep, not for this holy work of art, but for the Lord Jesus, Who had been rejected and shunted off, out of sight like an unwanted parent or an institutionalized child who simply did not figure in to this family's plans going forward. I stood there for a time and prayed. Finally, I left. Standing near the narthex door at the foot of the nave was a priest. I began the long walk over to him to introduce myself. Finally, I said, "Father, tell me about the donut." Exasperated, he said, "It's not a donut. It's a symbol of unity." "But, Father," I replied .... And he cut me off. "Can't we all just have a nice day?!" he said as he walked away.
Years later I would serve other Catholic churches that did not have crucifixes, even one where the Good Friday liturgy was replaced by upbeat music, bright lights, and featuring a homily that was a manifesto! "Jesus is risen! We're about the risen Christ, not the dead Christ!" the priest proclaimed from the pulpit! Here, within a diocese of the Roman Catholic Church was a new religion, one in which only happiness is permitted. Can you imagine a Good Friday which no longer opens its heart to suffering? Can you imagine a world in which the Stations of the Cross have been removed and the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ expunged from memory? Such a world as this is paper thin and will never understand the great and plumbless depths that belong to the word, Love.
May I conclude with the most difficult question of this hard reflection? Once you have rejected the way of the Cross, once you have decided to go your own way with your own version of the holy and its attendant symbols and icons, where do you go in the boundless realms of eternal life? We do have a precedent for this. A large group of dissatisfied congregants, we might say, decided to go their own way. They were discontented with Heaven and dissatisfied with God's vision of life and eternal life. They were the elite, glittering "beautiful people" to borrow a phrase. They decided to establish their own Heaven and their own values on earth. Many joined them — perhaps a third of those who had previously devoted themselves to God (Rev 12:4). And many, many more today, even billions, seek out their values and their particular path to eternal life whether they know it not. Selfish pride and narcissism are their hallmarks. And their new Heaven and its many dimensions on earth have a name. It is called Hell.
Many people reject Christianity pointing to the suffering they see all around them on earth. "What kind of God permits this to happen?!" they cry out in their indignation. And I congratulate them for their compassion, for many do not even notice that the world suffers. But we must remember God's wonderful gift of sovereign freedom. For that reason, God does not enter our lifeworld to take over what he has given us to govern. To a very great extent, we control all that happens on earth. And the power we might exercise is awesome. We have the capacity to feed everyone on this earth, but we lack the will. We have the vitamins and medicines that might treat and turn back most diseases, but we will not distribute them. Earthquakes do not kill and maim. Poorly constructed buildings do. And death has no dominion where the Lord Jesus Christ is King. If the world suffers, and it mostly does, we must blame this not on God, but on the collapse of human love that has caused it. The religion of happiness, which stretches far beyond the many instances of the Catholic Church, ignores suffering. For happy people have no heart for it.
When I was in Haiti, I had the privilege of learning a lesson of Heaven meeting dozens of people
who chose to given their entire lives to suffering so that hundreds of thousands could be relieved of suffering.
And as I watched them and admired them and prayed with them and loved them,
I understood something that I had never fully grasped before that moment:
the world suffers, and our God chooses to hang on a Cross .... for us.
Heaven is the ultimate opportunity for happiness,
yet its billions of citizens and holy angels and God have a heart for us
for our sorry lifeworld,
for whom they weep.
In these next two weeks, our Lord will teach us again the unerring way to Heaven,
the way of the Cross.
Though our love for Him has failed, and our love for each other has collapsed,
His love does not fail.
Let us follow Him.
Let us emulate Him.
Let us love Him.
For He alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
In the Name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.