[We’re posting this at a liturgically inopportune time. It’s a matter of scheduling. Read it after the Easter Vigil, if you will.]
Every year around Holy Week, the refuse that forms America’s popular reading material comes out with a volley of blasphemies against our Lord’s holy Resurrection. Citing one or another perfidious “noted scholar,” the glossy-covered journals that accost us at the checkout counter vie with one another to see who can pervert the populace with greater contempt for the divine. These reheated leftovers from last year’s editions would be laughable in their dogmatic adherence to pseudoscientific “scholarship,” but we dare not laugh at the offense against our Savior.
On an appointed day, the Resurrected One will end His patient silence, and the poor wretches who produce this foulness will, like Caiphas, “see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of the power of God, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk 14:62). And much to their chagrin, I should add!
And what of us? Do we treasure the Resurrection at least as much as the children of the world despise it? If we do not feast our faith on this mystery and take our delight in it — real delight, not just a general relief that Lent’s finally over — then this Pasch will see us yet again unequipped to battle these worldly antichrists; much less will we be able to fight the real enemy: “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places” (Eph. 6:12).
Before giving some brief considerations on “what happened in the tomb,” I would like to point out the one reason why people do not take delight in the Resurrection. I am speaking of Catholics, not unbelievers. The one reason is that they haven’t converted. Even if they have the Faith in its entirety, it has not penetrated into them so that they “relish what is truly wise and ever rejoice” in the consolations of the Holy Ghost. Their conversion is not complete. This is one purpose of Lent: to help us achieve a purity of conscience, of heart, of mind, and of intention that will separate us not only from mortal sin, but from venial sin, too, especially deliberate, habitual, venial sin. These are the sins we commit knowingly and dismiss as “only a venial sin,” as if the doctrine of purgatory, or God’s justice and majesty, were only vague concepts. This Lenten conversion — or a deep conversion whenever it comes to us — should make us want to live a life of authentic virtue, prayer, and detachment from the things of this wicked world. The oft-repeated words of Father Feeney serve to remind us of these truths: “You were not made for this world.”
Those for whom this sounds too radical should consider that the Christian life is a combat, and hell is where the losers go. They should further consider those manifold exhortations to be found throughout the Apostolic epistles. If that doesn’t arouse contrition in the heart of the minimalist Christian, then perhaps these words of a retreat master should: “If you think keeping out of mortal sin is the gauge of sanctity, then you must think not killing your wife is the gauge of your love for her.”
Charity not only elicits certain proper acts of its own (loving God and neighbor), but, according to traditional theology, it commands the acts of the other virtues. Your love of God is pale and weak if you do not live a life of authentic Christian prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Those who desire to make progress in the virtues need to resolve to make habitual venial sin a thing of the past.
St. Paul said “For in that he died to sin, he died once; but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God” (Rom. 6:10). He speaks here of Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body. What of us, His members? “So do you also reckon, that you are dead to sin, but alive unto God, in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v.11). Being “alive to God” is to live on a supernatural plane whereby union with the Blessed Trinity is not only a state we try not to lose by mortal sin, but something which animates all our activity, and which we cultivate by doing everything we do “in Christ,” realizing that, whatever of our activity cannot be done “in Christ” should not be done.
That our Lord “liveth unto God” brings us to our subject of “what happened in the tomb.” For many people, the Resurrection is not the easiest mystery to picture since the Gospels don’t give a description of it. We get something of a before-and-after shot of the tomb and its sacred Deposit, but no narration of the event itself. Instead of letting that bother us (especially when trying to meditate on it in the Rosary or in mental prayer), we should supplement the Gospel’s silence on this point with the dogmatic facts that the Church’s magisterium presents to us.
Foundational among these truths is that Christ is true God and true Man. As God, He is coequal, consubstantial, and coeternal with the Father. As man, He is like us in all things except sin. This means that He has a created human body and soul, the latter having an intellect and will. By this “hypostatic union” (the union of two natures in one person), Christ’s divinity was united to His humanity so perfectly that even the separation of the body and soul did not separate the divinity from the humanity. The divinity was ever united to each. So, during the Triduum Mortis (the three days of death), the body of Christ in the tomb — dead as it was — was adorable, because it was still the body of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. This is why St. Peter could cite Psalm 15 as a prophesy of our Lord in the tomb: “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, nor suffer thy Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2:27). The Precious Blood, spilled on the ground from Pilate’s praetorium and along the Via Dolorosa all the way to Mount Calvary, could be adored by virtue of this same union. Finally, the soul of Christ, which descended into hell, brought with it the divinity. In Dante’s Inferno, there are poetic images of this “harrowing of hell,” as it is called. As Virgil and Dante travel throughout hell, they see the rubble that remains as evidence of the great “shake up” that the infernal regions got when God Himself, united to a human soul, came into the nether world and “preached to those spirits that were in prison” (I Pet.3:19). Dante’s poetic imagination considered it unlikely that hell would be left the same after this surprise visit from the Son of God.
What happened, then, in the Holy Sepulcher? The divinity, ever united to the body, blood, and soul, simply brought them all back together again. It was a divine act, a divine energy exerted by the same One who truly experienced death. And we may speculate that this supernatural destruction of death was done with an intensity in inverse proportion to the violence of the passion. The liturgical Sequence, Victimae Paschale Laudes, sung throughout the Easter Octave, expresses this intensity: Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando: dux vitae mortuus, regnat vivus. “Death and life to the combat: O wondrous conflict! The prince of life, having died, reigns living.” There are those who opine that the result of this wondrous combat was the impress of our Lord on the Holy Shroud by way of some flash akin to that of an atomic blast. Whatever energy left that image, to say that it was “impressive” would be an understatement.
Although the strictly meritorious cause of our salvation was the passion of our Lord, it is no error to say that the Resurrection saves us. We must recall that everything the God-man did was for us men and our salvation. In that light, His least action is salvific.
If we feast on the same Flesh that rose again, do we not become heirs to Jesus’ own promise: “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day” (Jn 6:55)? When we eat that Flesh, which Mary gave to God, we become one with Him who uttered, “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25). Thus our resurrection is simply the terminus of Christ’s “Mystical Incarnation” in our soul, and the glorious mysteries will be accomplished in us, just as the joyful ones inaugurated us into the Christian life. Truly, the Eucharist is, as St. Thomas called it, “the pledge of future glory.”