The Resurrection: a transformation that is the opposite of “the circle of life”

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Easter Sunday, Year C: April 4, 2010
Acts 10:34, 37-43; Ps 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; Col 3:1-4; Luke 24:1-12

Happy Easter, everyone! And can we possibly think of a day that looks more like what Americans think Easter looks like, than this one? After so much snow this winter, right outside the door we see wonderful weather, bright sunshine, green grass, and flowers everywhere: everything that people associate with Easter. Everything except… here’s the bunny! Well, okay, so this bunny is a stuffed animal, since a real bunny would be a little too squirmy for me to be using in my homily right now.

For so many, the sight of a bunch of new baby bunnies squirming around, or of fuzzy yellow chicks, speaks of new life and hope. And isn’t that what Easter is all about? New life in the spring? Cuddly baby animals? Like that song from “The Lion King”: “The Circle, the Circle of Life”?

Well, actually, it’s not. The Christian proclamation of Easter is actually exactly the opposite of “the circle of life.” Now why would I say that? Well, because in that natural life cycle, bunnies and other creatures are born and grow; and that’s beautiful. But they also decline and die. They face dangers and disease and predators. And if that’s weren’t enough, they also face moral evil from human beings, like animal experimentation. And so that natural “circle of life” can be called just as easily the inescapable cycle of death.

When we love something or someone, our love cries out against this cycle of death. If we truly love a bunny, we want it to live and to thrive. And it is not enough to know that other bunnies will be born to take its place: we love this bunny. Or, perhaps more of us would have had the experience of having, as a lifelong pet, this cat or this dog. And certainly this human being—that mother or father, grandparents, son or daughter, or any other human person that we love. We love that person.

Forty years ago, a young German priest-theologian wrote:

…love demands infinity, indestructibility; indeed, it is, so to speak, a call for infinity. But it is also a fact that this cry of love’s cannot be satisfied, that it demands infinity but cannot grant it; that it claims eternity but in fact is included in the world of death, in its loneliness and its power of destruction.

That young priest writer was Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, who now is our Holy Father, Pope Benedict. And he observed that, facing this cycle of death, people have often hoped that they could live on in others: either through their children and grandchildren living on after they die; or through being remembered by many people. But both of these are only a shadow compared to real life. And love wants more.

But the problem in this cruel cycle of death is that, when love meets death, love always loses. And that is what everyone seemed to see in the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus. As we heard in the first reading, he had gone about in his life doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil. He had proclaimed the Good News to everyone, and he had reached out to all sinners, and nothing anyone did could make him compromise his love. And then, that first Holy Week, he was betrayed, denied, abandoned; arrested and falsely accused; scourged and mocked; forced to carry his own cross, then nailed to it and hung up until he died; and shut in a stone tomb. In the natural cycle of death, whenever love meets death, love loses.

And so, seeing that again and again, we hold ourselves back from the fullness of love. We want to protect ourselves and preserve our own life and so, when we are pushed to this precipice, we end our love. When push comes to shove, we will strike back; we will betray; we will lie or steal or manipulate, to preserve our own life.

Because what else can we do? Who can conquer death? The old pagan religions simply gave in to this cycle of death and tried to placate those natural forces; and the return of neo-pagan nature worship does the same thing all over again. The Eastern philosophies tried to escape from that natural cycle into the nothingness beyond it, and to somehow just forget that their love had ever desired something different. And how many today simply choose to distract ourselves with those electronic forms of entertainment? What else can we do in the face of the tomb?

No, unfortunately, the bunny will not do as a symbol for Easter. And the Church Fathers, in the early centuries of the Church, did not use a bunny as one of their symbols.

But they did use the egg. And why was that? Because the egg resembles the tomb. If we didn’t know otherwise, simply looking at it, we would think it looked like a stone: hard and lifeless and cold, impenetrable; nothing could ever come from inside it. But from an egg, something does emerge: something alive and surprising, like this yellow chick breaking through the shell and poking its little head out.

And so the egg is a fitting symbol of the Resurrection because, on the third day, our Lord Jesus rose from the dead and walked out of that cold stone tomb. As we heard in the Gospel reading, the women went to the tomb at daybreak on that first Easter Sunday morning, expecting, like always, to find his dead body there, and taking the spices they had prepared. But what they found was the tomb cracked open, the stone rolled away, and no dead body anywhere, but instead two angels in dazzling garments, who asked them: “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised.”

Christ is risen! And our Holy Father observed, in that book, that, as so many times before, love had met death; but this time, love won! A few minutes ago, we heard the cantor sing in Latin: “Death and life have contended in a wondrous duel: the Prince of life, who died, reigns alive! … Christ my hope has risen!”

This then is the Easter proclamation. That cycle of death that no technology could ever overcome, that pagan religion cannot placate, and that Eastern philosophy cannot escape, Christ has defeated! As St. Peter preached to his world in the Book of Acts [4:12], “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Where all others failed or just gave up, Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat: Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ commands! Christ is the way, and the truth, and the life. And no one comes to the Father except through him [John 14:6].

We heard in the Gospel reading that St. Mary Magdalene was among those women who discovered the empty tomb that morning and carried the news to the apostles. And the legend is told that, several years after this, she had come to Rome and she had the opportunity to speak to Tiberius Caesar. So she told him this same news, that Christ has risen from the dead; and she held an egg to illustrate her point. Now, Caesar didn’t find this believable at all, and he said, “It’s as likely that a man should rise from the dead as that that egg you’re holding should turn red.” Which it promptly did. And that is why we color Easter eggs; and it is why, in paintings and icons, St. Mary Magdalene is often depicted holding a red egg.

When Christ emerged from that tomb, he didn’t crawl out like a very sick person getting out of bed. He didn’t even simply return to his ordinary earthly life, like Lazarus had, when Christ had raised him from the dead. No, our Lord’s body had been transformed; it was glorified; it had become what St. Paul would call a “spiritual body” [1 Cor 15:44]—still a real body, and yet now belonging to what we might call a higher dimension. Now why would we call it that? Well, because we see in the Gospel accounts, when Christ appeared after his Resurrection, that he really could interact with our world, and yet that he also was master of it, and no longer bound by any laws of nature. He could make himself visible to our eyes; or he could remain unseen or unrecognized. He could walk with his disciples down a road; or he could simply move a vast distance in an instant. He could cook and eat fish; or he could walk right through walls and locked doors, and rise upwards contrary to gravity under his own power.

And so grasping this truth about Christ’s Resurrection led those early Church Fathers to another symbol. They thought of the caterpillar (this one being rather larger than life); and how this caterpillar would go into a cocoon and stay inside for a long time. And if we didn’t know better, we might think the caterpillar would never emerge from that cocoon; that that was the end of the caterpillar. But one day what was the caterpillar does come back out, and it has been transformed—into a butterfly. A creature beautiful and luminous and able to fly; so different from how the caterpillar had been when it went into the cocoon. And so the butterfly has been a good symbol of the Resurrection for 2000 years.

But the Resurrection doesn’t stop with Christ: it starts with him! St. Paul said that Jesus was the “firstfruits” of the Resurrection [1 Cor 15:20, 23]. And Christ wants to raise each one of us up; he wants to change each one of us, we might say, from a caterpillar into a butterfly. And how does that work? It comes in two phases. The first is baptism: when the water that flowed from his Sacred Heart upon the cross is applied through our body to our soul; and we are given a share in Christ’s own divine life. Through baptism, the grace of the Resurrection is applied to our soul.

And so then we’re like a caterpillar that has been transformed inside but not yet outside. And so we begin the second phase, which lasts through our earthly life. Christ has conquered; and he wants us to conquer sin and disordered things within our own lives. Christ lived a love that never compromised and never failed; and he wants us to grow to love this way too. Christ has gone through suffering and death; and he wants us to follow with him, through him, in him in that same passage that leads to the resurrection of our bodies; in the New Heavens and New Earth, when there will be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain [Rev 21:4].

So how are we doing? So many of us were baptized many years ago. Are we living more and more like the butterflies that Christ wants us to become? Or have we gotten sidetracked, and forgotten that there is anything more than the pleasures and challenges of the life of a caterpillar? Have we forgotten that the only way we will become that butterfly is to depend upon our Lord Jesus, the leader and perfecter of our faith, in regular prayer and meditation, and participation in the Mass each Sunday and regular sacramental confession, and all the other helps that he offers on our road to becoming saints?

St. Paul urges us, as he urged the Christians of Colossae in the first century: If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.

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Published in: on April 4, 2010 at 3:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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