In this special edition of Thinking with the Church: a reflection on the Octave of Easter.
When we left each other, friends, it was Good Friday: the body of Our Blessed Lord was still warm and sticky with blood and grime and filth, hanging lifeless on the Cross.
How long ago it seems: as the Pevensie children said once on a hunt in Lantern Waste, when they came upon the lamp post there, “Like something out of a dream, or the dream of a dream.”
This is, I think, the reason – or part of the reason – for which Our Blessed Lord kept His wounds: not for His sake, but for ours, to remind us of the price at which he purchased our salvation.
Perhaps this is part of the reason why my favorite moment of the Easter season is the first singing of the Regina Coeli at the end of the vigil: Regina coeli, laetare! Alleluia! Quia, quem meruisti portare resurrexit, sicut dixit! Alleluia! Ora pro nobis Deum! Alleluia!
The simplicity and directness of that ancient Eastertide prayer of Marian devotion has always stuck me: Christ’s faithful call out to the Mother of God, reminding her to rejoice – and why?
I think it must be that she was and she remains the Mother of Sorrows.
Christ’s faithful feel a special solicitude for the Mother of God, who, in His human nature, suffered and died for our sins.
Our Lady knew intimately that her Divine Son was to destroy death itself – He has defeated our ancient enemy utterly, you must know – though, even when He had, her grief was not erased, but transformed – turned into something – not different, no – but something more like itself – mysteriously so like itself as to be unrecognizable.
Turning: the Gospel readings of this week are filled with turnings of all kinds.
God turning defeat into victory: the angel turning away the stone; the Chief Priests and the Scribes and Pharisees, with the Roman authorities, turning the story into something else; Mary Magdalene turning and turning and turning again at the sight of the angel, and of Our Lord, at the tomb – we are given to see her almost whirling in place – and it must have been dizzying.
We are offered an image of conversion, which is another word for turning, or a word for a specific kind of turning: something I have described elsewhere as:
[A] matter of emigration from ourselves, as we are, and a coming into something that will be like a received mode of speech, a discovery of ourselves as participants in a conversation that we did not start and cannot finish, a conversation regarding precisely the question of who we are and where we find ourselves.
This is at once conversio and conversatio, where this last is an outpouring of self into community of sense. – The Soul of a Nation, 98
Mary Magdalene’s turning may be a turning-in-place, but this turning is also of another kind.
Listen to the Evangelist:
Mary Magdalene stayed outside the tomb weeping.
And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb
and saw two angels in white sitting there,
one at the head and one at the feet
where the Body of Jesus had been.
And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She said to them, “They have taken my Lord,
and I don’t know where they laid him.”
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there,
but did not know it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?
Whom are you looking for?”
She thought it was the gardener and said to him,
“Sir, if you carried him away,
tell me where you laid him,
and I will take him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,”
which means Teacher.
Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me,
for I have not yet ascended to the Father.
But go to my brothers and tell them,
‘I am going to my Father and your Father,
to my God and your God.'”
Mary went and announced to the disciples,
“I have seen the Lord,”
and then reported what he had told her. – Jn. 20:11-18
The verbs of movement in this passage are all telling: when it starts, Mary is staying – abiding, from ἵστημι – at the tomb; then, seeing something and being prompted by the speech of messengers, she first stoops (παρακύπτω – which is to bend down and examine closely – almost “to have a gander”) then turns (στρέφω) – and sees Our Lord, but does not recognize him yet; then, after an exchange with Him (whom she takes – to my endless delight, to be the gardener – and is she wrong?), she turns again (here the root is the same – στρέφω, but the verb form is different, participial – στραφεῖσα, meaning literally, “having turned again”), she recognizes Him at last; “Rabbouni,” she says to Him ; then, He tells her to go (πορεύου) and bring word to His disciples, and she goes (ἔρχεται – from ἔρχομαι, which literally means coming and going) and does what she was told to do.
It is especially that second turning, which happens while she is speaking to this strange fellow, that is most telling: I cannot but take it as the turning of con-version, even as I accept that the text tells us she turned bodily.
It really is a rather pedestrian thing: I think of how I did a double-take when I saw my friend, Patrizia, out walking her family dog the other day, right in our neighborhood, for the simple reason that I was thinking about other things, and did not expect to see her; I did not notice it was she, until she spoke a greeting – and then I was past her, and I did have to turn around (and now that I think of it, perhaps I ought to have apologized for not noticing her) to wave and return her salutation.
Community of sense: we should wonder at how it does make sense, after all: resurrexit, sicut dixit. “He rose, just like He said he would.”
Christianity transforms the order of society, bringing with it a new social reality and opening new possibilities for common life. Christianity does not, however, because on its own premises it cannot not break the power of the old ways of seeing things – or not seeing them – in history.
Christianity cannot force anyone to see that the world is good.
Christians can, however, show the goodness of the world, though only by living lives of sanctity, and we must live those lives in the world: in the midst of institutions designed for all men, noble but fallen creatures awaiting the Good News of their salvation, often unaware of what it is, for which they are waiting.
This is made the more difficult for us, since we do await the final fulfilment of redemption.
St. Paul describes us as people who see now through a glass darkly, capable of recognizing the goodness of the world only through premonitions.
St. Augustine, in book after book of the City of God, presents us to ourselves as pilgrims in a foreign city.
This state or condition is what we mean by the technical term, eschatological tension – a term that refers to a basic human experience: of the world as good, and at the same time not yet good enough — not yet as good as it should be.
“The world is a fine place, and well worth fighting for,” wrote Hemingway in For whom the bell tolls. “I very much hate to leave it,” concludes the famous line, spoken by Jordan, if memory serves.
It may be worth fighting for, but the point is that it is not a fine place: there is plenty of unfinished business about it.
The world, in the words of St. Paul, is groaning in travail: sharp pangs that come at closing intervals, interspersed with periods of dull pain, and anxiety, and boredom, and a desire to meet new life mixed with a desire just to be done with it already.
The joy of Easter will wane, and give way to humdrum, over and over again, for so long as we remain in history.
Meanwhile, we have a tremendous opportunity: as long as we are here, we have the chance to prove, contra Paganos, that Catholic religion is not only not inimical to the morals of a republic, but can – if practiced – in fact have a quite salutary effect thereupon.
I’ve said it before and here, I’ll say it again: the Catholic Church is the bearer, the caretaker, the champion of the greatest intellectual and spiritual tradition that ever there has been or shall be; that tradition has always inspired those in it to dedicate themselves to the task of making subtle and particular distinctions within the unity of truth, to seek and always be in awe of the infinite nuance necessary and possible within the oneness of knowledge, to live in the confidence that comes from knowing that the world is larger (the Church wiser, and God greater) than one’s own powers of apprehension; indeed, true religion has always inspired men and women to think all the good they can of those with whom they find themselves in disagreement; to mark and toe the line between the position and the one who holds it; to pronounce judgment only in the case of gravest necessity, and only for the best of all possible motives, i.e. the salvation of souls (the salus animarum, which in the present context also has the added incentive of serving the salus rei publicae).
Well, we may or may not save the republic: I’ll be sorrier than most to see it go, I think, though I am sure the best hope for it is to live so as to make it worth saving, and to leave the rest to providence.
The whole point is that the glory of the world is passing: only Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
Surrexit Christus! Surrexit vere! Alleluia!
“Resurrection” by Piero della Francesca, via Wikimedia Commons
Regina Coeli standard Gregorian plain chant.