My spondylosis was flaring up again, and needed attention. The Kinsley Surgery waiting-room was hot and crowded. A child with some kind of painful rash was becoming alarmingly upset. We were all looking at her and at the flustered mother, already holding a baby in her lap. She pleaded with, explained to, and scolded the suffering, obstreperous little girl to no avail. We were all becoming uncomfortable and uneasy. Clearly embarrassed the mother handed her baby to the concerned woman next to her and reached for her inconsolable child. She lifted her high, and held her firmly against her breast. We all waited. After a few seconds a sweet silence descended on the room.
Easter, I think, is a bit like that. It reminds us that God reaches us in human touch. It is in our physical, earthy humanity that we heal and save each other. We have learned this from a human God. John placed his ear on the heart of Jesus at the Last Supper. Mary Magdalene touched his feet, Thomas his wounds. Tertullian, a very early Church Father, in an untranslatable play on words, put it all very succinctly when he said, caro cardo salutis – it is in the flesh that salvation hinges.
And the mystery has a relevance beyond human beings alone. Since God became human in Jesus, a becoming that exploded forth at Easter, we are called to believe that not only the human condition but the earth itself from which it springs, are the real presence of God’s own essence. At his poetic best, John Paul 11 repeatedly and delightedly kept reminding us of this ‘cosmic’ picture.
From the beginning we have been too slow to believe the astonishing reality of Incarnation. The power, presence and promise of God are now available and accessible in the form and expression of our humanity, within its dreams, relationships, emotions and all its experiences. They are also inextricably intertwined with the fabric and core of the world itself. We forever struggle with the challenging truth that in the fleshing of the Word, and in the raising of that same Word, God discarded divine immunity, emptied the Godhead of all its glory. For all time, God wished to be known as the Human One with the five senses, the Son of Man, who is now delighted to be confined, unprotected, within the constraints of the finite realities of a beloved world.
Like the Incarnation itself, Easter too is about bodies, personal and cosmic. The true orthodoxy of Catholic Christianity has never deviated from this teaching. What is to be avoided is a view that sees Jesus taking a solo flight back to the shores of heaven on that Paschal morning. There is no sacramentality in such a mis-understanding. Neither is it only a question of a personal salvation for our individual souls after death. The truth of Resurrection, what is revealed at Easter, is that in our present, frail and redeemed bodies we carry the saving power of God. The risen Christ is the eternal sacrament of a risen humanity and a risen world.
When we pay attention we notice this incarnate, compassionate presence all around us. Even as I write these very words a neighbour, on the way back from the surgery, called in for a chat. She happened to mention that our local doctor, a Hindu, had, with his wife, decided to sell their belongings here so as to work in a small African village later this year. They plan to stay there for the rest of their lives. Having worked in the village last summer, they had, they said, no choice. God has no favourites!
We have just journeyed through Holy Week. Emphasised throughout its days is the persistent reality of the full humanity of God. The movement from death to life, from darkness to light, identifiable in every phase of the liturgy, is remembered in flesh, tears, blood – all the emotions of a very human being. And by virtue of our solidarity with the Saviour, everyone and everything is redeemed and completed, and, from the inside out, the world itself is renewed and restored.
In our celebrating of the Paschal Mystery maybe we skip too quickly from Good Friday to the Easter Vigil. It is Holy Saturday, silent and empty, that holds the vital key which includes us, human beings, at the heart of Easter. It is the timeless moment when we, at our lowest, are sought and found by Jesus. Having descended to the very womb of the earth, he gave the earth his divine life forever. This is the new creation of a transfigured earth into which, not out of which, Christ died and was raised. At its inner core, the world is now transformed. It is a world in which everything belongs. In a short while we will be celebrating the intrinsic unity of the cosmic, the human and the divine – a unity which began in God’s imagination before the world began. We will struggle with this truth.
The dualistic virus that has infected the ecclesiastical system over the centuries has great difficulty in believing the truth of this blessed vision, of seeing the presence of the risen Christ in the most ordinary, unpredictable and ‘secular’ places. It has great trouble, in fact, from the very start, in believing what the Incarnation reveals about the divine value of all creation and all lived lives. There is a chilling edge to ecclesiastical references to ‘our Godless’ lives, society or world – the very places that God, named or not, is utterly delighted to inhabit. Christ is risen because in death he redeemed for ever the deepest parts of all human hearts, the innermost center of all earthly existence, where he is pleased to live. Karl Rahner writes,
‘What we call his resurrection – and unthinkingly take to be his own private destiny – is only the first surface indication that all reality has already changed in the really decisive depth of things. The new creation has already started, the new power of a transfigured earth is already being formed from the world’s innermost heart, into which Christ has descended by dying . . . He is here. He is the heart of this earthly world and the mysterious seal of it eternal validity.’
Jesus did not begin to save the world by transfiguring first the visible symptoms. Because the waters of grief and guilt still flow on the surface where we stand, and because the evil of injustice, war and greed still carves new marks in the face of the earth, we fear that Easter really is about the next life. We wonder whether the world is absolutely saved. But, as with sick and shallow institutions and churches, the resistant surface is usually the last to collapse. Easter faith is about believing in the light while it is still dark. The Triduum is never over. And a vital contribution still belongs to us.
Much dying to self is demanded so as to complete in our time what Jesus achieved once-for-all at that first Passover. What remains now is that Risen Love should burst forth from the grave of our own hearts. Divine energy must rise from the core of our being, where it lives as power and promise. We are not saved from the world, we are saved for the world; made whole again so as to be reconcilers and peacemakers for humanity and for the earth itself. It has already happened once-for-all in history; only we can make sure it is happening today.