Fr Billy Swan
A few years ago, I travelled as a pilgrim to the holy land to explore the places intimately associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. First stop was Jerusalem where we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There at the rock of Calvary, we lingered in awe and prayerful wonder at the place where Jesus was crucified. We then moved the short distance, within the same Church, to the place of Jesus’ burial. What I hadn’t realized before this visit was the close proximity of the place of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As I thought about it, I began to realize how the short distance between these two places is deeply symbolic of a deeper spiritual reality - namely that our share in Jesus’ cross and resurrection are not separated by big gaps or time lags but are mostly entwined in the daily experience of Christian living. Death and resurrection are really never far apart.
Think for example of someone is apparently happy in life with much going for them and much to look forward to. Then something happens out of the blue that plunges their world into darkness. These include people who have lost jobs, or loved ones through sudden death or received a diagnosis of serious illness. One minute life was great. The next minute it became a nightmare. The journey from light to darkness, from the empty tomb back to Calvary is but a few steps.
Or, the change can be in the opposite direction. Think of people who have suffered greatly in their lives but who have been changed by their experience to become witnesses to hope. These include people who have endured the cross but have not been destroyed by suffering and death. Instead, through their faith and hope they have been transformed into instruments of love and change for good. Examples from history include St Patrick sold as a slave to the Irish but who returned to them with the Gospel of mercy; St Maximillian Kolbe who volunteered to die in place of a married man in the hell of Auschwitz; St Therese of Lisieux who emerged from her experience of darkness and nothingness during illness with heroic faith and hope. All of these lives at some point moved the short distance from the cross to the tomb of Christ where they arose with him to new lives whose light shines brightly still.
For most of us though, the experience of both cross and resurrection is a daily reality. The cross and resurrection are mysteries not separated but intertwined. No matter how good things are for us, our lives are never completely free of the cross. No matter how hard life is, resurrection is still in progress. Here I share an example of this from my own life.
A few years ago, my Dad died. To anyone who has lost a parent, no words are necessary. For those who have not, no words are possible. Life changes forever. As I worked through my grief I was blessed with the support of family, friends and the gift of faith. Despite that support, the experience of the cross was very real and raw – the sadness, the finality of death, the emptiness, the loneliness. Yet, I knew through faith that something new was in progress. Life had changed and I sensed that I had changed too. Now that my earthly father had passed to eternal life with the Lord, I felt called to a new depth of trust in my heavenly Father with a new sense of responsibility towards my mother and family. I had to ‘man up’ fast as new responsibilities came my way. Though wounded, I knew that there was in progress what St John of the Cross called ‘a resurrection of the spirit’ (Dark Night, II, 6, 1) as the deep caverns of my soul were being transformed into ‘pools of light’ (Living Flame). Through the cross of bereavement, new life was born.
Other examples of this cross/resurrection experience might include the loss of certain abilities as we get older but a simultaneous gratitude for what we still can do; we might suffer the ending of a relationship only to discover that God has something or someone else for us in mind; we might suffer the loss of independence only to realise the joy of being interdependent and to know that needing others is not a burden but a blessing; as we suffer the loss of health we realise we are being prepared to make the final surrender of everything on our way to eternal life with God.
All of these human experiences are grounded in the mystery of Jesus’ cross and resurrection into which we were immersed on the day we were baptised. In the Lord’s life, although the cross and resurrection took place in time, they were two mysteries that penetrated his life and person at all times. That is why for St John in his Gospel, the moment of the cross is also the moment of resurrection, the hour of God’s glory, of being lifted up – the sublime moment of God’s love for the world revealed (cf. John 12:32). It is also the moment of Pentecost with the handing over of his Spirit and the birth of the Church with his blood and water (John 19:30, 34). For John, Christ’s glory was already shining through his cross. This was how St Paul also understood Jesus’ death and resurrection and our share in it. Through baptism, we were immersed in both his death and resurrection. Because we participate in both mysteries we are ‘alive for God in Christ Jesus’ and are now living a new life in him (cf. Rom. 6:1ff).
Our hope in the resurrection changes everything. If you feel trapped within a tomb of worry, undergo great trials and torments of mind or body, perhaps try not be waiting for a great day of relief to arrive in the future but be attentive to how God might be changing you now into a person of greater love. Though suffering remains, because of our baptism, Christ has already placed the seeds of the resurrection in the heart of our darkness. United to Christ we hope and trust that trials will not destroy us but new life will soon be ours again with him. Sharing in his resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.
I conclude with the words of C.S. Lewis who once wrote: ‘Perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions is that in Christianity God is not a static thing – not even a person, but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama’ (Mere Christianity). At the heart of this drama is Jesus’ suffering and resurrection in which we share. Neither are ever far away from us but interpenetrate in my life and yours. Like the empty tomb near the rock of Calvary, hope is just a short step away from every trial through which we triumph by the power of him who loves us (cf. Rom. 8:37).