Many Christians, myself included, become upset at the widespread reluctance to say “Merry Christmas.” However, our outrage over a lack of appreciation of Christ’s birth should be trumped by a sadness over a common indifference about Easter. Try saying “Happy Easter” at check out and you are likely to encounter perplexed and confused looks. Personally, I would prefer a jolly “Happy Holidays” to such impassiveness. Yet while Easter remains an afterthought in our culture, it is the Easter message rather than the incarnation, which is at the heart of our faith. Easter is the event that transcends the realities of our earthly existence. It is the breaking out from human constraints and the natural rhythm of life and the possibility of a new and life-changing encounter. It is the moment that humanity comes face to face with God.
Easter – which we continue to celebrate during this octave--is the high point of our liturgical year. Christ’s Resurrection is God’s perfect and final revelation to us. It is the source of great joy to all Christians. But is it a joy that truly and deeply permeates our lives? Is it a joy that stays with us throughout the year? Is it a joy we wake up to in the morning and contemplate as we go to sleep?
Sports fans proudly wear t-shirts and baseball caps to signal their allegiance to their favorite team or athlete. They can recount many a game and victory with the thrill of true and childlike excitement. When we speak of the essence of our faith, the Lord’s Resurrection, the greatest event ever, do we show similar excitement? The answer is, unfortunately, no. But should we? And in what way?
Granted, the joy we feel during the Easter Vigil and Mass is of a different order. We experience a sense of wonder and awe as we contemplate that Christ has risen. The Hallelujah elevates our spirits and our sights are drawn upwards towards heavenly glory as we celebrate Christ’s triumph over death. However, we tend to think of the Resurrection as an end point, a joyous ending to the despair of the cross. Instead, we should think of it as the beginning, as what defines us foremost as Christians. Only then will we be able to experience a joy that is with us every day, a joy that illuminates our very existence like a bright ray of light piercing through a grey sky, and, finally, a joy we can truly share with others.
Yet in our everyday and in contemplating our faith, we tend to focus more strongly on the sadness and pain of the Crucifixion than on the triumph of the Resurrection. Christ died on the cross for the forgiveness of sin and as proof of his love for us. However, as Christians we know that his death would be meaningless without the Resurrection. Blessed John Duns Scotus explained the Incarnation as the culmination of creation and as intended from the beginning of time. Accordingly, it had been God’s original idea to ultimately unite with himself the whole of creation, “in the Person and Flesh of the Son” whose saving Passion is the expression of God’s loving will. (Pope Benedict XVI, Holy Men and Women of the Middle Ages, pp. 88f.) The great triumph of Christ’s Resurrection is thus what God had in mind for us from the start and it marks the beginning of the glorious love affair that calls us to eternal closeness with the Father.
The Resurrection is the great turning point for humanity. It is also the most difficult to grasp of all gospel events as, indeed, the promise of the Resurrection was initially unintelligible even to the disciples. Jesus had “entered upon a different life, a new life.” It was a resurrection into “definitive otherness” – a oneness with God. Because Christ and God are now one, he is with us always. The Resurrection must thus be understood as a “universal event, as the opening up of a new dimension of human existence.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 244)
Yet, to make the Easter experience part of our everyday remains a challenge for many – we are still focused on the cross. When his followers encounter Jesus at Emmaus and the Lake of Gennesaret and when he appears to Mary Magdalene, none of them recognize him at firs. “Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.” (John 21:4) It is only through an internal recognition, as sense of his presence, rather than physical recognition, that they see him: “None of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.” (John 21:12) At Emmaus, he is only recognized as he breaks the bread and vanishes before the disciples’ eyes: “And they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.” (Lk 24:31) The risen Lord’s new existence, still embodied, is of a mysterious nature, no longer bound by space and time or physical laws. Similarly, St. Paul encounters the risen Christ as a light that shone “brighter than the sun.” (Acts 26:13) How about our own encounter with the Risen One? Do we recognize Him by our side? Are we aware of Him? Are we willing to see Him? To follow Him? This is our Easter challenge – our daily challenge.
Christ now lives in fellowship with God. He and God are one. And this is the beginning or our own story as Christians. The gospels describe concrete encounters between the risen Lord and his immediate followers and thus present a mirror of our own personal experiences with Christ. The Resurrection opened up within God a space for humanity. It comprises both our own hope of resurrection and signifies our daily possibility of closeness with God through our relationship with Christ.
Christ’s final Ascension into heaven contains the promise that his presence is truly universal. Only by departing from his disciples could he return to all of us in a new form of closeness. Only that can explain the disciples’ joy after Christ leaves them: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” (Luke 24:50-53) Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes the universal meaning of the Resurrection: “Through his power over space, he is present and accessible to all – throughout history and in every place.” (Holy Week, p. 284) Christ promised his disciples on Ascension “I will go away and I will come to you.” (John 14:28) That, according to Pope Benedict, is “the essence of Christian trust, the reason for our joy.” (Holy Week, p. 285)
But even when we claim to recognize the event of the Resurrection, do we sincerely rejoice? Or do we give in to “trembling and astonishment” as the women by the empty tomb? Do we fear to ponder its personal meaning to us as a life-changing event? Do we turn away from the “blinding light” in fear of the challenges it might bring to our lives? Or do we live as true Christians with the joy of the Resurrection and an openness to what it pertains? The empty tomb, once discovered, should change our personal fate forever. In addition, knowledge of the Resurrection is clearly not a private matter. We are called to be witnesses and live the truth, to live its joy.
But who feels joyful every day and all the time? Who has not doubted their faith when experiencing sadness or disillusionment with the world? However, the Christian joy does not mean waking up each morning and skipping through the day in constant happy exhilaration. As mere creatures of creation, we naturally experience a whole range of emotions. Despair, loneliness, hopelessness, sadness, and all sorts of pain are part of human existence. And even the most avid sports fan must agree: Yet when real tragedy strikes, any avid sports fan will agree, the Red Sox and Yankees become meaningless and worldly joys, happiness or thrills, fade. The Christian joy’s finest hour is when we are immersed in pain. It is the warm ray of sun that will penetrate the coldest darkness. It reaches down to us from that eternal space where man and God meet – where Christ has gone before us.
But it is not only during cataclysmic events in our lives that the Resurrection brings joy and certainty. Once we discover the joy of our faith, it grows and fills our complicated lives with its light and warmth. When we speak of joy rather than happiness, it is a quality that permeates our entire life. We speak of a joyful event when its meaning reaches beyond a particular moment. It is not the victory of a sports team, but, rather, the birth of a child. It is an event, which changes us forever and imparts meaning to our existence. That is the type of joy of which we speak when we contemplate the Resurrection and recognize Christ’s loving companionship through the ups and downs of life. The suffering that is naturally part of our human existence will not and cannot be eradicated. But once we make room for true joy, these dark shadows of our human condition will only add dimension to the light that has broken through.
The poet and convert, Christian Wiman, summarizes it thus: "Sorrow is so woven through us, so much a part of our souls, or at least any understanding of our souls that we are able to attain, that every experience is dyed with its color. This is why, even in moments of joy, part of that joy is the seams of ore that are our sorrow. They burn darkly and beautifully in the midst of joy, and they make joy the complete experience that it is." (Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, p. 19) That is the Christian joy in all its richness, pointing to a space beyond.