April 15, 2017
“Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” (Mt 28:9)
Holy Saturday is a day of silence and waiting at a tomb inhabited by the dead Christ. Liturgically, however, no sooner is the Good Friday liturgy over, then “death” becomes “sleep.” Hymns and chants state with full confidence: “You will not leave my soul among the dead nor let your beloved know decay” (Ps 16:10) and: “As certain as the dawn is his coming” (Hos 6:3). There is talk of activity: the descent into hell to deliver Adam and Eve and the rest of humanity. Likewise, on the practical level, we spend the day cooking, cleaning, putting up decorations and rehearsing Easter alleluias. It is a day of quiet joy or barely concealed excitement, which longs to burst forth in an unguarded “Alleluia!”
Have we really walked with Christ from Gethsemane to Golgotha, from the cross to the tomb, from the sepulcher to the pit of hell, from there to be raised up again by the Father’s hand? Liturgically, sacramentally and spiritually, yes. But emotionally, psychologically, in our full human reality, we have not yet touched bottom, nor have we yet been raised. Making such a journey is the work of a lifetime, not of three days. Why else do we repeat these ceremonies every year? Jesus died and was raised once and for all. We die and rise again and again in our lifelong training. Jesus does invite us to wait a while with him in Gethsemane, to stand by him at the cross, and to lay his body in the tomb. But he does not invite us to the pit of hell – not fully. At a certain point during these days, we find we have had enough of death and darkness, so we reassert our identity as “Easter people” – and so we are.
But what of those real-life crosses that do more than crease our shirt for a few hours once a year? What of those situations in life where people find themselves stuck in the tomb and the pit? When we are neck-deep and sinking in the mud of sin and suffering, the coming of the dawn is not so certain. The strains of alleluia are not heard playing on the breeze, and we do not know how or if this will end. What of life in a refugee camp or in prison? What about those suffering from chronic illness? What of relationships turned sour? What about the parent of an addicted child, or the child of a mentally ill parent? What if I see ever more clearly that my life choices are not worthy of my Lord, and yet I feel trapped in inertia? How can I sing those Easter alleluias, knowing that I am not a resurrected person, that my sin still clings, that my burdens still weigh heavy?
On Easter Sunday morning we begin Mass with a strange and wonderful chant:
“Resurrexi, et adhuc tecum suum, alleluia:
posuisti super me manum tuum, alleluia
mirabilis facta est scientia tua, alleluia, alleluia.
I have risen and I am still with you, alleluia;
you have laid your hand upon me, alleluia;
your knowledge has become wonderful, alleluia, alleluia.”
(Introit for Easter Sunday Morning Mass based on Ps 139:18, 5, 6)
This traditional Gregorian chant is striking for its quiet, melancholic tone. It is a rare example of alleluia in a minor key. The resurrection is announced not with a bang, but with a whisper. The words placed in our mouths are those of the risen Christ, borrowed from Psalm 139. Who is Christ addressing here? He could be speaking to his Father, in the same way that the psalmist addressed God:
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it. (Ps. 139:1-2, 5-6)
In spite of all the watching going on during the passion – by the Roman centurion and his men, by the passersby, the chief priests, scribes and elders, by the women who remain after everyone else has gone away, and by the guard whose task is to keep the tomb closed – in spite of all this supervision, no one witnesses the moment of resurrection. It is a most intimate secret between Father, Son and Spirit. So the Son addresses his Father, saying, “You laid your hand on me, and so I arose and am still with you. You have always been with me, even as I entered the tomb and sank into the pit. You know me through and through, because we are one – this knowledge is wonderful.”
And yet Jesus, in Matthew’s telling of it, wastes no time in presenting himself alive to his most faithful watchers – the two Marys. It seems as if he cannot hold himself back from saying, “Hello!” Could not Christ be addressing us, too, in this Easter chant? There are also words of consolation for those still bewildered: “I am alive and still with you – ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Mt 28:20). ‘Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see’ (Lk 24:39). ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side’ (Jn 20:27). No longer is this knowledge too wonderful, too high, beyond your reach. You know me as the one you have pierced, the one pierced like you, and you are wonderfully known.”
By means of a melancholy alleluia, the liturgy leads us gently into the presence of our risen Lord. It does not demand a raucous and clamorous joy, the joy of the ‘uncrucified.’ No, the risen Christ bears wounds eternally, so we need not hide our own wounds, our own lack of 'risenness', as we approach him. Just as the risen Son says to his Father: “You have always been with me and you know me through and through,” so he says to us: “I know your sorrows and your sins through and through, and I will always be with you.” This knowledge is wonderful.