The Agony of the Resurrection

Every year around Holy Week, the publishers of America’s popular reading material let loose a volley of blasphemies against our Lord’s Resurrection. Citing one or another perfidious “noted scholar,” the glossy-covered journals that accost us at the checkout counter vie with one another in perverting the populace with contempt for the sacred. These reheated leftovers from last year’s editions would be laughable in their dogmatic adherence to pseudoscientific “scholarship,” but we dare not laugh at the offense against our Savior.

On the appointed day, the Resurrected One will end His patient silence, and the poor wretches who produce this foulness will, like Caiphas, “see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of the power of God, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk 14:62). If they have not first converted, this will be much to their chagrin, to put it mildly.

And what of us? Do we treasure the Resurrection at least as much as these two-bit blasphemers despise it? If we do not feast our faith on this mystery and take our delight in it — real delight, not just a general relief that Lent’s finally over — then this Pasch will see us yet again unequipped to battle the terrestrial antichrists just mentioned; much less will we be able to fight the real enemy: “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places” (Eph. 6:12).

The Resurrection, by El Greco (details/credits)

The Resurrection (detail), by El Greco (details/credits)

To delight in this mystery, we must first reflect on it. But for many people, the Resurrection is not the easiest mystery to imagine, since the Gospels don’t give a description of it. We get something of a before-and-after shot of the tomb and its sacred Deposit, but no narration of the event itself. Instead of letting that bother us, we should supplement the Gospel’s silence on the point with the dogmatic truths that the Church’s magisterium presents to us.

Foundational among these truths is that Christ is true God and true Man. As God, He is coequal, consubstantial, and coeternal with the Father. As man, He is like us in all things except sin. This means that He has a created human body and soul, the latter having an intellect and will. By this union of two natures in one Person (called the “hypostatic union”), Christ’s divinity was united to His humanity so perfectly that even death did not separate them. Although the body and soul of Jesus truly separated — for that is what death is — the divinity was ever united to each.

During the Triduum Mortis (the three days of death), the body of Christ in the tomb — truly dead as it was — was adorable because it was still the body of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. This is why St. Peter could cite Psalm 15 as a prophecy of our Lord in the tomb: “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, nor suffer thy Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2:27). The Precious Blood, spilled on the ground from Pilate’s praetorium and along the Via Dolorosa all the way to Mount Calvary, could be similarly accorded divine honors, being yet the Blood of God. Finally, the soul of Christ, which descended into hell, also took with it the divinity. This means that God Himself traveled into the netherworld in Person. In Dante’s Inferno, there are poetic images of this “harrowing of hell”: As Virgil and Dante traverse there, they see the rubble that remained as evidence of the great cataclysm the infernal regions suffered when a divine Person, united to a human soul, came and “preached to those spirits that were in prison” (I Pet.3:19). Dante’s poetic imagination thought it unlikely that hell would be left the same after this surprise visit from the Son of God.

What happened, then, in the Holy Sepulcher that first Easter? Christ’s divinity, ever united to His body, blood, and soul, simply brought those constituent parts of His sacred humanity back together again. “O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite!” (Osee 13:14). It was an act of divine energy, exerted by the same One who truly experienced death. And we may speculate that this supernatural destruction of death was carried out with an intensity proportionate to the horrific violence of the Passion. Relevant to that is the Greek word used by St. Luke to describe Our Lord’s agony in the Garden; it is agonia, meaning literally “a struggle for victory” — as in Graeco-Roman wrestling. In the tomb, there was another agonia: the “Agony of the Resurrection,” when the victory was achieved. As the liturgical sequence, Victimae Paschale Laudes, expresses it: “Death and life to the combat: O wondrous conflict! The prince of life, having died, reigns living.”

Life and death’s “wondrous combat” produced a flash so brilliant that the consequent impress of our Lord’s image yet remains on the Holy Shroud.

If we feast on the same Flesh that rose again, do we not become heirs to the solemn promise of Jesus: “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day” (Jn 6:55)? When we eat that Flesh, with which Mary clothed God, we become one with Him who said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25).

Then our resurrection is simply the natural terminus of Christ’s “Mystical Incarnation” in our soul, and the Eucharist really is, as St. Thomas called it, “the pledge of future glory.”

From our religious family, to the families of all our tertiaries and benefactors: Have a blessed and grace-filled Triduum, and a glorious Easter!