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Easter Must Wait; Let Us First Go to the Cross

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 03/23/16

If we seek the Christ without the cross, we get the cross without the Christ

Are you ready for Easter? I hope not.

Let me explain. If, by “ready for Easter” we mean:

  • I’m just so tired of Lent and I can’t wait to go back to all the stuff I “gave up” for Lent;
  • Lent is so depressing and I just can’t wait to hear some “alleluias” for a change (even though I don’t usually say “alleluia” at any other time of the year);
  • I can’t wait to hear some different hymns after being subjected to weeks of badly performed “O Sacred Head Surrounded”;
  • I’m just so tired of Lent’s mandatory bad feelings about myself as a sinner (I’m basically a nice person anyway), and I’m looking forward to getting permission from Easter to feel good about myself again.

If that’s what we mean by “ready for Easter,” then, dear God, I hope that none of us are ready for Easter!

Within our fallen human nature is the desire to get something for nothing (or at least on the cheap). In this case we want the joy of Easter without a Lent that shares in Christ’s passion and death. We are warned against this temptation by St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Instructing catechumens, he writes: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.”

The safest way past the dragon is the way of the cross, which is precisely what we don’t want. In our weakness we tell ourselves that we want the mystery and reality of Lent and the glory and joy of Easter, but more often what we really want (and I look in the mirror as I write this!) is the feeling of the sorrow of Lent followed by the feeling of the joy of Easter. We pretend to feel sorrow at being sinners and then we pretend to feel joy at being saved. Such pretending is not true feeling but mere sentimentality.

Author Flannery O’Connor warns us hauntingly against such sentiments:

We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through the Redemption, which was brought by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. … In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness that, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and the fumes of the gas chamber.

In other words, when we settle for Christ without the cross, we end up with the cross without Christ. It is not enough to gin up sentimental sorrow and sentimental joy in order to enter into the saving mysteries of Lent and Easter. And it is not enough to observe from a distance Christ’s passion, death, burial and resurrection. Christ calls us to a union with him in his suffering, dying and rising. Msgr. Romano Guardini summarizes this call succinctly:

Every Christian one day reaches the point where he too must be ready to accompany the Master into destruction and oblivion: into that which the world considers folly, that which for his own understanding is incomprehensible, for his own feeling intolerable … this is the decisive test of his Christianity. Will he shrink back before the ultimate depths, or will he be able to go all the way and thus win his share of the life of Christ? …that is why we try to water it down. … But to be a Christian means to participate in the life of Christ — all of it; only the whole brings peace. … One way or another we must brush the depths Christ divinely plummeted, taste the dregs he drained to the last drop. … From this unreserved realization of the Father’s will comes the illimitable peace of Christ, also for us.

This is the terror we dare not speak of flippantly. I know that as I write these words I invite the judgment of God, sitting here as I am — comfortable, well fed, in a building with electricity, running water and air conditioning. I write this while not expecting anyone to kick down the door and cut off my head because I am a Christian. Nonetheless, as one charged to preach the Gospel, I must say it: There can be no genuine Easter joy for one who has not undergone some kind of death in union with Christ. Some irretrievable loss, some irreversible sacrifice, some bitter surrender or some life-altering self-giving, in imitation of Christ and in union with him, must be undergone for the proclamation and celebration of Easter not to ring hollow.

Our discipleship, our witness and our worship will be mere sentiment if we do not somehow resemble Christ in his wounds. We naturally recoil from such a prospect. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). But how can we face God or ourselves if we shy away from full and true union with Christ? Surely, Christ deserves to have our discipleship be more than good intentions, our witness more than cheerful slogans, our worship more than enthusiastic self-congratulation. Either day by day in a white martyrdom, or all at once in a red martyrdom, Christians will know the truth of Easter — its full power and joy — only when they have taken upon themselves the death to selfishness and the rejection of human disobedience that Christ himself achieved on the cross.

Concretely, what can we do between now and Easter Sunday? We can imitate St. Ignatius of Loyola and pray, “Place me with your Son.” On the cross, in the tomb, in the hands and heart of our heavenly Father, let us be placed with Christ. Bring to all these a sin that must be surrendered (some vice, some idol) and a gift that can be offered in worship (adoration, praise, obedience). Our heavenly Father will waste nothing that we offer him in union with Christ.

When I write next, I will offer a meditation on the empty tomb of Christ. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.

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