Why do we pretend Christ’s Passion is happening now?
It’s the same every year. “Where is Jesus now?” my daughter will ask on Holy Saturday. “Descending into hell,” I will answer. Wrong again. “He sits at the right hand of the Father,” the Creed tells us.
This started to bother me. Wait. Why do we pretend things that happened a long, long time ago are happening right now? I brought my question to the Theology floor at Benedictine College. Paraphrasing and building on what they said, here’s what I learned.
“We don’t treat anything else that way,” I said. “Oh, yes we do,” came the answer.
“I don’t celebrate my wife’s birthday by pretending she was just born,” I said. “And I don’t celebrate my mom’s death anniversary by ritualistically reliving that night. So why do I pretend Jesus is a baby in December and a corpse in April?”
Because I saw, touched, and heard my wife and mom. I didn’t have that experience with Jesus, and I need it.
Since we are a soul and body unity, we learn best by engaging all of our senses. Just as visiting Fort Sumter teaches us things a Shelby Foote book can’t, and Kansas City’s World War I museum can tell us even more than a David Reynolds documentary — living Holy Week with attention can teach us more than The Passion of the Christ.
And for sacramental Christians, the liturgy is even more than just a spiritual museum. It is a time machine. The Catechism says the Passion of Christ “transcends all times while being made present in them all” through the liturgy (No. 1085).
To know Jesus the way I know my wife, I need to live through critical times in his life with him. That means I need the liturgy.
“But if we need to be with Jesus, and Jesus is all-powerful, why doesn’t he just transport us all bodily so we can be at each of these events?” I asked. “How did that work out last time?” came the answer.
The Apostles were present, in person, throughout the events of Holy Week, and they fled in terror.
Do we think we would do better, knowing all we know? I’m not so sure. Pope Benedict pointed out that Dostoevsky, in The Idiot, says a particular painting of Christ in the tomb “might cause one to lose his faith.”
That is exactly what it did in the Apostles’ case. Faced with the visceral reality Christ’s humanity, their faith crumbled. When it comes to Christ’s divinity, our faith does better than sight. Jesus says so himself.
“Have you come to believe because you have seen me?” he asks Thomas. “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (Luke 20:29).
An act of faith seems to do something important for us.
For one thing, it embeds us in a community of belief, so that we aren’t imprisoned by our own limitations. It was only after they were filled with the Holy Spirit and fed by the sacraments that the Apostles became courageous witnesses to mysteries that were now unseen.
The truth is, in the sacraments we meet Christ the way we need to, anyway.
Think about it. What we most want, what we most cherish, is not the words of a person, which are just a phone call or Facebook chat away, but their presence. We have been telling ourselves this lesson for years.
Tennyson described what the sunrise was like after his best friend died: “On the bald street breaks the blank day.” Bill Withers said the same thing this way: “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.” When we stand before an enchanting tourist destination our postcards sum up the one thing it lacks: “Wish you were here.”
It’s not our beloved’s words or image we miss; it is the beloved’s real presence that changes everything.
The sacraments, in the same way, deliver the most essential dimension of Jesus Christ — his real presence. And we get it in the form that allows our imaginations to make the experience even greater, rather than in the form that risks our missing the point.
That’s not to say there isn’t a place for the physicality of being side by side with the bodily, bearded, Jesus.
That, after all, is what we are aiming for, in heaven. For eternity. Where faith comes to fruition and “I shall know fully, as I am fully known.”
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