Paschal Mystery: The Victory of the Cross and the Hiddenness of Easter

We need to be careful, Herbert McCabe warns, not to think of Easter as annulling the cross, as if all is now bliss because “the deus ex machina has given us a happy ending after all” (God, Christ and Us, p. 89). Not that we should not think of the sadness of Calvary as having been turned into joy. Of course we should. The Easter vestments are white and gold, the church is filled with lilies, the hymns are jubilant. But we should not, the Dominican preacher goes on to say, think of the cross as having been replaced by joy:

Easter is not a cancellation of the cross. It does not, in any important sense, celebrate anything different from the cross. It is the meaning of the cross. Of course, there are two events: a crucifixion and, later, a rising from the dead. But these two events are part of a single story with a single meaning. The resurrection is as inseparable from the crucifixion as the punchline from the rest of the story. Easter is how to look at the cross. It is how faith looks at the cross. (p. 89)

Two events with a single meaning—that we cannot think of the resurrection of Christ apart from his cross is confirmed by Scripture and the experience of the Church. Jesus appears to his disciples still bearing the wounds of his death. In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of his impending crucifixion as his glorification: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me,” followed by this explanation: “This he said, signifying what death he should die” (John 12:32-33). Cross and Resurrection are intimately and inextricably united. The horror of Golgotha is never forgotten or left behind. And so the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:22-24). Originally there was only Pascha, celebrated on the night between Holy Saturday and Easter morning, commemorating the history of God’s saving acts, culminating in the death and resurrection of the incarnate Word. The Paschal celebration was preceded by solemn fasting, but Good Friday does not appear to have been given special liturgical marking. “Easter is not merely the feast of Christ’s resurrection,” writes Josef Jungmann; “it is the feast of the Redemption accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, the redemption which is the very basis of the life of the Church and of Christendom” (The Early Liturgy, p. 253).

But what is this single meaning that unites the events of our Lord’s death and resurrec­tion? In his essay “The Easter Vigil,” McCabe reiterates even more strongly the unity of Good Friday and Easter; but first he makes clear that he believes the resurrection was “an event other than the crucifixion in consequence of which the body of Christ was not to be found in the tomb but is transfigured and glorified.” Jesus was raised from the dead, given an immortal mode of existence, and appeared to his disciples. Nonetheless, the resurrec­tion was a different sort of historical event, for its “whole point was to show the meaning of the cross” (God Matters, p. 106). And this meaning is self-giving love, love that triumphs over evil and death. For this reason, McCabe suggests, “the best picture of the resurrection is the cross” (p. 106). Cross and resurrection are one mystery:

The popular Western practice which makes the crucifix the central Christian emblem—I mean the actual crucifix representing Jesus dying on the cross—is, it seems to me, entirely sound. It is an image of the weakness of God and the foolishness of God and the helplessness of God which is greater than the strength and wisdom of men. I am sure that when Paul said that the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of men he did not mean that God is so strong that even his weakness is stronger than our strength: he meant that the power of God looks like weakness; and weakness—not the weakness of ineffectiveness but the weakness of love—is out best picture of the power of God. From creation itself right through to redemption the power of God is exercised not in manipulating and interfering with things but in letting them be, because the power of God is the power of love. (p. 108)

The phrase “letting them be” sounds odd in this context. McCabe is here thinking of the divine creation of the cosmos. In love God bestows existence. He gives space for his creatures to be themselves, to act from themselves in their freedom, whether for good or evil. On the cross God surrenders himself to the violence and hatred of humanity. He “lets us be.” By all appearances the cross is the defeat of Jesus’ prophetic mission. Israel does not repent. The Pharisees reject his teaching. The Sadducees engineer his execution. The masses cry out for his death: “Crucify him, crucify him.” Even his disciples deny and abandon him. Yet in love the Son of God lets them be. He receives into himself their betrayal, rejection, violence and enmity. He freely empties himself unto death, for he knows that to this cross he has been summoned by his Father: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matt 26:53). Let it be!

Within fallen history, Good Friday appears to us as failure and defeat. We do not see victory, only death. Yet in light of Easter, the cross takes on a different meaning:

The cross does not show us some temporary weakness of God that is cancelled out by the resurrection. It says something permanent about God: not that God eternally suffers but that the eternal power of God is love; and this as expressed in history must be suffering. (p. 109)

The cross, therefore, is an ambiguous symbol of weakness and triumph; but so also is the resurrection. The resurrection is not the restoration of Jesus to mortal existence. It is an eschatological event that cannot be comprehended within the terms of history:

The pure triumph of the resurrection belongs to the Last Day, to the Parousia, the final consummation when we shall all share in Christ’s resurrection. That will not, however, be in any sense an event in history but rather the end of history. It could no more be an event enclosed by history than the creation could be an event enclosed by time. But when we look at resurrection as within history, when we look at Christ’s resurrection from the tomb, it is ambiguous.

May I say something a little enigmatic here? We can think of Christ’s resurrection, if we like, as the first resurrection, the first-fruits of the dead, that is to be followed by ours when we will join him later on. That is one simple and obvious way of looking at it. But perhaps we could think of his resurrection and ours as the resurrection, the victory of love over death, seen either within history (that is Christ’s resurrection) or beyond history (that is the general resurrection). ‘”Your brother” said Jesus to Martha “will rise again”. Martha said “I know he will rise again at the resurrection at the last day”. Jesus said: “I am the resurrection. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”.’ Christ’s resurrection from the tomb then would be just what the resurrection of mankind, the final consummation of human history, looks like when projected within history itself, just as the cross is what God’s creative love looks like when projected within history itself. Christ’s resurrection is the sacrament of the last times. (p. 109)

Biblical scholars debate whether the empty tomb belongs to the earliest strata of the Easter story. Did the disciples steal the corpse? Did the Romans bury it in a mass grave? McCabe presents us with a different take: of course the tomb was empty—that is what we would expect an eschatological event to look like within history. Whether cross or tomb, the revelation of God always enjoys the characteristics of ambiguity and hiddenness. We are confronted by mystery and the summons to Paschal faith. “He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay” (Matt 28:6).

For Western Christians today is Easter Monday; for Eastern Christians, Holy Monday—yet together we sing the ancient Latin hymn Vexilla Regis:

Impleta sunt quae concinit
David fideli carmine,
dicendo nationibus:
regnavit a ligno Deus.

Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song of old;
Amidst the nations, God, saith he,
Hath reigned and triumphed from the Tree.

(Go to “How physical is the risen body of Christ?”)

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1 Response to Paschal Mystery: The Victory of the Cross and the Hiddenness of Easter

  1. Tom says:

    Love that first indented quote of McCabes. Yes, the Resurrection is how we look at the Cross, and the two together determine each other’s meaning, or together constitute creation’s single meaning.

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