What do you really want? This is the question of the age, albeit in reduced, therapeutic form. But, it is the question of all ages, the question of human existence. What do we want?
A couple of weeks ago, millions of Americans engaged this question when they pondered what they would do if they hit the Megamillions Jackpot. Would they buy a new house? Give to charity? Travel around the world? $600 million goes a long way and can purchase a lot of stuff, much of it fun stuff. But, no matter how much money one has, the question returns: What do I want?
All the money and success in the world cannot buy the things that we most deeply desire. We want friends who stand by us in good times and bad. We want friendships that are never betrayed. We want a life free from doubt and ennui. We want a justice that does not have to be fought for generation after generation. We want an end to suffering. We want, in the manner of beauty queens vying for the crown, world peace. And, we want to know that our lives are not in vain, that our friendships are somehow enduring, we want a life that is not lived under the harsh specter of death. These are, I believe, the universal longings of the human heart and no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we try to surround ourselves with good people, no matter how kind we are, no matter how just our dealings with our fellow human beings, no matter how innovative and effective our social arrangements at alleviating poverty and injustice, no matter how many peace conferences, these things escape our grasp.
We want, in short, a savior, a savior who can redeem us from this life with its unreliable and betraying friends, its injustices, its suffering, its death.
The Crucified Lives. This is the heart of the Easter proclamation. God has not merely announced that He has redeemed these things in life that make life burdensome. Nor, that He has simply, with some cosmic wave of His hand, conquered them once and for all. It is the Crucified who lives. It is Jesus, whose friends, the apostles, fled from him when trouble came near and whose best friend, Peter, denied knowing him. It is Jesus who was betrayed. It is Jesus who experienced the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, who knew doubt and ennui and pleaded that the cup of suffering might pass him by. It is Jesus who was the victim of an unjust trial. It was Jesus whose cup of suffering was almost unimaginable. It is Jesus who died. This is the One whom the apostles encountered on that first Easter, the savior who knew from his own experiences what it was we humans yearned to be saved from, to be delivered from, to be liberated from.
In my post on Holy Thursday, I recalled the story of Flannery O’Connor at a dinner party in New York when a woman explained that she thought the whole Christian story was somewhat lovely, albeit unbelievable, and that she thought the Eucharist was a very fine symbol. O’Connor replied, “Well is it is just a symbol, to hell with it.” This is how we must look at the Christian claim: If Jesus was just some wonderful ethicist, come to teach us how to live, then to hell with him. And, when you hear someone posit this thesis, which is very old indeed, usually tainted with a Gnosticism that is familiar to anyone who has watched Oprah, ask them a simple question: Are there any other first century itinerant Jewish rabbis, whose teachings they find compelling? If Good Friday was the end of the story, why would anyone believe anything this man had taught?
In my post on Good Friday, I invited us to reflect on the abysmal loneliness of death. Here, too, we find one of the central objections to the Christian claim. We are told that it is mere projection, that because the early Christians wanted to live forever, they concocted this story about the Resurrection, and that Christians ever since, equally desirous of living forever, have bought into what is, at essence, a psychological fraud. But, I have a question for the skeptics. I have experiences of desire and these experiences point to something that satisfies them. If I am hungry, there is food to eat. If I am thirsty, there is drink to slake my thirst. If I am lonely, there is companionship. If I am ill, there is medicine to nurse me back to good health. If I desire to know more, there are books that satiate my need. “Our yearnings anticipate landfall,” wrote Augustine. Why, then, should this one desire of the human heart, the deepest desire of the human heart, the desire to live forever with those we love, why should this desire have no corresponding means of satisfaction? I will grant that faith is not, in the strictest, or at least the Cartesian, sense of the word, rational, but it seems more reasonable to me than those who isolate this one desire of my heart and rejects its satisfaction as mere projection.
It is one of the great blessings of my life that I have never doubted the empty tomb and, just so, no matter how far I wander through the delights of sin, I have never utterly rejected the central Christian claim: The Crucified lives. I do not know why I have never doubted it, and I recognize it is a great grace to never have doubted it. Perhaps it was the prayers of my Polish or my Irish grandmothers. Perhaps it was watching my parents pick themselves up whenever life threw them to the ground, a resilience that was surely connected to their devotion. Perhaps it is the fact that I have always been surrounded by, nurtured by, encouraged by, and challenged by good and holy and smart priests. Like all experiences of grace, it is somewhat mysterious even as it is intensely human. I am deeply grateful for it.
I am also grateful for the fact that, however unclear its source, I know precisely where that grace leads: to the Eucharist. There, and only there, do the constraints of history and time and death fade away. There eternity kisses the earth again as the dripping blood from the side of Jesus once kissed the earth. There we find the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord not merely recalled but real, no mere symbol but a sacrament, not some Covenant that is signed once and put away in a safe place, but a Covenant that invites us each and every day to go out (“Ite, missa est”) into the dangerous and troubled world of human suffering to proclaim liberty to captives, health to the lame, forgiveness to the sinner, comfort to those who mourn, and new life to the dead.
Regular readers will know that one of my favorite hymns is the old Welsh tune Cum Rhondda. I am sure that it was once a drinking song, and the chorus was something like “Live for beer, live for beer, drink, and drink until you drop.” Now, we sing “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, Feed me now and evermore.” But, at Eastertide, I am drawn to the last verse: “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death and hell’s destruction, lead me safe on Canaan’s side; songs of praises, songs of praises, I will ever give to thee, I will ever give to thee.” The phrase “death of death and hell’s destruction” rings in my ears on Easter morning. We sang this hymn at my mother’s funeral because, of course, at that moment above all we needed to be reminded that death had died and hell had been destroyed. Here is a rendition of that hymn on a happier occasion, the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and the Brits really know how to belt out a great hymn! On this Easter, it is my deepest hope that all of you will make these words your own, and “ever give praise to thee.”