Moments come that demand everything of us. A partner’s illness requires much more than we bargained for. An ethical conflict at work forces a decision that puts our job at risk. A political crisis demands that we take a public stand amid imperfect choices. We are pushed to our limits perhaps; but even more we are entangled, hemmed in, held by our relationships and must decide if we will hold on to them in return.
Squeezed between our finitude and the brokenness of the world, we are tempted to turn away, to wish to be dealt another hand. Isn’t there some other relationship that will better fulfill me? A less dysfunctional workplace? Couldn’t I have been born in a time when politics were clear and I would have stood with the angels? We are tempted to hedge our bets, to give as little as possible to preserve our sense of righteousness. I stay in the relationship but hold back, subtly communicating how unfair this is to me. I finesse the ethical or political challenge, doing just enough of the right thing to save my self-respect but keeping my head down.
Such moments force us to decide who we really are. Reality puts our daydream self-imaginings to the test. The world in its brokenness gives us the opportunity to say yes in the concrete, to love and to give ourselves in love to what is. Our temptations are as total as the demands placed upon us: not merely to refuse a particular responsibility but to refuse reality itself. Do we embrace the world or flee into fantasy?
Such crises open into the hard grace of the paschal mystery. When creation was broken by human sinfulness, God did not turn away or reshuffle the cards. The Creator doubled down on creation: insistently loving it, refusing to let it die of its self-inflicted wounds, respecting its finitude by entering into it bodily—becoming subject even to its sin and violence.
Jesus’ embrace of sinful humanity was a free act but one that involved nails. Nails signify both suffering and irrevocable binding, a frightfully demanding embrace of what is. The paschal mystery is a strange freedom to commit fully. The world that nailed Jesus to the cross was held firm in God’s saving embrace by those same nails.
At the heart of the paschal mystery lies not the cross but Christ’s body stretched out upon it. The Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., attended to the human cost of Jesus’ absolute commitment to his Father’s will. Jesus experienced God’s kingdom coming into being in his ministry. The same fidelity in which he preached the good news, healed the sick and practiced reconciliation also brought him into conflict with the powerful and led to his abandonment by the disciples. Jesus died watching it all fall apart. His faithful living of God’s gracious salvation stripped him of everything. Through that complete giving, which looked so much like failure, God worked resurrection. It was through Jesus’ holding on amid complete loss that everything was saved.
God’s graceful giving has the last word. Paradoxically, life is found in death. Less paradoxically, life is found in a love that holds on through death. Such strength was not placid and assured for Jesus. He saw the loss of all that God had brought about in his ministry. It is no less difficult for us. Our dogmatic knowledge of the unity of the cross and resurrection does not remove the darkness of the cross. Although we can talk about it from the outside, the passing over remains a mystery that we must live into. Real suffering is always a surprise. We undergo not simply temporary pain, but real loss. There is no guarantee that any given crisis will turn out well, that our sacrifices will not be in vain or that we are holding onto anything more than a delusion.
Within the bounds of the paschal mystery—between giving to the point of death and the surprise of resurrection—lie the intertwined truths of suffering and gift, freedom and binding. All of this can, of course, be twisted into a masochistic celebration of suffering for its own sake or an uncritical codependence that gives whatever the other demands no matter how destructive or pointless. These, however, pervert the cross into a passive acceptance of the world’s sinfulness. What distinguishes the paschal mystery from these debasements is the activeness of love. We follow in God’s refusal to let the world remain unsaved.
Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, found in the heart of the eucharistic prayer, are the fundamental form of discipleship: “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.” We “do this” not simply in the Eucharist, but in our lives. We pour out our lifeblood as Jesus did, in love for the part of the “all” we encounter in our own lives.
The paschal mystery is the fundamental form of Christian hope and grace. In it we are strengthened to face and to embrace the suffering and violence of the world.
Isaiah’s Servant Songs portray our fearful response to the world in straightforward and stark words. From the “man of suffering” we “hide our faces.” We simply turn away. If our media-saturated world renders us callous to violence, we still have precious little tolerance for the victims of suffering. We still look away, having no patience for those “aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed” of whom Bob Dylan sang.
It is not easy to tend wounds that heal more slowly than we can observe, to accompany the friend whose life careens from one crisis to another or to work with the powerless crushed in a system stacked against them. Myths of progress and success infect our imaginations. The endless enthusiasm for healing and self-help programs on daytime talk shows, business training seminars and the like are shiny glosses over our deep anxiety about finitude. Our everyday language betrays our denial. We exhort the sick to “get well soon” but have little to say to those who will not.
In the paschal mystery we are given the strength to look in the eyes of the overwhelming need of the world—suffering, disability, misfortune, injustice—and the courage to respond somehow in love.
We are not God. Precisely as we are squeezed between our finitude (our limited power, the short spans of our lives) and the searing need around us, we are thrown into the grace of the paschal mystery. There are times that demand action. Others present burdens so heavy that one can only hold on, trying to remain faithful, feeling powerless in the face of overwhelming need. And there are times when our most sincere efforts are not enough. Whatever the adequacy of our powers to the situation, we do what we can to help push the world and those who inhabit it toward the fullness it lacks. We give, haunted that we are fools, and sometimes experience shocking moments and long tides of grace. Things work out in a way that did not seem possible and our seemingly insignificant contributions play a part. Things heal. Justice is done. Salvation takes place.
Truth in the Mundane
Life is, of course, much more than crisis and struggle. If major challenges trumpet the unavoidability of the paschal mystery, the same truth whispers in the mundane rhythms of life. To love is to bind oneself to others’ finitude. Their breath, in which we thrill, will one day cease. To commit oneself to any meaningful project is to court frustration and loss.
In this, the mundane teaches the full truth of the paschal mystery: sacrifice is subordinate to love. We hold on not with stoic tolerance of suffering but in love illuminated by faith in the possibility of salvation.
We are well aware of the weakness of our love manifest in interpersonal relations. But the same temptations of escape and refusal mark the social and political as well. There is an apocalyptic mood in the church and abroad that seeks to separate the world into the good and the bad. The church’s public engagement is hamstrung by a novel use of the category of “intrinsically evil” that partisan activists, with the assent of many bishops, use to separate candidates into good and evil. Lost in the process is the church’s moral witness to the many profound evils that (conveniently for the powerful) cannot be reduced to such a simple moral calculus. Lacking the will for a complex debate of issues and policies, we seek instead scapegoats, villains and revolutionaries. We demand clarity and instant solutions. We are disgusted with the morass of compromise and policy talk necessary to govern in service to the common good.
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s great insight into the drama of salvation can point us back to the paschal mystery. The Incarnation does not bring clarity but a deepening of the drama, he wrote. Good and evil become ever harder to discern as God works on many fronts and evil reacts with ever more frantic vigor. Bright lines cannot be drawn; there is neither a safe reservation from sin nor a realm outside the bounds of God’s grace. We must engage the world as it is on all fronts amid a drama we live within rather than watch from the outside. Full clarity comes only with the eschaton.
Our bodies are a fundamental touch point of the paschal mystery. Finitude, need and gift are all embodied experiences. The Gnostic dream of escaping the body is precisely a refusal of the paschal mystery’s insistence on bodily redemption. Films like “Avatar” and online experiences like “Second Life” herald the virtual fulfillment of this ancient dream. Our off-screen lives, however, are haunted by a much more pervasive disconnect. Globalization stretches economic relationships across the world: I am fed by Guatemalans and clothed by Bangladeshis. Distance renders these life-sustaining relationships abstract if not invisible, impoverishing our ability to imagine our own interdependence and to respond to the dependence of others.
In the headline dramas and quiet corners of life we encounter the challenge, truth and grace of the paschal mystery. Do we flee from the needs of others in denial of our own finitude, or do we hold on, giving our lives for others? In Bruce Springsteen’s words, “In the end what you don’t surrender, well, the world just strips away.” In the paschal mystery, we surrender not to the world as it is but to its surprising salvation woven by God through our mortal embrace.