The Easter explosion

Let me adapt to recent circumstances a thought-experiment theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar proposed decades ago:

Imagine that a friend contracts a severe case of COVID-19 and medicine can do no more for him. The doctors inform his widowed mother and us, so we gather with her for the final scene in the drama of this life. The ventilator is removed; the man grows weaker from lack of breath and whispers his final farewells. We hear the death-rattle. Then he expires and takes on the pallor of death.

The mortician prepares the body for burial. With appropriate prayers, we consign our friend to the earth and, taking a cue from our Jewish friends, toss a clod of earth onto his coffin as it lies deep in the open grave. The grave is then closed and we leave for our homes, saddened, perhaps a bit disoriented, remembering our friend’s past and unsure about our own futures.  

Then two days later, our friend suddenly stands before us, like one just returned from a brief but important journey. He greets us by name. Physical barriers like doors mean nothing to him. 

What would happen to us?  

We would be stunned, incapable of knowing the appropriate reaction: shock, fear, overwhelming joy? What is happening shatters the boundaries of experience and strains emotion’s limits to the breaking point. Reality itself seems to be detonating around us. We wonder: Can this be real? Then our friend shows himself to us again and again, whole and renewed. He explains things as he used to do, eats with us, challenges us to be greater than we typically think we can be. He now seems to live in another dimension of existence – thoroughly human, but radiantly more so. 

By placing ourselves imaginatively in that situation today, we begin to get some idea of what the friends of Jesus experienced on Easter Sunday and in the period between that explosive day and his leave-taking, 40 days later. But there is more. For slowly and haltingly, those who met the Risen One, and those who believed what his closest friends said about him, came to understand that the now transfigured Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth “truly was the son of God” (Mark 15:39). 

A man had returned from a journey to the realm of the dead. Death, relentless in its finality, no longer had the last word about the human condition. What God had had in mind for humanity “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1) had been reclaimed by the Son of God for all who believed in him and bound themselves to his cause. 

So history now seemed quite different to those first believers. History was no longer an arena of ultimate personal defeat. History, and our personal stories, they came to understand, played to a divine melody: everlasting communion with the Creator, disclosed in the Resurrection.

What happened on Easter Sunday was the most explosive experience in human history, shattering all previous expectations of human destiny. Before Easter, some of the philosophically inclined imagined an immortal human soul; certain Jews expected what they called the resurrection of the dead at the end of history. But no one expected this. For the Risen One was not a disembodied spirit (“…handle me and see, for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 23:39), and the Risen One was alive in history, such that history continued in a transformed key.  

The first witnesses to the Resurrection were all Jewish and the dramatic ways in which these early Christians changed bear eloquent witness to the explosive nature of their experience of the Risen One. The Sabbath had been sacrosanct; now there was a new “Lord’s Day,” the Day of Resurrection. They once expected that the “end times” would ring down the curtain on history and the Kingdom of God would begin; now, they understood what Jesus had meant when he taught them that “the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21) – they could live Kingdom life, life in union with God, here and now, through communion with the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist.

And their understanding of their responsibilities changed. What they had experienced demanded to be proclaimed and shared, as they grasped the full implications of Jesus’s injunction, “Freely you have received, freely you must give” (Matthew 10:8). They must offer friendship with the Risen One “to all nations” (Matthew 28:19). 

The Easter explosion created a communion of disciples in mission. We are their heirs. We can bring light to a darkened world if we believe with the intensity they did.   

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.