The Grace of the Resurrection Breaks Through Quarantines and Death

The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a shock. The idea that he would truly rise from the dead seemed far from the minds of the disciples and the Roman and Jewish authorities. Even though Jesus had told his disciples that he would rise on the third day, they did not believe it. The women who went to the tomb expected to find a body. The disciples locked themselves away fearing persecution. The Jews and Romans thought they had finally dealt with an apparent threat to their power. And it was amidst this atmosphere of fear and defeat that Jesus rose from the dead.

The days following the crucifixion and death of Jesus were an unusual and uncertain time for the early Church, somewhat like these days of quarantine and isolation for us now. As we celebrate Easter in this environment, we can discover spiritual growth in ways that we might have missed in previous years and be reminded of Easter’s eternal impact on us.

Before Jesus rose from the dead, he went through several experiences of isolation. First came the experience of embracing the Father’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane while the apostles fell asleep. Then he was betrayed by Judas, followed by his condemnation for blasphemy in front of the Sanhedrin. His Passion was filled with moments of desolation, isolation and pain, culminating in his death on the cross.

Throughout the Scriptures we see how God uses experiences of solitude to cause a revival in a person’s faith, such as Elijah in the desert, David fleeing Saul, Joseph in prison in Egypt or Paul being held in Rome. In each of these stories, God used the circumstances to help each person see their own sinfulness and repent of it, drawing good out of their suffering and bringing them closer to himself.

During his extraordinary Urbi et Orbi address and blessing on March 27, Pope Francis reflected on the story of the disciples being frightened by a storm while on the Sea of Galilee and compared it to the coronavirus epidemic:

“The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. … The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly ‘save’ us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.”

When the disciples were being tossed about on the waves, it was  Jesus waking up that saved them. Even more importantly, we are saved from Hell and our sins through Jesus’ death on the Cross and his Resurrection. As Pope Francis reminds us, “…with God life never dies.” Whether it is part of God’s plan for us to come through the coronavirus epidemic or to go to meet him, this holds true. And this is the Good News of Easter — we are saved through Jesus’ death and Resurrection! In our encounter with Jesus, we place our complete trust in him as our Lord and also our Savior, who chooses to become our brother and friend!

Once again, Pope Francis beautifully expresses this truth. “The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love” (March 27, 2020 Urbi et Orbi address).

So in spite of being confined and participating in the Easter celebration from a distance this year, the life-changing impact of our participation in Christ’s death and Resurrection, through our Baptism, is the same. My sisters and brothers, receive in your hearts the truth that you are beloved daughters and sons of the Father in Jesus!

After Jesus rose from the dead, the Apostles were still in hiding and fearful, but Christ appeared to them on several occasions, saying, “Peace be with you.” During these uncertain times, we too, should pray for the outpouring of Holy Spirit and the peace he brings, so that when this contagion passes we are spiritually strengthened by our time in isolation and prepared to give witness to the ends of the earth like the disciples.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20).

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.