“Sign of Contradiction” and the Meaning of Easter
Michael D. O’Brien
Published in the journal, L’Homme Nouveau, Paris, 30 March, 2013
“Behold, this child is destined to be the downfall and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted—and you yourself will be pierced by a sword—so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2: 34)
As at all other periods of history, those who follow Christ in our times must be ever cautious about the spirit of compromise. As members of the Body of Christ, indeed as the Bride of Christ, we are each called to live the totality of the Gospel without prevarications, in a spirit of authentic love, with willingness to lose everything (if it be asked of us) for the sake of the Truth.
“But what is Truth?” asks Pilate as the captive humiliated Jesus stands silently before him. The Lord does not reply with spoken words but with the presence of his very being. He is the truth, and the way, and the life. He is the word made flesh. He is the sign of contradiction who confounds all our normal categories of thought. At this crucial moment he appears to the eyes of Pilate to be the embodiment of powerlessness, no more than a regional disturbance of the empire and a pariah of the Jewish people. Pilate prefers justice yet is unable to act upon it because his concept of Iustitia is not built on an absolute foundation. He sees only a complex political situation, a social dilemma, and perhaps, too, his own career hanging in the balance. He chooses to condemn an innocent man for the sake of a perceived higher good. He is a secular version of Caiphas—both of them strategists, both of them in their own ways sensible, intelligent men.
It should be asked in every generation: What, then, is truth? And the reply must always be spoken with our lives. Faith can never be simply a matter of rational assent to a set of doctrines—though of course this is an essential part of our faith. One might memorize the Catechism of the Catholic Church, give every item in it an intellectual affirmation, yet as laudable as that would be, it is not enough. What our faith is about is union with Jesus Christ, here in this world and for eternity.
In a multitude of ways, the spiritus mundi, ever mutating, ever manifesting, strives always to disintegrate the authentic unity of the flock and the Shepherd, often by sin, often by error, and increasingly through misuse of the “lesser evil” argument. By shattering communio, it creates a dreadful isolation, splitting us internally and at the same time alienating us from the human community, thus depriving mankind of the unique gifts we offer it. Ghettoized, we can slip into a sense of unholy abandonment where it is so much easier to be confused, discouraged, neutralized—and manipulated for social or political ends.
Whenever we are overwhelmed by feelings of defeat, when we think we are alone and unprotected, it is our tendency to instinctively turn toward the natural human resources: “Ah, if only I can get enough money or knowledge or power!” we say, “Yes, then I would do much good!” The list of our preferred resources is varied, and they are not necessarily bad things in themselves, but the subtext, usually subconscious, is the desire to make a safer world for ourselves by seizing whatever influence or control is accessible to us. All too easily the essential questions are forgotten, minimized, or ignored, and in the end never faced. The primary question each of us must now ask is: “In what have I placed my ultimate trust?” And the corollary questions: “Where am I deceiving myself about security? Where, perhaps, am I bowing before idols and not even realizing it?”
Human reason illuminated by grace is a beautiful gift of God, but Reason alone will not save us. Cultural renewal can assist us in sensing the transcendent beauty of God and the holiness of creation, but beauty alone cannot save us. Political involvement impelled by a vision of bringing about a just social order through defense of the dignity of man is a worthy and necessary effort. But in the end, politics cannot save us, not even that most rare thing, a politics imbued with highest moral conscience. At their best, they are good tools, not salvific forces. To misunderstand this is to make oneself vulnerable to what the Catechism calls an “intrinsically perverse” form of secular messianism (CCC, 673-677).
The Christian is called by Christ to live with a kind of “depth perception.” We must work while the light lasts and at the same time remember that there will come a time when all our labours have been blocked or defeated. Jesus tells us not to be dismayed by this.
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.” (John 15:18-21).
To the degree that a person who follows Him has placed his hopes in anything other than Christ himself, he is going to be confused and overcome; he will hesitate, flounder, fall into fear, and quite possibly slide into discouragement and finally despair. Or he may, on the other hand, remain within the flock and weaken it still further by his own Ciaphasean strategizing, functioning with a bifurcation of consciousness, positing faith and reason in opposition, promoting tragically stunted concepts of love, and mistaking uniformity for the koinonia of authentic unity (which occurs only on the foundation of truth).
Is this not the test undergone by the people of God during the Passover and Exodus? We too can find convincing arguments why we should not follow Christ on the way of the Cross, which is the new pillar of holy fire. The teachings of the Church refer to the time toward the end of the world when we will experience a “final Passover.” One day it will surely come, and then prophetic vision will unfold all around us as stark reality, which is why the Lord exhorted each generation to “stay awake and watch.” As we move toward the eternal Promised Land, why should we presume that we will never be tested like our ancestors in the desert? Why, moreover, should we presume that we will behave differently? After the astounding miracles the Hebrews had witnessed, such as the chastisements of the Egyptians and the parting of the Red Sea, then the pillar of fire, the gifts of miraculous food, they were still tempted, still fell into unbelief. And what was their anguished cry in the desert? “Did you bring us out here only to die!”
Is this not already our cry whenever our personal situations become destabilized and promise to become radically insecure? Do we protest, “Where are you, God! Have you abandoned us?” This will be our response if we have invested our hopes only in the consolations and blessings of God, instead of union with Him, including union with him on the Cross. If we desire only his securities, what will we do when these are removed? Will we fall into discouragement and then betrayal, reject what He desires to teach us, and where He wishes to lead us, and what He desires to do through us? Here is our test. None are exempt from it.
But what are we to do, if we should find ourselves out there in the desert, in a situation where all securities are falling away and we stand radically exposed to the dangers of human existence? The answer can be found in numerous places in Scripture, and one passage I often read and pray is from Psalm 56:
“O Most High, when I begin to fear, in you I will trust.” The entire psalm is worth meditating upon, for its author King David understood what it is to be human, to tremble before the apparently overwhelming power of an adversary, to feel in every aspect of his being his fragility as a creature. He had faced Goliath with nothing but a little sling, his five smooth stones, and his faith. He faced numerous other enemies, not least of which was his own vulnerability to sin. Yet he always turned to the Lord, and turned and turned again, and learned in the process that we must never lose heart.
Trust does not come automatically to us. It is, as the Pslamist reveals, a choice. It grows as we exercise it. We can begin to do this now, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, in the normal and sometimes extraordinary trials of life. Each of us have them, and each of us by invoking the Lord to strengthen us in the midst of them can find the opportunity to re-train our thoughts and the movements of our hearts.
I have found it helpful in impossible situations to pray prayers glorifying God in advance for whatever way, unknown to me, he will bring me through the trial at hand. I also like to pray the song of the three young men in the fiery furnace in Babylon. This is a song of great beauty, most beautiful because it is a hymn sung in the very place where it is least likely to be sung. Such prayers uttered in a “hopeless” place are greatly treasured by God, and he will not disappoint those who pray them. This, again, is practice. As athletes strengthen their muscles and endurance by training, so we too can train ourselves to confidence in God. We must remind ourselves often that He desires to flood us with every grace we need for this kind of growth, for the deep work of maturing in Him. The particular difficulties of ordinary life and the peak crises of life are the very situations where we learn best. He loves us, and this we must never forget. All the Communion of Saints love us too, and are constantly interceding for us. Their intercession and the aid of the holy angels will increase as we need them. But they will force nothing upon us, and thus we must develop the habit of asking for and relying upon grace.
We are presently living at a moment in history—perhaps the last brief moment— when it is possible to learn these lessons in the heart and mind and soul without draconian interference. Heaven is pouring out many avenues of grace for us at this time. We can turn to the Holy Eucharist with renewed focus and fervor. We can ask Our Lady to play a greater role in our lives, consecrate ourselves and our families to her motherly care. And we can develop the habit of reading scripture regularly and prayerfully.
We can also seek out ways to contribute to the new evangelization, for right to the end (be the end a thousand years from now or only a few years away) God desires to bring all souls home to himself. This is not the time to give up on the world, but to renew our efforts to bring hope to the world. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical on Divine Mercy, even if the sins of mankind now deserve a second great flood, we are called to plead for his mercy on each and every soul in the world. We must avoid the alternative temptations of shallow optimism and dread-filled pessimism. Christians are the ultimate realists. We are people who can look into the reality of a dark age and find there the approaching victory of Christ. And this too takes practice.
As moral confusion spreads throughout what was once a Christian civilization we must understand that our profound hope and our grief over the present state of affairs are not symptomatic of psychological conflict but rather a sign of healthy integration.
In 1976, a Polish cardinal named Karol Wotyla gave an address during a visit to the United States.
“We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of the American society or wide circles of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel and the anti-Gospel. This confrontation lies within the plans of divine providence. It is a trial which the whole Church . . . must take up.”
(The address was widely disseminated after his election to the papacy, when it was republished in the November 9, 1978, issue of The Wall Street Journal)
His statement was dismissed by many commentators at the time who reduced his insights to the realm of subjective opinion conditioned by his political and psychological origins—supposedly a suffering Pole projecting his negativity and anxieties onto the world as a whole. Little did they consider the possibility that his insight might be prophetic. Regardless of the critics’ rhetoric, the Holy Spirit placed John Paul II in the Chair of Peter only two years later. Throughout his pontificate an apocalyptic thread was evident in many of his public talks and writings, even as he went about the world spreading the new evangelization—embodying “depth perception” par excellence in his apostolic mission. So, too, has Benedict XVI.
In a talk he gave in Palermo, Sicily, in March of 2000, then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger spoke about the loss of spiritual fatherhood in the modern age: “The crisis of fatherhood we are living today is an element, perhaps the most important, threatening man in his humanity. The dissolution of fatherhood and motherhood is linked to the dissolution of our being sons and daughters.”
Further on in this talk, the cardinal reflected on the fatherhood of God. He pointed out that the book of Apocalypse speaks of the eternal antagonist to the Father, the devil, and “the Beast,” that is, the Antichrist or the Man of Sin completely controlled by Satan. The Beast, as it is described in the Book of Revelation, does not have a name; it has a number. Cardinal Ratzinger then referred back to the Holocaust of World War II, and connected the concentration-extermination camps to our times, especially in the defining element of the new global civilization, which is overwhelmingly technological, with all the consequent potential for corruption and dehumanization.
“In their horror [the concentration camps] cancelled faces and history, transforming man into a number, reducing him to a cog in an enormous machine. Man is no more than a function. . . . In our days, we should not forget that they prefigured the destiny of a world that runs the risk of adopting the same structure of the concentration camps, if the universal law of the machine is accepted. The machines that have been constructed impose the same law. According to this logic, man must be interpreted by a computer and this is only possible if translated into numbers. The Beast is a number and transforms into numbers. God, however, has a name and calls by name. He is a person and looks for the person.”
Cardinal Ratzinger was not referring to the overt horrors of such camps, but to what they were in essence. He warned that if the world succumbs to this new “soft” form of tyranny—alluring and efficient though it be—the end result will be the same: Miraculous, eternal beings will be reduced to the level of objects, which can be used or discarded at the whim of unaccountable governments and the social forces controlled by such governments (one might equally say, the governments controlled by these social forces). There will then inevitably follow the gradual dehumanization of mankind. In that “brave new world” whatever scraps of “spirituality” it retains will be false ones, leading not to our Father but to Satan himself.
In his general audience of 11 May, 2005, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI commented on the canticle of praise in the fifteenth chapter of Revelation:
“History, in fact, is not alone in the hands of dark powers, chance or human choices. Over the unleashing of evil energies, the vehement irruption of Satan, and the emergence of so many scourges and evils, the Lord rises, supreme arbiter of historical events. He leads history wisely towards the dawn of the new heavens and the new earth, sung in the final part of the book under the image of the new Jerusalem” (Revelation 21-22).
The victory of Christ is the first and final theme of the Book of Revelation, and so too it must be the first and final word of our lives. We are not alone, not abandoned to the malice of dark powers and the evil energies of their human agents. Jesus Christ is the Lord of history, and he is the One to whom we must cling as we make our way through a dark age. We must do so with the spirit of the child clinging to his father’s hand. Regardless of whether we are granted another thousand years of history, or a hundred, or a decade, or even just a handful of years, the truth remains the same: “Unless you become as little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of God.”
The Lord stands ever ready to receive us, to feed and guard and guide us. Take and eat, come and drink, open and read. Life pours though his words. They are not dead letters on a printed page, not even true dead letters, for they are true living words. At this point in history we would do well to ponder the Lord’s words in Revelation to the seven churches, most notably to the Church in Sardis:
“Awake and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death!” Each of the particular churches must heed this, for it contains both an exhortation and an admonition.
The book of Revelation reaches its climax with the final words of Christ, “I am coming soon.”
The entire sacred Scriptures end with St. John’s response, his voice crying out for the whole Church, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Here is the core of the matter: He who was dead now lives; he who departed from us will return. By embodying in his Resurrection his victory over death and by confounding all the other strategies of Satan, Jesus is the living Sign. The celebration of Easter, therefore, is a profound remembering and a yearning forward in confident hope. At Easter we live simultaneously in time and in eternity.
* * *
From the homily of Pope Benedict XVI, 2 October, 2005, at the opening of the synod in Rome:
“The judgment announced by the Lord Jesus refers above all to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. Yet the threat of judgment also concerns us, the Church in Europe, and the West in general. With this Gospel, the Lord is also crying out to our ears the words that in the Book of Revelation he addresses to the Church of Ephesus: ‘If you do not repent I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place’ (2: 5). Light can also be taken away from us, and we do well to let this warning ring out with its full gravity in our hearts, while we cry aloud to the Lord: ‘Help us to repent! Give all of us the grace of true renewal! Do not allow your light in our midst to be extinguished! Strengthen our faith, our hope and our love, so that we can bear good fruit!’.”