The Catholic Thing
“The Entire Mystery of Christ” Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 18 April 2011

And so today the week without compare since the creation of the world begins. Suffering, death, resurrection – all of it strange, even the resurrection tough to take in, given how it comes about. You can see that in the way the apostles are still stunned, for no little time, despite the empty tomb. Instead of regarding it all as a foregone and familiar conclusion, we’d do well ourselves to stay a while with that uncertainty and astonishment at the mysterious events of Holy Week.

The title above is from Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, which helpfully unfolds the Gospel from Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, without trying to explain it away with some rationalist system. (It’s the anniversary of his election as pope tomorrow, by the way, another thing to be grateful for.) There is no fully explaining God’s saving action in history. All the Easter bunnies and candy baskets in the world cannot obscure that fact, though they’ve tried. Unlike Christmas, there is no way to reduce this season to a warm and fuzzy, feel-good holiday. And yet Christians think it the most important event in the life of the cosmos. 

That irreducible strangeness is one reason why, in these latter days, Easter is barely covered in the media. A few oddities maybe: some Philippine village where they actually crucify (without killing) a volunteer; the Oberammergau Passion Play, which may or may not still be anti-Semitic; the latest “archaeological” discovery by some film producer, which of course explodes the whole Christian story and, by strange coincidence, confirms modern anti-Christian beliefs.   

Under the circumstances, a believer is tempted simply to push it all away and withdraw. But Christ didn’t come into the world for a private séance with a few elect souls. He came into the world to save the world. And in a way, it’s a salubrious thing to reflect on how implausible our belief seems to that world, lest we turn this singular and challenging event into a merely comforting story.

The comfort comes eventually, but to go there too quickly means passing over the cost, which really amounts to thinking God could have done this great thing – overcoming sin and death – without the bloody prelude.

Let me confess: I do not entirely understand the need for that. St. Peter seems not to have either and been impatient with it at first. The great St. Anselm tried to explain in Cur Deus Homo? (“Why did God become man?”). The answer: to save us. But there’s a deeper question. The Catechism says: he loved us so much that he became a humble creature like us, willing to suffer, die, and be buried to redeem us.

Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) by Salvador Dalí (1954)

All of this is defined in the Creeds and simply true.

But it says nothing about that deeper “why?” Great theologians have debated whether God would have been Incarnated, even if we had not sinned. Wiser heads than mine can unwind the questions that raises. For me, it’s more than enough to contemplate the bare facts of this week to be led into mystery upon mystery, past all unwinding.            

And that can be a very good thing. A mystery, as Gabriel Marcel used to say, is not a problem. No amount of genius or rational effort can fully comprehend certain facts and truths, which are nevertheless vital to our lives as human beings.

The rationalists in every age, of course, regard this as precisely what’s wrong with revealed religion, its fundamental irrationality. But is that true? Or is it more rational to acknowledge that some things are beyond us, though the powers of reason are great. And very mysterious themselves. How can what goes on inside a human skull reflect a vast universe 15-billion years old? Or for that matter, how do those chemical interchanges in our brains help us to know anything at all?

Yet we do, and much hinges on knowing the truth about many crucial matters. Just think how getting some difficult points in philosophy wrong has led to the absurd modern conundrum: we know an immense amount about the cosmos, but wonder whether we can truly know anything at all. Truths denied or distorted led to a body count of about 150 million in the century just past. And continues in the abortion mills of the most “advanced” portions of the globe.

“How odd of God/To choose the Jews,” yes, even if you think human salvation must come from a personal relationship between humanity and the Creator, not an abstract philosophical system. But how much odder still of God to become Man, and oddest of all to die on a Cross to atone, to Himself, for the sins of men. Benedict remarks on the “paradoxical statement that the redeemed have ‘washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.’” (Rev. 7:14) Hardly the only such paradox about Holy Week.

The older I get the clearer sins – mine and others’ – appear, and the more terrible their consequences in myriad ways, subtle and not. The inadequacy of, “There, there, all forgiven,” seems so obvious that you wonder who, besides an evidently mad Frenchman, could claim: to understand all is to forgive all. To understand all is to be even more horrified at the nature and extent of sin.

And so this mysterious series of events that conquer sin and death seems right in light of the mysterium iniquitatis, as Augustine called it. Ultimately, the remedy is as mysterious as the disease. But, Benedict says, what’s new in the New Testament is that the Passion brings God and Man closer than anything in the history of the world, that, afterwards, we who believe are in Christ. The world can make nothing of “the entire mystery of Christ.” And we can make out only a little. But that little changes everything.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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Comments (3)Add Comment
written by Bill, April 18, 2011
To understand the mystery of Christ and His mission one must understand the preternatural gifts which God had given to Adam and Eve prior to the Fall: They would never be ill-they would not die-they would never want-they would pass from this world to Heaven after a prescribed time. To keep these gifts? They had to be obedient. They disobeyed and here is what we have had since: wars, famines, disease, vice, uncertainty, infanticide,a flaccid Church, ETERNITY IN HELL. Christ brought us supernatural Faith and supernatural Hope. He is now forestalling with The Virgin the Father's Hand (see Fatima and Akita) "the great punishment" of such enormous devastation that "the survivors will envy the dead".
written by Brian English, April 18, 2011
For reflections on these issues, I highly recommend Death on a Friday Afternoon, by Fr. Neuhaus.
written by Howard, April 18, 2011
Brother Bill, as I understand today’s TCT essay, it’s about “The Entire Mystery of Christ” (as the author clues us in the second paragraph). Pointing to the suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord, each paragraph cites, touches on, or alludes to concepts such as ‘strange(ness)’, uncertainty, mystery, difficulty of explanation, irreducibility, the singular and challenging nature of the event(s), the why of the bloody prelude (but note, not the ‘why’ of the need for redemption), the why of the Incarnation, the oddness of that event, paradoxical statements etc., etc. The point is being driven home that we ought to plunge into this mystery, especially this week, this holy week. Its aim is to encourage reflection.

The essay calls attention to these mysteries, simultaneously contrasting them with the high degree of ignorance or indifference or pitiful inadequacy of non-believers’ or secular society’s (MSM’s) thoughts on the subject. This is an essay inviting us to contemplate, in this holy week, God’s action, through his only Son, His almost humanly incomprehensible attachment to us, in spite of our sins.

Speaking of reading, did you really read the essay? Sin is covered quite adequately. Did you see Mr. Royal’s statement? “The older I get the clearer sins – mine and others’ – appear, and the more terrible their consequences in myriad ways, subtle and not.”

Given the timbre of other comments of yours in TCT, I believe the six disobediences you cite are mundane, been-around-sins-from-the-get-go (of the original exile), proffered by you to allow you to bring up the seventh human frailty you preoccupy excessively, ‘the flaccid church.” Even that limpness visited the Apostles as they absented themselves from the Master, before the crucifixion. Yes? Personally I grow tired of your ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’ approach to the Church. I am under no delusion that anything I say here will help you seem less out-of-sync to me. Nevertheless, I do suggest you read Benedict’s recent book, mentioned most positively in Mr. Royal’s essay. I am doing so. Maybe our Pope will bring you some peace. Oh, and brother, I will remember you in my prayers.

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