For certain minds, it may appear unseemly for God to engage in “special effects.” But the base of the aversion, as Lewis suspected, was the resistance to the notion of a “living God” who takes an interest in persons. There has been a remarkable, enduring appeal to the notion of a God who just blends in with the world, with the sun and wind and stars. It becomes pantheism under one variation or another.
The curious mark of an age high in schooling and diminished in education is that this view of God should be taken as something novel and avant-garde. In fact, it has been one of the most primitive temptations wrapping itself in the pretensions of theology. As Lewis remarked, “If ‘religion’ means simply what man says about God, and not what God does about man, then Pantheism almost is religion.”
But as Ronald Knox reminded us with a sharp note, “Don’t let’s make any mistake about this; [Jesus] claimed to do miracles, and claimed, by doing miracles, to prove where he came from; to prove that he came straight from God.” And the culminating miracle, of course, was his own Resurrection.
It was, as Knox said, “the climax of that series of miracles by which our Lord justified his claim to be the ambassador of a Divine revelation.” Jesus had raised three other people from the dead – apart from Lazarus there was Jairus’s daughter and the widow’s son at Naim. Each of these happenings was taken as a miracle, stunning in its own way.
And yet, as Fulton Sheen noted, in that fine meditation in this space on Sunday, the curious thing was that the Resurrection had come as a surprise to the disciples. They had heard or seen of the other miracles; why would they not have anticipated that Jesus would have performed the same miracle for himself?
The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca, 1463
But it has been, over the years, a further confirmation of the account in the Gospels that the disciples were ordinary men, anchored in the world, largely bereft of illusions. They had to be shown. It was a small, telling part of Luke’s account that Jesus asked whether they had any meat. He was there in his body, and hungry. They gave him “a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.”
It is hard to avoid the inference that the shock and the surprise for the disciples was not a surprise or disappointment for Jesus. The jolt and deep astonishment were critical ingredients in imparting the news – and the lesson – to disciples, and to a larger world, that could not be counted on to be credulous.
I write these notes on Easter Sunday, with the Masses overflowing at St. John the Beloved church in McLean, Virginia. This must be one of the darkest times for Catholics in America, as we see the politics that engulfs us and the corruption of our laws. And yet, I’ve rarely seen people happier or more upbeat. The greetings of “Happy Easter” rang from friends met again, on foot and in passing cars.
Aided by one of the first days of spring, the sense of life reborn was in the air, and that itself was a kind of miracle. The venerable Fr. Franklyn McAfee recalled the claims arising now and then to the discovery of the bones of Jesus in or around Galilee. He recalled also a man he had known saying that it would make no difference, that he would continue practicing the faith and attending Mass. Fr. McAfee pronounced that view as “preposterous” and indefensible. If the dead body of Jesus were found, he said, he would leave the Church and so should the people assembled there on Sunday.
For if the Resurrection had not happened, if Jesus was not who he claimed to be, what would all the rituals mean but an elaborate series of play-acting? But the Resurrection of Jesus was also the promise to the rest of us that we, too, may rise again, and yet even more: that we may rise with him even now, in our days here.
The lines I’ve cited here from Ronald Knox come from a series of sermons that he delivered during the Second World War, to girls who had been evacuated to the Assumption Convent in Aldenham Park. The times were far darker than our own, but Knox told his pupils that they might live in equally troubled times, “when it will look as if everything we Catholics care for were going under.”
But the Church, he said, “is the Church of the Risen Christ, and till the end of time every death she undergoes will be the prelude to a resurrection.”