(From his pamphlet “Journey through Lent,” published by The Catholic Truth Society)
Alexander Solzhenitsyn told a sceptical Harvard Graduating Class in 1978: “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. . . .It has to be the fulfilment of a permanent, earnest duty, so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being.”
The exiled Russian writer did not tell these American students of the haunting Easter Mass of Orthodox Russia, nor of his letter to the Moscow Patriarch about that cleric’s negligence in not insisting that Russian families and students learn and keep their Christian heritage.
Significantly, however, he did hint to them that what was important in the end was whether we as particular persons made spiritual progress or not. He did not tell them that their task was to make a “better world,” but to make better persons in whatever world they found themselves.
He seemed to believe better persons were in fact arising in the East, under persecution, arising not because of its system, but in spite of it, in a place where people really saw and lived under an experienced evil (whereas in the West, men only ignored evil, or, worse, defined it away). This is very Christian, for what passes through death to rise again is not “society,” but our own individual selves, selves that can be redeemed or lost in any society, corrupt or blessed.
The intellectual history of the western world, in some sense, has been an endless series of objections to the reality, even to the possibility of the Resurrection. Paul was right, the Crucifixion was indeed a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.
If this was so, what about the Resurrection of the Crucified One? Yet, we know that the Christian Church exists alone where there are bishops who hold the Creed that teaches the resurrection of the very body. “If Christ be not risen from the dead, our faith is indeed in vain,” Paul told the Corinthians.
Dylan Thomas echoed this same Paul in his poetic refrain, again and again: “And death shall have no dominion. . . .And death shall have no dominion.”
What are the alternatives to the literal truth of Christ”s, and subsequently our own, resurrection? The theme of the deluded apostles has been worked over and over. It is mostly exhausted and cannot account for the evidence.
The only real objection, and it is an intellectual one based on the presumed impossibility of a real personal resurrection, is that somehow our corporate and continued existence as a race will proceed down the ages and give human life a kind of exalted nobility which we might share, having once been living humans ourselves. The world will get “better.”
Christianity is committed to the belief in the value and uniqueness of each human person, not only of those born but even of those conceived. We are already named in the Word in whom all things are made. Each human person with his own unique name will rise on the last day.
We shall not pass away into everlasting nothingness. And we shall be ourselves, not gods, but members each, as Augustine said, of The City of God.
The only unbelievable element in Christianity, then, is what makes it believable, that is, its Resurrection, its Easter, with its promises. This faith is very hard on abstractions, very hard indeed.
William Blake in his Jerusalem sensed very clearly who the enemy really is:
I have tried to make friends by corporeal gifts but have only
Made enemies. I never made friends but by spiritual gifts,
By severe contentions of friendship and the burning fire of thought.
He who would see the Divinity must see him in his Children,
One first, in friendship and love, then a Divine Family, and in the
Jesus will appear; so he who wishes to see a Vision, a perfect Whole
Must see it in its Minute Particulars, Organized, and not as thou,
a Fiend of Righteousness, pretendest.
Everything about this faith, this Resurrection, militates against denying ultimate, whole existence to us Minute Particulars, to us, persons with names. And this is why the drama of human existence is not so much constituted by our existence as a fact, but by our existence as a choice.
The astronomer Professor Robert Jastrow wrote recently:
Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world (the word the Bible used to describe the universe). The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy. (“Have Astronomers Found God?” The New York Times Magazine, 25 June 1978, p. 19.)
If stories about our beginnings are not so far-fetched after all, perhaps stories about our end need not be so improbable either.
Easter Sunday is a festivity, a celebration. Its only interest and value to us is if it is what it implies, the Resurrection of Jesus, the pledge of ours. We know that we shall be different. We also believe that we shall be quite literally ourselves, with our own name, as Jesus was not some new or Third Man, but himself, Jesus. Any other belief would be despair.
And on Easter Day, Christianity is not a religion of despair.
*Image: The Resurrection by Benvenuto di Giovanni, 1491 [National Gallery, Washington, D.C.]