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Is Resurrection a Choice?

April 1, 2010:

On Palm Sunday, the Sunday that begins Holy Week, and again on Good Friday, Catholic Christians read the passion narrative of Jesus - his arrest, trial, death, and burial. This year, as I pondered Luke's gospel, it struck me that we read all passion narratives only so far as Jesus' death and burial. Of course, it makes sense since Easter Sunday is still ahead of us, and we cannot go into celebratory mode too early. But, I thought it a bit odd to read only as far as the death and burial when we all know the end of the story. After all, the gospels were written backwards from the viewpoint of both death and resurrection; it's not like we would give the ending away.

I find it curious. The fact that the Church does not read the resurrection story on Palm Sunday or Good Friday raises a basic question for me... Did the Church suspend the Resurrection story those days because it was not a foregone conclusion?

While we take the Resurrection for granted like we take the Crucifixion for granted, maybe our presumption was not God's presumption. Maybe resurrection had to be a divine choice. We regularly speak about Jesus choosing to die, freely sacrificing himself, offering up his life for our salvation. If suffering, crucifixion, and death were free choices done willingly, out of love, wouldn't resurrection have to be a divine choice as well?

It is an admittedly unusual thought, but for me this points to the danger and promise of resurrection. We ordinarily do not think about resurrection as risky business. And if truth be told, sometimes Christians approach Easter as a kind of ecclesial sigh of relief. Now that the whole mess is done with, the Lenten depression has come to a close, and we can go back to chocolate, beer, cigarettes - go back to being our same selves.

But maybe Easter is not just an alleluia of relief. Now that Lent is over, maybe there is more challenge, risk, work to be done. Maybe the threat, the danger of resurrection is the reason we suspend reading that story on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Maybe for God resurrection was both a free choice and a dangerous one. Maybe those three days in the tomb were not the time needed to recover from the cross, but the time God took to decide whether or not resurrection was going to be in our and in the world's future, whether resurrection was worth the risk, the danger, the pain.

In his rising, would his detractors line up again to abuse, to reject, to punish? Would he have to face more rejections, more denials from his disciples? Did the divine ponder all those who would use his name for their own advantage? Did God wonder whether resurrection was worth it, knowing that his followers might use religion to oppress as a weapon for persecuting the Jews, as a reason for holy war or crusade to destroy Islam, or as an excuse for prejudice against other religions? Did God wonder whether resurrection was worth it, knowing that some of his followers might use religion as a cover for abuse, and horrible as it is to suggest, maybe even a shield against the truth and a refuge from justice?

If God is all knowing and knew the things that Jesus' followers would do in his name, it is wholly miraculous to me that Jesus chose to rise, chose to take that risk, chose to love us not only unto death, but to love us even when threatened by resurrection.

Sometimes I wonder if Easter, like Christmas is too easily celebrated, too facilely embraced as a kind of religious "happy thought" with no implications for the baptized. Jesus is risen, alleluia! Death is vanquished, alleluia! Eternal life is promised, alleluia! God's done all the work and let's go home, alleluia!

But what is our work? Are we to choose resurrection in all of its promise and all of its risk?

Choosing resurrection can be difficult. Some of us ... maybe all of us at one time or another, refuse the new life of Christ. Instead, we sometimes choose to be the walking dead, immune to the hurt, insulated from the pain, unresponsive to the need that surrounds us like an ocean, fearing that if we choose resurrection, we will surely drown. But Christ assures us, having wagered his own body on the cross and wagered a second time on resurrection, that the waters of baptism have made us buoyant and that embracing resurrection in all its risk is the way to true and sustaining life.

Mikey is an eleven year-old who developed a brain tumor two years ago. He fought it with surgery and chemo. Last year, his family celebrated his apparent recovery. Then a few months ago a spot appeared, the threat returned. His parents were fearful of how Mikey would take the news, whether he would resist further painful treatment. His response, however, "I will do what is necessary." He opted for resurrection, in all its terrible beauty.

The poetess Julia Esquivez wrote "We have been Threatened with Resurrection." In the face of a brutal dictatorship in which hoards of innocents were killed, she wrote these searing words:

What keeps us from sleeping
is that they have threatened us with resurrection!
Because at each nightfall,
though exhausted from the endless inventory
of killings since 1954,
yet we continue to love life,
and do not accept their death!

...Because in this marathon of Hope,
there are always others to relieve us
in bearing the courage necessary
to arrive at the goal which lies beyond death...

Accompany us then on this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
You will then know how marvelous it is
to live threatened with resurrection!
To dream awake,
to keep watch asleep
to live while dying
and to already know oneself resurrected!

You are invited to follow the lead of an eleven year-old. Together, let's accept our Easter work "to dream awake, to keep watch asleep, to live while dying," and to make the choice to already know ourselves resurrected through Christ our Lord.

Edward Foley, Capuchin, is the Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality and Professor of Liturgy and Music at Catholic Theological Union

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