Saturday, April 23, 2011

Creation's Triduum: How nature rehearses death and resurrection

For one week he shall make a firm compact with the many; half the week he shall abolish sacrifice and oblation…” (Daniel 9:27)

The traditional interpretation of “one week” in the prophet Daniel's writing points to Holy Week and the “half the week” an allusion to the Triduum of the Lord. From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday of the first century is when Jesus established his New Covenant "with the many." It was the last three days of this holy week which are considered to be the holiest three days of the liturgical calendar when the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of our Lord are celebrated by the Catholic Church.

After passing through the Gates of Death, the Holy Trinity raised up the body of Jesus so that he could give testimony that the fullness of life is to be had after we pass through those same gates.

A significant expression of that liberating power Christ offers to each of us is the elimination of the fear of death. “Now since the children share in blood and flesh, he likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.” (Hebrews 2: 14-15) As one priest said, “To avoid the confrontation with death is a refusal to live life to the full.” Indeed our view of death determines how we live life. If we are burdened with the handicap of unbelief then this life and all of its goods will be slavishly sought after or clung to.

Bishop Sheen once said that if you tell a boy that he is to be given one ball and one ball only, then he will be afraid to play with it. But if the little boy knows he is getting another ball, he will play with the ball with a carefree spirit. He will not be so fearful of losing it; he might even be inspired to give it to another boy or girl. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” If this is the only life we have such generosity and love is unintelligible. And worse yet, life becomes a prison. Worldly people constantly give witness to their anxiety when they hurry to accumulate as much experience and as many material goods as possible. They are always in a hurry. Furthermore, their anxiety magnifies misfortune. When misfortune occurs, they overcompensate by creating layers of laws and regulations to protect themselves. Perhaps, this is what the Letter to the Hebrews was referring to when it stated that "those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.”

Christ revealed to us in the Holy Triduum that not only does death follow life, but that life- a higher and fuller life -follows death. However, for centuries since the beginning of time, God has been tutoring us about these Mysteries of the Triduum through analogies of his creation. “The great truth,” Pope Leo XIII said, “which we learn from nature herself is also the grand Christian dogma on which religion rests as on its foundation - that, when we have given up this present life, then shall we really begin to live.”

Perhaps this is why the sun sets only to rise again; or why a person sleeps at night taking on the semblance of death only to wake up the next morning; or why a preborn baby knows only darkness until it is born to a world of light and color. Father Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, gave a wonderful sermon to Pope Benedict XVI called, The Christian Response to Secularism. In it he said, “Between the life of faith in time and eternal life there is a relationship similar to that which exists between the life of the embryo in the maternal womb and that of the baby, once he has come to the light.”

The pontifical preacher goes on to elaborate on this illustration with a story. Father Cantalamessa related the following to the pope and the faithful gathered at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome:

There were two twins, a boy and a girl, so intelligent and precocious that, still in the mother's womb, already spoke to one another. The girl asked her brother: "According to you, will there be a life after birth?" He answered: "Don't be ridiculous. What makes you think that there is something outside of this narrow and dark space in which we find ourselves?" The girl, gaining courage, insisted: "Perhaps a mother exists, someone who has put us here, and who will take care of us." And he answered: "Do you, perhaps, see a mother anywhere? What you see is all that is." She replied: "But don't you feel at times a pressure on the chest that increases day by day and pushes us forward?" "To tell the truth," he answered, "it's true: I feel it all the time." "See," concluded his sister triumphantly, "this pain cannot be for nothing. I think it is preparing us for something greater than this small space."

The dark womb is an analogy of our life here on earth. In 1917 when Our Lady appeared to Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco, she brought heaven to this “small space” of ours; that is, to a world that was growing darker by the decade. After each visit from the Mother of God the children were supremely happy and could not wait to see her again. Even little Lucia caught a glimpse of heaven while gazing upon the beautiful Lady from Heaven. She told her parents, “Heaven was so pretty…there were many wild ponies.” Lucia would later say that “before the Divine Presence we felt exaltation and joy.” One lasting fruit of the Blessed Virgin's visitations was that the three seers lost their natural fear of death. Indeed, they eagerly looked forward to heaven. For them- as with the twins in the mother's womb -death was no longer deemed to be the end of life but the labor pains through which they attain eternal happiness.

Such supernatural interventions are rare for most people. And during the Catholic liturgical calendar the Church only celebrates the Triduum once a year. However, the Lord, in his goodness, gives us many reminders of death and resurrection through his creation. As St. Paul said, “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.” (Romans 1:20) Not only is God's existence understood and perceived in what he has made; his creation is also a harbinger that life not only precedes death but follows it! To be sure, we learn from the Church's celebration of the Triduum and nature itself that for those who love God death is the incident, life the permanent reality.

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