Monday, April 22, 2013

The First Forty Days of Easter

Our Lord’s public ministry was preceded by a forty day period of testing and self-denial. This, as we know, is celebrated annually by the Church with the season of Lent. St. Augustine teaches us that the number forty, in connection with fasting, signifies the whole period of this present life. During these forty days our Lord overcame the temptations of the Devil in the desolate and austere conditions of the wilderness. He experienced firsthand the pangs of hunger and human weakness. But it was through that weakness that he prevailed over evil and infidelity. St. Paul experienced the power of God in the Cross in much of the same way. It was precisely in what the world calls “failure” and “defeat” that the Lord worked his wonders through the Apostle. This is why St. Paul could say: “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:10)

The forty days in desert by our Lord and the Church’s Lenten journey with him calls to mind that our life here on earth is not our abiding home. Our home is elsewhere. Pope Leo XIII made this very point just when Western Civilization was on the cusp of technological progress and prosperity. This, he anticipated, would give humanity a false sense of independence from God; a kind of false sense of security. In fact, he cautioned against those who would promise paradise on earth. He said,

“To suffer and to endure, therefore, is the lot of humanity; let them strive as they may, no strength and no artifice will ever succeed in banishing from human life the ills and troubles which beset it. If any there are who pretend differently - who hold out to a hard-pressed people the boon of freedom from pain and trouble, an undisturbed repose, and constant enjoyment - they delude the people and impose upon them, and their lying promises will only one day bring forth evils worse than the present. Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is, and at the same time to seek elsewhere, as We have said, for the solace to its troubles.”

Christ told his Apostles that our treasure is where our heart is. And if our heart is with Christ in heaven, it is there where the solace of our troubles is to be found. As if to drive this point home, our Lord added forty day period in which we, his followers, are to commemorate. After his resurrection, he spent forty days with his friends. He walked among them and ate with them. He gave them the power to carry out all that he commanded of them.

In contrast to the forty days that preceded his public ministry, the Risen Lord, in his glorified existence, was not subject to pain and deprivation. His human soul and his human body were no longer subject to the elements of the universe. Prior to his resurrection his body and soul were made vulnerable to the forces of nature and the cruelty of men. But in the days following his resurrection, his glorified body transcended these things. For instance, he was able to appear in many places in a short period of time; he was able to walk through walls; and he was able to disappear from sight of others at a moment’s notice. These forty days in which our Lord fellowshipped with his closest relatives and friends is every bit as important as his forty days in the desert. In some respects, it is a snapshot of heaven.

To be sure, the joys of the Risen Lord during these forty days- that is, the first Easter Season –is that which he intends to share with his friends in heaven. It is a preview. And as indicated, it was during that time that he celebrated the Eucharist with his disciples in Emmaus, when he communicated his Spirit to the Apostles by breathing on them, when invited St. Thomas to touch his wounds and when he ate breakfast (i.e. fish at the fire) with them. These were the joys that followed his Passion and Death on the Cross. According to his critics, the story was supposed to end with Good Friday. But in reality, the Easter Season marked the beginning of our Lord’s triumph over death.

In a world that is becoming more burdened with sorrows, it is important that we, his followers, show signs of that Easter joy. The early Church had a way of celebrating the Easter Season in a peculiar way. At the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea, the bishops gathered there gave the directive that Christians were not to kneel during the Easter-Pentecost Season. In Canon XX, it reads: “Since there are some who kneel on Sunday and during the season of Pentecost, this holy synod decrees that, so that the same observances may be maintained in every diocese, one should offer one's prayers to the Lord standing.”

The posture of standing up at Mass was symbolize the Risen Lord and the victory he had over death. For this reason, kneeling was forbidden during the Easter Season. Around the year 200 A.D., Tertullian, a Father of the Church, went so far as to suggest that penitential practices were inappropriate during the Easter Season. He said, "We consider it unlawful, to fast, or to pray kneeling, upon the Lord's day; we enjoy the same liberty from Easter-day to that of Pentecost."

As it should, the season of Lent ceremoniously draws our attention to our mortality, contrition and penance. But what about the season of Easter? How do we summon before us the reality of heaven?

The early Christians were a people of hope just when the Roman Empire was falling apart. They looked forward to the coming of the kingdom while pagans were looking backwards. Unable to see that the mustard seed Christ planted in Jerusalem was one of promise, the pagans thought their best days had passed. Indeed, their minds took them back to the glory days of Rome. Little did they know that the once persecuted society of believers, namely, the Catholic Church, held the keys to the future. Why? Because they seized the Easter Season and put into effect spiritual exercises that called to mind the kingdom of heaven. And by seeking first the kingdom of heaven as our Lord instructed, the early Christians were in a position to raise from the ruins of the Roman Empire a new and better civilization. Happier days were yet to come.