Thursday, April 5, 2018

When Things of Heaven Are Wed to Those of Earth

This short article explores the tie between the first part of the Easter Vigil celebrated on Holy Saturday and Divine Mercy Sunday. 


The Catholic Church celebrates the Easter Vigil sometime after sunset on Holy Saturday and before sunrise on Easter Sunday morning.  The Easter Vigil, with its four distinct parts, is notably absent from celebrations during Holy Week by our Protestant brothers and sisters.

The Easter Vigil service can last several hours, so perhaps that is why many Catholics do not attend. I find the Easter Vigil to be one of the most beautiful liturgies of the year and a celebration that directly anticipates Divine Mercy Sunday, which follows on the Sunday immediately after Easter.

When possible, the vigil begins outside the church structure with the blessing of both a small bonfire and the brand-new Easter candle. The priest prays for our protection by the “holy and glorious wounds of Christ,” and that the “light of Christ rising in glory [may] dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” [1] The Easter candle is lit from the bonfire, the people light their candles from the Easter candle, and after the prayers of blessing, all process into the church following the lighted Easter candle.

During this first part of the Easter Vigil, the interior of the Church is completely dark with the only light emanating from the large Easter candle and the people’s flickering luminaries.  The cantor sings the Easter Proclamation or Exsultet. The words of the Exsultet describe the symbolism of the Easter candle’s light while tracing man's journey from “ancient sinfulness,” starting with the first parents, to the end of “gloom of sin,” through Christ’s death on Good Friday and His anticipated resurrection on Easter Sunday morning.

About half-way through the Exsultet, the cantor chants,

“O truly necessary sin of Adam,” 
and then two lines later 
“O happy fault.”

A few stanzas later we hear,

“O truly blessed night,
 When things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
 And divine to human.”

The idea that the sin of our first parents is a happy thing or necessary may sound confusing, at best, and wrong, at worst.  Why has the sin of our first parents been recast as something necessary and happy?  And why is the Holy Saturday Vigil said to commemorate “when things of heaven are wed to things of earth, and divine to the human?”

I find the answers to these questions in the Divine Mercy of God which is celebrated on Divine Mercy Sunday.[2] Without the knowledge of my sins and the acknowledgment of my brokenness, I have no hope to understand what God offers me in His forgiveness of my sins. When I see my sinfulness, stripped naked of all excuses and illuminated through God the Father’s sacrifice of His only beloved Son and the Son’s complete obedience to the Father’s will, I could find myself in total, abject desolation.

I refuse to take the road to desolation; instead, I choose to view even my sins as a path, paved with God’s unfathomable Divine Mercy, which leads me back to Him. Thus the cantor proclaims “O truly necessary sin of Adam” and “O happy fault.”

God’s Mercy, as exercised in the forgiveness of my sins, and coupled with the knowledge and repentance of my sins, brings me to the intimacy with God for which I was created. All my hope in this life is made possible through Christ’s obedience, death, and resurrection—His glorified wounds—and celebrated uniquely in the Easter Vigil service on Holy Saturday.

Though the transformative grace of Christ’s death and His Easter morning resurrection, all sin can now be sourced into hope.  Sin becomes redeemed, resurrected through grace. Our "happy faults" expose our utter dependence on God. And what is God's response? Divine Mercy—God's New Covenant—sealed in the glorified wounds of Christ

How fitting that even in the glorified body of Christ the wounds of His crucifixion are still present.  How appropriate that Divine Mercy Sunday follows the first Sunday after Easter!
“Mercy, like every grace, always enters through a wound.” [3]
My cross will always be a crucifix. 

It is this Mercy that is the topic of my first novel to be published in 2019.
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[1] For more on the Catholic celebration of the Easter Vigil see: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/easter/commentary-on-easter-proclamation-exsultet.cfm

[2] For the history and message of Divine Mercy Sunday, see http://www.thedivinemercy.org/message/history/marianconnect.php

[3] Fr. Peter John Cameron, Editorial, O.P. Magnificat, April 2018, Vol 20, No. 2., pg. 4.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The “Spreading Ashes” Thing

I’ve had a bumpy start to the New Year.  The weather has been a bit “unfriendly” with more cold temperatures, snow, and ice than my part of the mid-South typically gets. Campus closures, due to inclement weather, have chopped out teaching days from the current semester with instructors and students left to compensate for the shortfall in creative ways without sacrificing content.

Another bump of sorts was my plunge into a snow-filled ditch as my car slid ninety degrees perpendicular to my intended direction of travel on an icy, snowy curve. The laws of physics and vector mathematics overtook my driving skills on one of the many hilly, twisty back-country roads that lead from my home into town. Tennessee men, passing by in big trucks, unable to control their urges to rescue women and extricate cars lodged in snowy ditches, came to my rescue.   

I have a heaviness in my heart that is due to more than reworked lesson plans, a now-melting snowpack, or snow-imposed cabin fever.   I recently learned of two deaths in the last couple of weeks: my first cousin and a dear college friend.  Both lives ended so wrong, and that wrongness represents so much of the tangled thinking that chokes and characterizes our world today.  I lament the confusion that my children and my grandchildren must overcome to blaze a path to truth in this life.

I received a late Christmas card informing me that my cousin Jim* had taken his own life last summer.  According to the note from his sister, Ann*, his suicide note offered no indication as to why Jim ended his own life.  Like so many, who take their own life, there were no red flags to suggest that Jim* was contemplating suicide.  He had a good relationship with his children, who lived nearby, and he did not live alone.  

Jim and Ann were a big part of my life growing up as my mother babysat them weekdays while their mother worked full-time. We all graduated from the same high school, and Jim and I were in the same graduating class. We spent all holidays together, and their family joined ours most Sundays for dinner after evening Mass.  

Many people are blessed to have temperaments and life experiences that make suicide incomprehensible to them. I can understand a bit about how someone can become so depressed and disoriented such that death seems like a welcomed release. Jim had heavy burdens growing up that were evident even to me as a self-centered teenager.  Those loads did not lighten with time. He left whatever remnants of his Catholic faith behind along with his hometown and, according to Ann, he did not have any sense of spirituality to guide him. 
There was no funeral, and his ashes will be spread in the spring by his adult children at his favorite fishing spot.

A few days after learning of Jim's suicide, I received news that one of my dear college friends, Jane*, had succumbed to ovarian cancer after a protracted, painful battle.  I expected that the disease would end her earthly life, but I prayed that before her death she would return to her Christian (Catholic, in particular) faith.  

Jane’s inner glow radiated outward from the moment that I first met her during my freshman year of college. I had never met anyone like Jane. She would frequently and unabashedly tell me, "I love you," instead of saying, "Goodbye."  I was both awed by and envious of her ability to communicate love so effortlessly. The last time I saw her was a year and a half ago on a trip out West when she was back in treatment for recurrent ovarian cancer. She still glowed.  

Over time this woman, who after college spent time discerning whether she had a vocation to the religious life, was swept away into the world of political correctness and abandoned her Catholic faith. She traded in Christianity for a pantheistic-like belief system that had no place for Jesus Christ. She still exuded love and volunteered her time in humanitarian service, but the boundary between Creator and His creation had blurred into a theological jumble.  

Upon her death, an email informed me that there was be no funeral. Her family plans to spread her ashes around her childhood home and in a favorite vacation spot.  There will be a party, at Jane’s request, with ice cream, music, and sharing memories to celebrate her life and provide “closure.” 

The now familiar practice of spreading ashes leaves me profoundly sad—especially when I think of Jim and Jane. Cremation is not my issue so long as it is not done to deny the Christian faith or to reject the resurrection of the body. For most people in the U.S., the decision for cremation seems to be a monetary one. The Catholic Church permits cremation but requires that the faithful inter the remains in cemeteries or other approved sacred places. (2)

Editorial credit: Andreas Zerndl / Shutterstock.com
My issue is spreading human ashes. It denies the sacredness of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.  Christ's Incarnation shines a light on the human body. When we spread the ashes of our loved ones, we attempt to squelch that radiance, no matter how reverently we believe we are acting. The underlying philosophy behind scattering ashes is non-Christian and by the very action asserts that human beings are merely one of many interchangeable cogs in nature with no particular divinely-accorded status.    

The immortality of the human soul sets human beings apart from all the rest of God's creatures. God invited only members of the human race to become His adopted children.  Through the Incarnation, Christ's human nature became part of the Trinity. Our adoption as children of God through Baptism elevates our human body to a temple of the Holy Spirit. 

While it is true that the soul leaves the body after death, the body was the “house” of the immortal soul.  Spreading ashes does not show the proper respect to the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.   

Our secular culture (and even many Christian faith traditions) have lost a correct understanding of the Theology of the Body.  Should it be a surprise that we have lost the proper understanding of the Theology of Death, too? Of course not, the two are related.  Celebrations of life make it easy to unharness the human creature from his Creator.  The Catholic funeral Mass and burial rite properly exhibit and reverence the tie between the deceased and His Creator. We are His—and that is the celebration of our lives.
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*I have changed the names out of respect for the families.