Science teaches that the cosmological line between death and life is tenuous and fragile: Were the earth to wander beyond her normal orbit, her florid and rich life would be destroyed by excessive heat or cold. On our planet torrential rains or droughts are all that is needed to destroy vegetation and animal life. Each day tears of sorrow are shed as thousands of human beings pass out of this world, while at the same time tears of joy accompany the birth of thousands of new lives into the world.
Life and death remain the two greatest mysteries that human beings encounter each day, yet all the advances of science and philosophy have brought us no closer to grappling with their essential realities. Only in the supernatural realm of divine revelation can we find more substantial guidance. Revelation will not answer all our human questions to our complete satisfaction, but it will give us insights and confidence to plumb their depths without despair.
Holy Saturday, a day of anticipation and transition, balances the mysteries of life and death at Christ’s tomb. As we wait and watch in silent contemplation, we learn that in the supernatural order of grace, death, which is supposed to be the end, is paradoxically the ultimate source of life.
It is true that in the natural order death and new life are intimately related. We see this in the plants that die each fall after their purpose has been spent, only to regenerate in the spring. Some dead plants generate new life directly, as our Lord recognized: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Like the grain of wheat, the supernatural order offers countless examples of death actually causing life. In the blood of the martyrs the seed of the Church is sown. In baptism we die to sin and are reborn in the Spirit. In our lives we accept suffering as a cross that leads to redemption. In Lent we die to self and sin through fasting so that we may celebrate the resurrection of our Lord with hearts and minds renewed.
Forty days of self-denialof tiny, personal deathshave brought us now to the holy sepulcher. Only with our pride chastened and our bellies hungry can we await the resurrection of the one who never allowed pride or hunger to interfere with doing his Father’s will. And doing the Father’s will meant his deathliterallyin the most excruciating and exhausting way imaginable.
Yet this death brought life, and life in abundance. Eternal life. Life in union with God our loving Father.
In the garden of Eden Adam rejected God and chose himself. In the garden of Gethsemane Christ chose his Father, and in doing so, he chose us. By a tree Adam sinned and brought death to all. On a tree Christ died to restore us to life. And so we sing tonight in the Mother of all Vigils, “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a redeemer!”
The Apostles’ Creed declares that after his death and before his resurrection Christ descended into hell. There he freed the souls of the justAbraham, Moses, David, and countless others, including his own foster father Josephwho died without the hope of eternal life with God. For them death was the end. Now the death of Christ has become the very source of life.
Life with God in Christ reaches its fulfillment after death, but it is lived now in the Church and through the sacraments. It is a life that the world does not understand. For the world, living according to the precepts of the Church is deaththe Church, it believes, crushes our freedom and forbids us natural pleasures. Like our Lord, we believers are mocked and spit upon as the world derides, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.”
The world cannot see or understand that our tears are tears of joy. The Church indeed calls us to die, but it is a death we accept freely, for we know that by dying to self in imitation of Christ we receive the precious pearl that no worldly sum or pleasure can surpass. The world and its allurements, like everything natural, will pass away. But in the supernatural order the words of Christ and our trust in them will never pass away.
Today we stand at the holy sepulcher and wait. Tomorrow the world will see it empty. In the natural order the empty tomb is the end of the story; there is no hope beyond the grave. The emptiness of the tomb is a fitting metaphor for the emptiness that modern secularism offers.
But for those with the eyes of faith, the risen Lord stands triumphantly atop his empty tomb. Death has been vanquished by his deatha death that has made all things new.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.