Having delivered His farewell address from the pulpit of the Cross and finished the work of His Eternal Father, Jesus bows His head and dies. To make certain of His death, a centurion, Longinus by name, pierces His heart with a lance and the Divine Master, who saved up a few drops of His Precious Blood, now pours them out to prove that His love is stronger than death.
Two men who lacked courage to declare their affiliations while He was living, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, brought perfumes and spices and embalmed the body of Jesus. It was first laid on Mary’s lap, and it seemed to her that Bethlehem had come back again — but really it had not. Between Bethlehem and Calvary our sins had intervened. The body was lifeless. Jesus was dead.
His enemies remembered that He had said that He would rise again, but they were certain He would not. They were afraid that the Apostles would come and steal away the body and then say He had risen. Guarding against such deceit, they went to Pilate, asking him to set a watch of soldiers about the tomb for three days in addition to which they would attach their own official seal to the stone before the entrance. Pilate acceded to their request. In the words with which the Evangelist Matthew closed his Gospel, the most ironic sentence in literature: “And they departing made the sepulchre sure.” The seal was placed on the sepulchre and a great stone rolled in front of the door. They took every precaution against fraud, but could take none against Divinity. As they made their way down Calvary’s hill, such thoughts as these ran through their minds: “Now his fisherman can go back to their nets and their boats; their kingdom is a mockery. As for their master, his heart was so pierced that blood and water came from it. Even though he had a breath of life left in that bloodless body, it is now being suffocated by the hundredweight of spices with which he was embalmed. Our vigilance and that of the soldiers will not permit any one to steal away the body. He who said he had life in abundance is now dead; he who said he could summon twelve legions of angels to his assistance now is cold as death; he who said he could raise up a child of Abraham from a stone is now buried under stone. The imposter is dead! How wonderfully effective is a Roman death! Nothing can survive a crucifixion! He will never rise again!”
Is that true? Can one rise from the dead? Does not the very fact that He was born in a stranger’s cave and buried in a stranger’s grave prove that human “birth and death are equally foreign to Him? Look about at nature. Is not the springtime the Easter Day of the Good Friday of winter? Has not all death within itself the germs of life? Does not the “falling rain bud the greenery”? Does not the falling acorn bud the tree? Why should all creation rise from the dead and not the Redeemer of creation?
“If this bright lily
Can live once more,
And its white promise
Be as before,
Why cannot the great stone
Be moved from His door?
If the green grass
Ascend and shake
Year after year,
And blossoms break
Again and again
For April’s sake,
Why cannot He,
From the dark and mold,
Show us again
And gleaming glory,
A stream of gold?
Faint heart, be sure
These things must be.
See the new bud
On the old tree! …
If flowers can wake,
Oh, why not He?”
Sunday morning came, and it was one of calm, like the sleep of innocents, and the clear, benign air seemed almost as if it had been stirred by angels’ wings. Mary walked in the garden and someone near her spoke a word, and pronounced it longingly, wistfully, in that touching and unforgettable voice which had called her so many times: “Mary.” And to this one and only word, she made an answer, a word and only one: “Rabboni.” And as she fell at His knees in the dewy grass and clasped in her hands those bare feet, she saw two scars, two red-lined marks of nails — for Christ was now walking in the glory of His new Easter morn.
That was the first Easter Day. Centuries have whirled away since, and on this new Easter Day as I turn from that garden to the altar, I behold placed over the tabernacle, on this Resurrection Day, the image, not of a Risen Savior, but the image of a dying one, to teach me that Christ lives over again in His Church, and that the Church, like Christ, not only lives, not only dies, but always rises from the dead. She is in love with death as a condition of birth; and with her, as with Christ, unless there is a Good Friday in her life, there will never be an Easter Sunday; unless there is the crown of thorns there will never be the halo of light; and unless there is the Cross there will never be the empty tomb. In other words, every now and then the Church must be crucified by an unbelieving world and buried as dead, only to rise again. She never does anything but die, and for that peculiar reason she never does anything but live. Every now and then the very life seems to have gone out of her; she is palled with death; her blood seems to have been sapped out of her; her enemies seal the tomb, roll a stone in front of her grave, and say: “The Church will never rise again!” But somehow or other she does rise again.
At least a dozen times in history, the world has buried the Church and each time she has come to life again. I shall mention but a few such instances.
A hunted Savior must always have hunted children; and in those days of the Roman persecution the Church, like a mole, had to dig into the caves of the earth. There, under the foundation of Rome’s proudest temples, under roads that rocked with the tramp of Rome’s resistless legions, these children of God were nourishing themselves on the Bread of Life, fortifying their bodies as well as their souls, for the day when they would be led to the “thumbs-down” crowd of the Roman Colosseum to testify to their faith, even with their blood. The day came; they were led into the center of that great amphitheater with enemies round about. There was no escape, except from above — but that was enough. They met death with a smile upon their lips. Caesar’s minions scattered fresh sands to hide their blood, but could not still their voice. It rose from the din of that arena; it entered into the very chancery of God’s Justice; it pierced the mist of undawned ages with no uncertain challenge: “In our blood has been mingled the blood of the Living God — dying and behold we live.” Roman swords blunted by massacre no longer fitted their sheaths; the wild beasts overfed on the living flesh of the Church lost their craving for food — but still the bloody warfare went on. Caesar was certain he had conquered. He rejoiced that the Church was dead. Her life was sapped and drained; she could never survive the Roman sword. A stone was rolled before the door. The Church would never rise again. And as they set their watch, and even as they watched, the Church like her Risen Savior came from the grave of the Catacombs and was seen walking in the glory of her new Easter Morn.
There came other moments in her history when in the eyes of the world she seemed to have her very life drained out of her. Whenever the Palm Sundays of earthly rejoicing came her way, and the world proclaimed her Queen, and strewed palm branches beneath her feet — in a word, whenever a great measure of temporal prosperity came her way, and she began to rely more upon action than prayer, she became weak. The yoke of Christ then seemed heavy to her children; bodies craved for the line of least resistance and hearts yearned for the fleshpots of Egypt. It is a strange but certain fact that the Church is never so weak as when she is powerful with the world; never so poor as when she is rich with the riches of the world; never so foolish as when she is wise with the fancies of the world. She is strongest with Divine Help when she is weakest with human power, for like Peter she is given the miraculous draught of fishes when she admits by her own power she has labored all the night and taken nothing.
When her discipline, her spirit of saintliness, her zeal for Christ, her vigils, and her mortifications, become a thing of less importance, the world makes the fatal mistake of believing that her soul is dead and her faith is departed. Not so! The faith, even in those days of lesser prayer, is solid — for it is the faith of the centuries, the faith of Jesus Christ. What may be weak is her discipline, her prayerfulness, and her saintliness, for these are of men, whereas her faith is of God. A renewal of spirit, then, will come not by changing her way of thinking, for that is divine, but her way of acting,for that is human.
But the world, failing to make this distinction between the Divine and the human in her, as it failed to make it in Christ, takes her for dead. To the world, her very life seems spent, her heart pierced, her body drained; in its eyes she is just as dead as the Master when taken down from the cross, and there is nothing left to do but to lay her in the sepulchre.
Once more a great stone is rolled before her tomb; the official seal of death placed upon it, the watch set; but as they watched saintliness came back, Christ stirred in Peter’s bark, and at the very moment men were saying she was dead, she was seen walking in the glory of her new Easter Morn.
Then came our own times and with it another death. Her death this time was inflicted not by executioners, but by other Pilates. These were dangerous days, for any civilization is in a bad way when it becomes indifferent, like another Pilate, to the answer to the question: “What is Truth?” From inside and outside of the Church sprang up that old Greek error that there is no truth — an error which, for want of a knowledge of its ancient ancestry, was called Modernism. Truth was derationalized, error rationalized, and proofs brought forward to prove all proofs worthless. Teachers who bedecked themselves in the robes of prophets became insulted if told they were not gentlemen, but remonstrated mildly if told they were not Christians. Minds now were told, and they began to believe, with the force of repetition, that we must be indifferent to both error and truth; that it is a lack of broad-mindedness to make up one’s mind; that it makes no difference whether God exists, whether Christ is God, or whether the Sacraments do actually communicate Divine Life — the only thing that matters is the subjective impression such beliefs have upon the feeling of the believer. Minds began to live by catchwords, phrases covered up loose thinking, and there was hardly an ear that did not hear such catchwords and phrases as “Life is bigger than logic,” and “The Christ of Faith is not the Jesus of History.”
The new spirit of the age was seemingly burying the Spirit of Christ. Books and articles were shot from the press, and in 1907 there hardly was an article written that did not say that the Church had now definitely reached its end. The world was asked to chant her Requiem; a great stone was rolled before the door of her sepulchre; the watch set. “She would never rise again.” And according to every human law she never should have risen from the dead! But for some mysterious reason the Giant stirred. War was on. Long-range guns were tearing great gaping wounds in majestic Cathedrals; ploughshares were beaten into swords; cannon fire changed poppy fields into Haceldamas of blood. And lo and behold! That which was thought dead was seen on the battlefields pressing a crucifix to dying lips; and when the smoke of battle cleared and the mist lifted, she was seen walking in the glory of her new Easter Morn; and even now as men watch her she grows! Christ, then, must have meant what He said when He declared that His Church would endure even to the consummation of the world.
There emerges, then, from her history one great and wonderful lesson and it is this: Christ rose from the dead, not because He is man, but because He is God. The Church rises from the sepulchre in which violent hands or passing errors would inter her, not because she is human, but because she is Divine. Nothing can rise from the dead except Divinity. The world should profit by experience and give up expecting the Church to die. If a bell had been tolled on a thousand different occasions and the funeral never took place, men would soon begin to regard the funeral as a joke. So it is with the Church. The notice of her execution has been posted but the execution has never taken place. Science killed her and still she was there. History interred her, but still she was alive. Modernism slew her, but still she lived.
Even civilizations are born, rise to greatness, then decline, suffer, and die; but they never rise again. But the Church does rise again; in fact she is constantly finding her way out of the grave because she had a Captain who found His way out of the grave. The world may expect her to become tired, to be weak when she becomes powerful, to become poor when she is rich, but the world need never expect her to die. The world should give up looking for the extinction of that which so many times has been vainly extinguished.
Like a mighty oak tree which has stood for twenty centuries she bears fresh green foliage for each new age, that the age may come and enjoy the refreshing benediction of its shade. The flowers that open their chalices of perfume this spring are not old things, but new things on an old root. Such is the Church. She is reborn to each new age, and hence is the only new thing in the world. It is the errors that are old, for our so-called new thought is only an old mistake with a new label; it is not anew enthusiasm nor is it a new loyalty. The Church has put to bed all the errors of the past for she knows that to marry the passing fads of any age is to be a widow in the next. She is therefore not behind the times, but beyond the times, always fresh while the age is dying.
She will go on dying and living again and in each recurring cycle of a Good Friday and an Easter Sunday her one aim in life will be to preach Christ and Him Crucified. As a student I may be expected to know something of her aims, and as her priest I may be expected to know something of her secrets; and I honestly assure you, at the close of this series, that the Church seeks not the overthrow of governments, desires not to impede progress, strives not to persecute those who differ with her. (I know all these things are said about her). But what she does seek, with the full ardor of her soul, is to bring minds captive to the understanding of Christ, to lead wills to the glorious Liberty of the sons of God, to thrill human hearts with the Love that leaves all others cold, and to open eyes to a Beauty that leaves all other beauty pain. And, hence, if any single word of mine has lifted up but one soul to a nobler understanding of Christ, or fanned a single spark of love for His cause into a flame, or induced the tendrils of a single heart to entwine about the Heart of Hearts, then I shall believe that my words and my life shall not have been spoken or lived in vain.
The Catholic Hour will go on, under still nobler guidance, but its end and purpose will ever remain the same: To bring the peace of Christ to the souls of our countrymen. There will be no weapons to make that peace an armed peace, but there will be two insignificant instruments used, which have been used from the beginning, and they will be the instruments Our Lord taught His Apostles to use, namely those of fishermen and shepherds. I might say, therefore, we will go on “by hook and by crook” and the hook will be the hook of the fisherman, and the crook will be the crook of the shepherd; and with the hook we will catch souls for Christ, and with the crook we will keep them, even to the end of time; for as fishers of men and shepherds of souls we are committed to the high destiny of making Christ the King of human hearts, and with only the sign of Jonas the prophet, the fulfillment of that destiny can never be doubted, for if truth wins, Christ wins; if truth… Ah! But truth can’t lose