Friday, April 09, 2004

Some ill-formed thoughts off the top of my head. If this is ridiculous, or heretical, tell me. I'm just now writing these down for the first time.

Death and Good Friday

My professor smells like decay. His teeth jut out at odd angles. His ugly and thin beard, off-white, shoots out from his chin in violation of any aesthetic standard. What's disturbing about him is the pervading sense of mortality, something that is hideous to us because we want so badly to avoid the subject while we're young and healthy and sharp.

But death is at work in all of us, even now, even before we were born. We developed our fingers and toes by apoptosis: making certain cells between the fingers and toes destroy themselves, leaving the shape of the hand and foot behind. We grew by death. Now that we're older, another process is taking place. Each time our cells divide, they shorten the protective telomeres at the ends of the chromosomes. Eventually, first in the continually growing cells like the skin, but eventually in all cells, we will begin to degrade the necessary genetic information. Our skin develops the blotches of age, our hair turns gray if it stays in at all, and we begin the slow process of decay while still alive.

The Catholic perspective is that this mortality is the consequence of the Fall and of Original Sin, as is all the suffering of life. By our rejection of God, we have chosen death, and if that death takes seventy years to arrive, it is no less certain for that reason. In our current bodies, death is at work from us at every moment we are alive. So, too, the other deaths: the sad loss of memory and mental acuity with age; the disintegration of families and friendships, churches and marriages; the wars and famines and injustice throughout the world; the hatred of self that grows into despair and suicide. There is no moment in which we are not dying.

"OK, Pat," you say, "now you're going to tell us that God will make it alright at the Resurrection, so it's all great in the end. Well, I don't want to hear it. A God who would put us through this, afterlife or no, I can't count as loving. Even if it's somehow our responsibility, it's not enough for Him to heal us."

The implicit demand there is totally unreasonable, of course, just as was Job's demand that the Lord come down and personally answer to him why he was suffering. As C.S. Lewis put it, to complain to God about the way He ordered the cosmos is to cut off the branch you sit on, for our very powers of reasoning are a gift in that cosmos and subordinate to the reasoning of God.

The strange thing is that the Lord did respond to Job, though not at all in the way he expected. (Read those chapters of Job if you haven't already.) But what about this petulant human demand for the impossible, that God do more than make everything wonderful at the end of time?

We are miserable of our own doing, and misery loves company. We asked that God Himself suffer and die with us. We asked because we resent the asymmetry of the world: that we are not gods, that our actions have consequences we do not control, that any meaning our lives have is external to ourselves, as much as we would like to create our own. We do not want to be second fiddle in the Universe. And we resent God for having made us so.

The situation is not reciprocal; a dying God is of value beyond any of our suffering, even collectively from the beginning of time. We demanded that God purchase us at a price which we are not worth. And the strange part of the Christian mystery is that God accepted our blasphemous and unreasonable demand that He suffer with us. He took on our imperfect, weak, dying flesh, the humiliation and pain of life, and at the end the suffering and death we find so unfair; then, He made that the summit of His plan to heal us, to redeem us, to save us.

Put another way (and this was in Father Keyes' incredible Good Friday homily), it was not God who demanded the agony and death of His own begotten Son; it was each of us who did so. God gave in to our childish demands and did the impossible- He suffered and died with us. The eternal and omnipotent Lord of Creation made Himself vulnerable and weak, because it was not enough for us that He promised to purify and strengthen us.

This is the mystery of the Cross, the Sign of Contradiction that has triumphed over so many ideologies that seem to fit together more neatly. The Crucifixion juts out roughly from theology like a gray hair or a bad tooth. It's wasteful, it's abhorrent, and it defies our ability to control it. Thus it fits in perfectly with the rest of this slowly dying world.

And the odd thing is, the Crucifixion has a dignity to it above and beyond that of Christ's eventual glorification. It is the center of all suffering, and in a sense it is what is most truly human in the world. Because God Himself took on suffering and death, death itself is transformed. "Where, O death, is your sting? Death is swallowed up in victory." Though our world is dying, it is not for that reason senseless and bad. It doesn't require Heaven to balance the equation of human suffering, for the suffering can be made into a union with God today. An imperfect union, but a true one.

But then, I don't really understand any of this.

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