Pastoral Reflections

“He Is Risen” – Alleluia!

As you start reading this don’t think I’ve got my seasons mixed up; read on and hopefully it will all make sense.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol opens with the following statement:

Marley was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  Old Marley was as dead as a doornail… This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

When he says “Marley was dead: to begin with” what he means is that “to begin with” it is important for the reader to understand that Jacob Marley was dead, dead as a doornail.[1]  It’s meant to be as definitive a statement of fact as that of the irate character (played by John Cleese) in the classic Monty Python sketch in which he berates a pet shop owner (played by Michael Palin) for having sold him a dead parrot, while Palin tries unsuccessfully to claim that there’s nothing wrong with it.  In the rant that follows, Cleese uses fifteen different expressions to describe the fact that the bird is dead including, finally, “It’s an ex-parrot!”  In the same way, the fact that Jacob Marley was dead “must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story” that Dickens was about to tell. 

Ebenezer Scrooge had been Jacob Marley’s partner in their money-lending business, heartlessly enriching themselves from the excessive interest they charged those who borrowed from them.  On Christmas Eve Scrooge receives a visit from Marley’s ghost who tries to warn him that unless he reforms his ways he will, like Marley, end up being eternally punished for his sins.  Cynically dismissing it as a product of his imagination and therefore also dismissing Marley’s words of warning, Scrooge then receives three further visits – from the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas yet to come – and as a result of what each one reveals to Scrooge about how his wretched life had negatively affected family and friends, he begins to undergo a conversion and an awakening to the fact that he still has time and opportunity to change his ways and try to make up for how his life has been.

What Dickens is saying in that opening statement of the story is that if Marley had still been alive, both he and Scrooge would no doubt have continued living their lives, and conducting their business, in the exactly same way, neither one of them influencing the other for the better.  It was only when Marley was dead and was being punished for how he had lived his life, that he was given the chance to try to save his partner Scrooge’s soul even if it was too late to save his own.  It was only by being scared to death (or perhaps we should say scared by death) that Scrooge woke up to the reality of his situation and chose to do something about it – which never would have happened without that initial visit from Marley’s ghost which then set up the three Christmas ghosts’ visits.  It wasn’t a figment of Scrooge’s imagination, nor was it a dream, within the premise of the story everything he experienced really happened, and his conversion was the wonderful result referred to by Dickens.     

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten that this reflection is supposed to be about Easter.  I’m coming back to that now. 

Jesus had died on the cross.  His death was witnessed by all the people who were present on Calvary including the Jewish authorities and his executioners, as well as his mother and a number of his followers including St John.  Before his body was taken down from the cross the gospel relates that a soldier pierced his heart with a lance to make absolutely sure he was dead.  His body was then taken away and sealed in a tomb hewn from rock.  There was no question but that Our Lord was dead.

St Mathew’s gospel tells us that the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate to ask him to post guards at the tomb to make sure that none of Jesus’ disciples removed his body in order to make it look as if he had risen from the dead as he had said he would.  Pilate gives his permission and so they first seal the tomb and then put the guards in place.  There was, therefore, no way that Jesus or his disciples could have faked his resurrection.  Indeed the disciples themselves were hiding in the upper room in the city afraid the authorities would now come and arrest them and have them put to death also.

When the women came to the tomb the next morning intending to carry out the anointing rites that there hadn’t been time to perform before Passover, the gospels tell us that they found the soldiers still on guard.  St Matthew’s gospel says that they were about to ask the soldiers to help them open the tomb when an angel appeared to them, rolled the stone away and sat on it.  The angel tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead and that they should return to the city and tell the disciples what has happened and that they will see Jesus there.

We have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Our Lord – the two things are usually always mentioned together as the Catechism[2] explains:

  • The Paschal mystery has two aspects: by his death Christ liberates us from sin; by his Resurrection he opens for us the way to a new life. (para 654)
  • The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the one mediator between God and mankind. (para 618)
  • The Resurrection of Jesus is the crowning truth of our faith in Christ… preached as an essential part of the Paschal mystery along with the cross. (para 638)
  • Christ’s death is both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the redemption of mankind through the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and the sacrifice of the New Covenant which restores mankind to communion with God through the blood of the covenant which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (para 613)
  • The truth of Jesus’ divinity is confirmed by his Resurrection. (para 653)

The central point that we need to remember is made by St Anastasius of Antioch in the Office of Readings on Tuesday of Easter Week.  He says:

Sacred scripture had foretold from the beginning Christ’s death and the sufferings which preceded his death.  But it also proclaims what happened to his dead body after his death, and declares that the God to whom this happened is impassible and immortal[3].  If he really was God, then the truth of the incarnation must provide us with the reason why the Word of God, otherwise impassible, came to his passion [and death].  Indeed man could be saved in no other way.  It was necessary that Christ should suffer; it was completely impossible that the passion should not take place.  Christ himself affirmed this when he called slow and foolish those who did not know that the Christ had to suffer in this way and so enter his glory.

As we just said, the Paschal mystery has two aspects: by his death Christ liberates us from sin and by his Resurrection he opens for us the way to eternal life.  To put it simply, Our Lord’s death on the cross had to happen so that his rising from the dead could also happen, and that is what brought those opening lines from A Christmas Carol to mind, but with one or two slight changes to the wording:

Jesus was dead: to begin with.  There was no doubt whatsoever about that.  Jesus was dead as a doornail.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come from the events we celebrate at Easter.

Having commemorated Christ’s passion and death in Holy Week, what we then celebrate is his resurrection from the dead and his rising to new life on Easter Sunday – which is quite rightly the most important feast day in the Church’s year, a celebration of great hope and joy, of darkness giving way to light, and of death giving way to eternal life.  All of this is expressed in the Exultet of the Easter Vigil liturgy from which these lines are taken[4]:

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!

Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!

Christ has ransomed us with his blood,

and paid for us the price of Adam’s sin.

This is the night when Christians everywhere,

washed clean of sin are restored to grace.

This is the night when Jesus Christ

broke the chains of death

and rose triumphant from the grave.

Night truly blessed when man is reconciled with God!

Therefore, heavenly Father, in the joy of this night

receive our evening sacrifice of praise

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[1] (Interestingly the website explains: “dead as a doornail, or deader than a doornail, is a phrase which means “unequivocally deceased”. The term goes back to the 1300s, but was used in the 1500s by William Shakespeare, and in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843. It is thought that the phrase comes from the manner of securing nails hammered into a door by clenching them – clenching is the practice of bending over the protruding end of the nail and hammering it into the wood. When a nail has been clenched, it has been dead nailed, and is not easily “resurrected” to use again.”  I thought I’d include that explanation because of its reference to death and resurrection, which is relevant to this reflection.)

[2] (Catechism of the Catholic Church)

[3] (meaning that as God he couldn’t suffer or die)

[4] (from the 1974 translation of the Roman Missal)

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