Who We Are: Loved, Enlightened, and Forgiven
But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11)
In 1990, Israeli construction workers uncovered a chamber tomb containing a very ornate ossuary (or bone box) with the name “Joseph, son of Caiaphas” inscribed on it. It held the bones of a man, roughly sixty years of age, believed to be the remains of the high priest commonly known as Caiaphas, whose decisive voice in the Sanhedrin accelerated the plot against Jesus (cf. Jn 11:45-52). While his bones were reinterred on the Mount of Olives, the chest is now housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Emptied of its contents, it now sits as a display piece, to be seen by museum goers, but with hands behind the back, so to speak, so as not to do damage to such an important artifact.
Go crosstown in Jerusalem and visit the Holy Sepulcher and you are thrust into a beehive of activity. There, you find a tomb also empty, but in a church that is very “hands on.” You get down on hands and knees to kiss the anointing stone, getting your hands into the aromatic oils that multitudes of pilgrims have poured thereon. You go upstairs and touch the hole in the earth where the cross was planted two thousand years ago. You duck, literally, under the low entrance into the sacred aedicule to touch and kiss the marble slab that sits over the Lord’s temporary resting place. You hear voices chanting and singing in multiple languages. You see real jealousy over territorial rights within the church between the various Christian ritual families. There is tension, of course, but tension is a sign of life. Disputes over use of space signify that something important is at stake. It is messy, but living. The Holy Sepulcher is nothing close to a museum.
You come away seeing the obvious: Jesus is alive; Caiaphas is dead. The high priest’s ossuary is on display among other period artifacts in a climate-controlled room. Ironically, his little ossuary is now “under guard,” i.e., protected from thieves. The tomb of Jesus is vibrating with life, scents, song, hands touching holy places and things—people are meeting the living Christ in this so-called “sepulcher.”
Sometimes we miss the obvious. Something can be staring us right in the face and we don’t see it for what it is. G.K. Chesterton once said that the greatness of something is underappreciated if not missed altogether not because it is too small, but because it is “too large and too close to be seen.” That Jesus is risen and dies no more is the “largest” of truths, woven so intimately into our Christian faith as to be completely inseparable from it. Indeed, as St Paul says: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). But like any truth, it can suffer the fate of a museum piece if neglected, if not acted on. It will remain sterile if it just sits there, admired then passed by.
The Resurrection concludes the most “obvious” time of the Church year: Holy Week. By turns, it teems with violence, retreats into silence, deafens with the howling of mobs, and makes us quietly contemplate the Lord’s every gesture and word. With so many contrasts, much to see and hear, an overwhelmingly vast amount of details to ponder, do we risk missing the obvious? Do we miss our own redemption?
If Holy Week leads inexorably to Easter, to where does Easter lead us? Is it so obvious?
It is best to go to the New Testament to see what the first generation of Christians saw as the most obvious fruits of the redemption. In a few words, St Paul considered them to be: our enlightenment, our having been washed and sanctified, and our newfound status as adopted and beloved children in Christ. Danger lurks in letting these remain mere words. How you think, act, and love depends in large part on how you see both self and God. To see yourself as less than enlightened, less than forgiven, or less than a child, is to live a life that is less than Christian. We need to reflect on these larger-than-life ideas because in diminutive daily life perhaps they are too large and close to be appreciated.
To act as though we have no light is to betray our identity; it is not who we are: “For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness” (1 Thes 5:5). To act as though we are unwashed by Christ, unforgiven by Him, is to betray our identity; it is not who we are: “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his sake” (1 Jn 2:12). To act as though we are not loved and beloved is to betray our adoption; it is not who we are: “For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you” (1 Thes 1:4).
These are the obvious things according to St Paul. And yet how easy it is to play the part of those in darkness, of the unclean or unforgiven, and of the unloved. If we do, we fall under the influence of the devil. He so wants to tell us who we are and what Jesus should mean to us. And he is always wrong. He has no right to give us our identity. He has no right to tell us what it means to live in Christ.
He cajoled many to see Jesus as the foe of freedom, as the enemy of righteousness—even as a minion of “Beelzebub” (cf. Lk 11:15). His cleverness will outwit us every time if we let him—that is, if we live unreflective Christian lives. Daily contemplation of what Christ has done for us and who He has made us to be shields us against the erosion of our faith—the inevitable deterioration of which happens when it sits untouched in a sterile compartment of our lives.
To counter this, says St John Paul II,
…the Church is constantly invited by Christ to touch his wounds, to recognize, that is, the fullness of his humanity taken from Mary, given up to death, transfigured by the Resurrection: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side” (Jn 20:27). Like Thomas, the Church bows down in adoration before the Risen One, clothed in the fullness of his divine splendour, and never ceases to exclaim: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28).1
The “tactile” aspect of faith expresses itself, first, in personal contemplation of the Lord’s goodness to us and then in outward expressions of love, piety, mercy. We who have been touched by Christ are called to “touch” in the name of Christ, that is, to give as He has given to us. But all of this flows first from our having received the gifts of His light, love, and cleansing forgiveness.
The fact that two millennia after the fact you have hundreds of thousands of people annually crowding into the Lord’s tomb, and far fewer passing by the Caiaphas ossuary, much less prostrating before it, shows us that the passion and resurrection of Jesus has accomplished its work in the souls of those who know what God has done for them, and who He has made them to be. But you needn’t go to Jerusalem to prove this to yourself. Stay where you are. And in the littleness of your daily life, receive anew the light, cleansing, and love of your Redeemer. Think about it, pray over it, and recognize who you are, now that Jesus has made all things new.
1 Apostolic Letter Novo Millenio Ineunte, no. 21.
Image: Wikicommons Media (link)