Sunday, March 29, 2009

Resurrection, Baptism and Theodicy

We might be forgiven for thinking that today is Easter. Each of the three readings for today mentions resurrection in some form or another. Ezekiel speaks of opening the graves, Paul speaks of the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, and John narrates the raising of Lazarus. But upon closer inspection it becomes clear this is a different resurrection than the one in which we have hope.

This resurrection is the one for which ...

This resurrection is the one for which Judas Maccabeus prayed (2 Macc 12:42-46), and the one Martha mentions to Christ. It is the belief that those who died "in godliness," as 2 Macc puts it, would be brought back to this life. This is what Christ accomplishes in Lazarus; he is restored to this life. But it is not the same as the one Paul speaks of in 1 Cor 15:52ff. The Resurrection in which we have our hope is the raising of all who have fallen to face judgement. Those who died in the friendship of Christ will be "changed" clothed with light and given glorious bodies. But the important difference, other than the change, or indeed that is part and parcel of that change is the "immortality" that Paul speaks of. We aren't raised like Lazarus to go on living in this fallen world. But because of the Cross of Christ, we can be raised and live eternally with Christ in His heavenly Kingdom.

But since this resurrection is only one that brings people back to the life they lived it still leave us hungering for more. It is, as yet, incomplete. It is why these readings point us to Easter, which is now getting so close as to be palpable. These readings are a journey to Easter. This is why the Ezekiel reading is not just about resurrection, but the return of Israel into the land. We too are waiting to be restored, in a sense, by the Passion, Death and Resurrection. And this should give us tremendous hope. Because these readings tell is that we too are journeying to our own Resurrection. Christ did not rise from the dead selfishly. We too will also enjoy the bodily resurrection, and as I said, that is a cause of great hope.

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There is another sense to these readings that bears being mentioned. My Missal rightly points out that these readings are also catechetical. They teach us about baptism. It is why these pericopes are selected for the Scrutinies. Lent is generally a time to focus upon our Baptismal vows, but when we are welcoming new people into the Church, these pericopes become especially poignant. The story of Lazarus in particular is dramatic demonstration that "we were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life." (Rom 6:4). Lazarus dramatically demonstrates this in his life, death and return to life. His example serves a didactic purpose for us. That also means that the reading from Ezekiel has more than just an immediate meaning. In an immediate sense it is a prophecy directed to the Exiles. But in a wider sense it is a promise to us about our baptism. The "how" of this promise is then articulated in the Pauline pericope. It is by the power of the Holy Ghost that we are called and then incorporated into the Body of Christ by baptism. Thus it is with joy and great anticipation that we yearn to eat at the same table with the catechumens, which we will do on the Vigil of the Lord's Resurrection.

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I want to change tacks for a second, and reflect on the fact that from a certain point of view Christ can seem pretty monstrous in the Lazarus story. He knows ahead of time that His supposed friend will die. And yet, He lifts no finger to stave it off. As Martha asks, and skeptics like Dawkins and Hitchens ask, "how can a loving God let this happen? If He's so powerful and so good, why doesn't He just stop it?" The whole pericope is the response to this theodicy question as much as last week's pericope was.

Why did the man need to be born blind? Why did Christ need to let Lazarus die? It would be tempting to simply say so that Jesus could demonstrate powers and serve didactic purposes. But that's not really the case. Take the man born blind, if it was really simply to serve a didactic purpose or let Christ manifest some of His power then then story would have ended when the man was cured, and the lesson demonstrated. But the story goes on. It is the same reason the Lazarus pericope actually takes place before the washing of the feet pericope it mentions in the first few verses.

God permitted these things to happen because of two reasons, those things which He moved eternal to free ends have to remain free. And ... He nevertheless moves all things, free or otherwise, to Himself and to greater things. He takes all suffering and makes of it/them greater things beside. All the sin that Man visits upon his fellow in sometimes quite horrific fashion, Christ took upon Himself so that what could come after His Death and Resurrection was greater than anything that had gone before or since. If you took a hundred billion sufferings and poured them all into a container and compared it to the container that contained the fruits of the Passion, Death and Resurrection, you could not even see the container of the sufferings when held against the other, because the other is so much vaster than the sufferings.

Christ did what He did in both the case of the Man Born Blind and Lazarus to give greater glory to God and to use suffering to a greater purpose. If you could assign a numerical value to the suffering of the man born blind and the suffering caused by the death of Lazarus, what Christ did was greater by far and always is.

But the skeptics would still object, I am sure, that this still seems a cruel way for a loving God to behave. To which one points out that they are assessing "loving" based on their own human, finite experience. An infinite God with access to all possible worlds knows whether His staying His hand or His intervention is the "best" possible choice at any time. What we might perceive as a relief from suffering, might in the end be a greater cruelty still, because we cannot appreciate all the possible eventualities from that relief. But at the same time, it would be wrong to think of God as being only concerned with macro problems. Instead, He still takes notice of all His children individually, personally. How God deals with each person's sufferings is indeed a personal choice which must be viewed in the context of that individual relationship between Creator and Created.

For me, anyway, I draw great comfort from this.

2 comments:

Pr. Lehmann said...

I think the reason Jesus let Lazarus die was more basic. He wanted Mary and Martha to know that death couldn't kill them.

Ogden Chichester said...

That's a fascinating take, Pastor. I am a great believer, myself, in the multiple senses of Scripture. In other words, I don't think it is necessarily incompatible for Jesus to have intended a number of didactic purposes to this action. He knew of all people that beings in the future would draw from this lesson, and so I don't think it is improbable to think He intended an immediate lesson for His beloved friends, and other lessons for His disciples, other lessons for the Jews "who believed," other lessons for us ... etc.