Some years ago I heard Bishop Fulton J. Sheen give a sermon in which he bemoaned the modern tendency to have representations of Christ without the Cross – or to have the Cross with no representation of Christ. The “Christ-less Cross,” he said, tended often to be a symbol of oppression; becoming more of a military symbol than a religious symbol by forgetting that Christ died on It for the love of mankind. And likewise, he said, “The Cross-less Christ” seemed to lose so much of His power; making our Lord seem less manly by making Him something less than the suffering Hero of mankind.
A similar thing happens if we make the mistake of considering Easter out its proper context as the culmination of Holy Week. We miss something if we think of it as just another Sunday of the year, and fail to see the way it relates to the days before it. Hopefully, all of you have been following the events of Holy Week – some of you were here, and perhaps others of you were at least able to read the Mass texts at home from your missals. But let me briefly remind you of those events.
On Palm Sunday we witnessed the triumphal entry of our Lord into the Holy City of Jerusalem – seven days ago He was a hero. And we know that He spent a day or two in Bethany, visiting His friend Lazarus (whom He had raised from the dead), and Lazarus’ two sisters Mary and Martha. And when Mary anointed Him with precious spices, He explained that this was for His burial – an odd thing for a Man to say who had just been honored with a parade through the City streets, but no one knew how the events of the week would “play out” better our Lord.
Indeed, His glorious reception on Sunday had already set in motion the events that would bring about His crucifixion. The Sanhedrin met on Monday or Tuesday, and by Wednesday made an arrangement with Judas Iscariot to enable them to capture Jesus and bring false charges against Him. (In English we refer to this as “Spy Wednesday” because Judas’ treachery occurs in the opening paragraph of the Gospel.)
On Thursday our Lord was back in Jerusalem, and in the Upper Room He meets with the Twelve to celebrate the Passover Sacrifice. But instead of the customary ritual dinner there were some significant innovations. Our Lord began by washing the feet of the Apostles – a sign intended to demonstrate the humility that all Christians, and especially priests, must have. Jesus also spent a few minutes making it clear to His disciples that they must be prepared to be persecuted unjustly – something we must understand as well, for if the world hated Him it will hate us for being His disciples. The Passover meal itself was interrupted as out Lord took bread and wine and changed the character of the sacrifice forever: the true Lamb of God superceded the offering of the sacrificial lamb with the offering of His own Body and Blood, under the appearances of bread and wine: “This is My body … this is My blood of the new covenant which is being shed for many unto the forgiveness of sins… do this in remembrance of Me.” The Mass and the Sacraments would take the place of the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament forever – a “new and eternal covenant” had been forged between God and mankind.
And briefly after saying these words, He took the Apostles out into the night, to the Garden of Gethsemane, where He waited in prayer for the arrival of Judas and the guards of the Sanhedrin. Together with the Romans, these men would be the ones who would arrange to unite the Sacrifice of the Last Supper with the Sacrifice of the Cross; not under the appearances of bread and wine, but this time under the appearances of flesh and blood. Within a brief space of hours the Sacrifice of the Mass would be eternally united to the Sacrifice of the Cross. We saw this in each account of the Passion read this week – the Last Supper is always linked to the Cross – Holy Thursday to Good Friday.
But just as there should be no Christ-less Cross or Cross-less Christ, we can now consider these events of our redemption in the light of this holy feast of Easter.
Those who advocate the Cross-less Christ like to lump Holy Week and Easter all together, calling it the “Paschal Mystery” – the “Easter Mystery.” They live in a fantasy land where they pretend that there is no sin that cannot be redeemed and forgiven by merely human effort. To them the Crucifixion is little more than a legend of Western Civilization, which dramatized “man’s inhumanity to man.” Perhaps some day they will make the Easter egg their sacrament.
Those of the Christ-less Cross are out there as well – those of the old Gnosticism who consider God’s material creations evil and incapable of being redeemed or forgiven. In some way; they consider the Crucifixion, and its attendant destruction of the flesh, as an end in itself. For them the Crucifixion is a blessed reality, but Easter is the legend – a dramatization of man becoming immaterial spirit. Death is their sacrament.
Both, of course, are wrong. Both fail to recognize the complimentary nature of Holy Week and Easter because their “world view” – their understanding of basic things – is wrong.
To the Catholic – who knows that all of God’s creations, both material and spiritual, are good; and who knows, equally, that all sin is an offence against God which no human effort can repair – the complimentary nature of Holy Week and Easter is easy to perceive. One without the other would be meaningless.
Only given the reality of Easter does Holy Thursday connote the possibility of timeless Sacrifice, re‑presentable in every time and place. Only the reality of the Resurrection makes Holy Communion the reception of the Living God – humanity and divinity, body and blood, alive and not dead.
Only the reality of Easter makes Good Friday anything more than a crushing defeat. God “set the salvation of mankind upon the tree of the Cross … that he who overcame by the tree might also be overcome on the tree … so that whence came death, thence also life might rise again.”
By the same token, only the reality of Holy Thursday and Good Friday make Easter meaningful. For today, you and I and all those of the House of the Faith can rejoice in the reality of Jesus Christ’s abiding presence in our tabernacles, and the reality that Jesus Christ has conquered death and provided a kingdom of immortality for those who love Him.
The cross without the Christ, and the Christ without the cross – both lack an essential dimension – separately they fail, both to demonstrate that God loves us enough to die for us, and to demonstrate that He has conquered sin and death through His glorious resurrection.
By God’s grace we have both the Cross and the Christ – Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and now Easter Sunday. This is the day of His resurrection; together they constitute the “day” of our redemption; “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!”