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The Long Sunrise of Easter

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Brothers and sisters,
are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We indeed were 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.
For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his,
we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
We know that our old self was crucified with him,
so that our sinful body might be done away with,
that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.
For a dead person has been absolved from sin.
If, then, we have died with Christ,
we believe that we shall also live with him.
We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
death no longer has power over him.
As to his death, he died to sin once and for all;
as to his life, he lives for God.
Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin
and living for God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:3–11)

Liturgist Confessions #837:

I’m always surprised at how long the Easter Season lasts. Not only are we still in the Easter season, this is early in Easter. I never know what to DO with all this Easter. After waiting all Lent for the return of the Alleluias and the Gloria, the Easter Vigil overwhelms me with joy and beauty. Easter morning celebrating the resurrection only heightens my liturgical delight. But then, I look at my calendar on Easter Monday, and the acidic taste of panic pricks gurgles up in my throat: finals are coming. I am suddenly one of Paul’s unaware ones: “Are you unaware?” “Did you miss what just happened?” Paul asks. As I plug into my laptop, I start closing my academic blinds to Easter’s light. It’s ironic, since a theologian should be basking in and contemplating humanity’s ongoing encounter with the triune God. There’s just no time for all this rejoicing; there’s work to be done—and besides all that, light causes a terrible glare on the computer screen.

Thankfully, mother Church, in her wisdom, demands of us a great fifty days of Easter to hold all the facets of resurrection up to the light like a prism, and see if our lives are colored any differently by Easter’s dawning glow. For those of us claiming to be theologians, perhaps this is the unintended gift of Easter’s yearly coincidence with what is, for many of us, the most stressful time of the year.

We’re prompted to ask: what does Easter have to do with academics? What’s different about what we read and write and argue and type by the first glimmers of Christ’s Resurrection? If our task as baptized Christians is to grow into union with Christ through a death like his and also to share in his Resurrection, then this includes not only our personal, but also our scholarly lives. Thus, those of us called to the task of theology share in profound responsibility inherent in our vocation as Christians: we must be transformed into Christ in every way—including the academic aspects of our lives. But how does that work on paper?

I suspect a complete answer to that question only comes only after an entire life of prayer. But the question demands reflection nonetheless. And since many of us who are students are pretty newbie priests and theologians, compared to institutional and ecclesial memory, I propose we start simply:

What do the faith, hope, and love of the Resurrection have to do with our exercise here as students and teachers of theology? 

In this Romans text, Paul challenges us to faith: to “think of ourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.” Faith demands that we hold constantly before our eyes the ultimate purpose of our work: do we work from life for God in Christ Jesus? Or do we work for ourselves? This is, perhaps, the trickiest distinction, because when ferreting out truth and academic advancement often go hand in hand, the distinction is not always obvious. But faithful scholarship in Christ is integral to hope and love as well, so beginning with the right end matters.

Doing theology as a work of faith demands that our academic exercise also become a study in askesis: in limiting ourselves to work that builds up the Kingdom of God rather than aggrandizing our scholarly reputation. I have a close friend who, when advising me on pursuing further academic work said, “Look, I’m not telling you to quit. But if you can do anything else: do it. Because if you choose to pursue a Ph.D., it will bring up every demon inside yourself, and you’ll wrestle with most of them in your head, alone.” And it’s true. Theology is often a work done in a mental desert—an exercise in askesis and asceticism. It is easy in this place to feel deep loneliness; to struggle with insecurity; to fight (and often in my case succumb to) work-a-holism. It is easy to desire notability, advancement, and praise. But if we do theology out of those desires we fundamentally pervert the theologian’s vocation. And we deny ourselves the opportunity to offer our unique contributions of thought to understanding the Life of God in Jesus Christ for the Church we serve. Resurrection scholarship begins in askesis as we aim to die to self in an effort to find truth rather than simply showing off our own cleverness.

But the fact that askesis that grows from faith of life in Christ Jesus is a proclamation of hope.

Theologians must proclaim hope. Paul tells us, “if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” We, like our Holy Cross family who founded the University of Notre Dame, are a people with hope to bring.[1] We don’t just witness to the Resurrection’s dawn with what we study or teach, but how we study and teach.

Hope produces the humility to be healthy people: to recognize that we will not finish the task of understanding God in one night, in one paper, or term, or even dissertation. (I find this incredibly hopeful.) The hope of the Resurrection reminds us that the salvation of the world hangs not on our cleverness, but upon the Cross. The hard work is done. And while the words and hours we pour into our scholarship therefore matter more than anything, they matter only in light of the work that has already been accomplished.

We work harder yet, because we have such weighty thoughts to sift! But our working is not toil. And we need not live in fear of failure any longer. When we die to self and live to Christ, the doing of our work and study can be a proclamation of hope (some might say of sanity) to an academy that grows increasingly frenetic with itself and its own ends. During a particularly difficult time in the Congregation of Holy Cross’ history, Blessed Basil Moreau wrote to his Holy Cross family around the world: “Be what you should be before God, and I can assure you of the future.”[2] Our work may be slow, or difficult, or mind-numbing at times—we may get it wrong, we may even fail—but that isn’t the end of the story. We do not walk as those who trudge. We stride. Because we have the hope of being also united with Christ in the Resurrection.[3]

And to all this one thing is necessary: and that is love. The fundamental gift of life we received at Baptism is the LOVE of Jesus liberating us from the power of death to newness in life. The animating principle of the faith and hope theologians offer is love. To quote Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s opening to Deus Caritas Est:

We have come to believe in God’s love:
in these words the Christian can express
the fundamental decision of his life.
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea,
but the encounter with an event, a person,
which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. (§1)

Love changes everything. Now, don’t get me wrong. We need no more cheap charity that agrees with everything while saying nothing. If the theologian’s task is to seek truth in faith and pursue it with hope, it demands a much more costly and sturdy manner of love. Costly love calls us to seek Christ by any means possible in each book we read, class we attend, and argument we contest. Costly love is never indifferent to the truth, but neither can it abide indifference to the person with whom we disagree over the nature of truth. Costly love holds out hope for finding the Truth, which is magnificent enough to acknowledge the flaws in our own arguments as places for collaboration and revelation rather than weaknesses to be hidden from the ‘competition.’ Costly love embraces faith, seeing reflected in the faces of our academic companions the first rays of the Resurrection sunlight—even as it struggles to plumb the depths of truth through criticism.

At its most basic level, our work as theologians must be a work of love. We must ourselves be a contribution with our unique gifts to humanity’s ongoing encounter with Christ crucified and risen. As a people of faith, crucified with Christ, we think and converse not in the darkness, but by Easter’s first light. We have hope to bring because “We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. . . . He died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God.” Friends, we must not be caught unaware, for we “indeed were 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.” We are, in fact, the workers of a long Easter indeed.

Featured Photo: Sean McEntee; CC-BY-2.0.

[1] Congregation of Holy Cross, Constitutions, Constitution 8.

[2] Bl. Basil Moreau, Circular Letter, 1847.

[3] Congregation of Holy Cross, Constitutions, Constitution 8.