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Christ’s Death And Our Own: A Matter Of Reverence

May 13, 2020 Featured Today No Comments


After our Lord died on the cross, it was not to be His apostles who would see to His proper burial. It was instead two strangers who would take charge of the situation, both of whom were from the very society of Israelite elders who had sought the death of Christ.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee, first appears near the beginning of St. John’s Gospel, coming to speak with our Lord in the dead of night (John 3:1-21), only to disappear again into the night. We hear no more of him until late on Good Friday, when he arrives on the scene with an astonishing burden of one hundred pounds of aromatic myrrh mixed with aloes (John 19:39).
His companion in the painful task of laying the Savior to rest is another unlikely hero, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, albeit one who refused to take part in the council’s plot against Christ. A man of considerable means, Joseph took the bold initiative of going to Pilate to ask that the body of Christ might be released to him for burial (Matt. 27:57-58; Mark 15:42-45; Luke 24:50-52).
Joseph and Nicodemus did everything with the utmost reverence. With their own hands they took our Lord down from the cross and wrapped His sacred body in “a clean linen shroud” (Matt. 27:59) with the myrrh, and laid it to rest in a new tomb, Joseph’s own (Matt. 27:60). From what is known of first-century Jewish customs, and from evidence in the dorsal blood stains on the Shroud of Turin, the body of the Savior was likely carried to its resting place on a wooden bier — the first Catholic funeral procession, albeit a very short one, for the tomb was in a garden close at hand (John 19:41-42).
The intention of the holy women who set out for the Holy Sepulcher on Easter Sunday morning was to complete the loving and reverent labors of Joseph and Nicodemus by further anointing the body of Christ with spices (Mark 16:1).
Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and the holy women have bequeathed to the Church a very intimate legacy of loving reverence for the mystery of the death of Christ, and by extension the death of every Christian.
It has been the Church’s constant teaching that the Mass is a re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvary. In this the Mass fulfills the devout soul’s longing to return to the first Good Friday, to be on Golgotha with the Lord in His supreme sacrifice. But it could also be said that the Mass serves to reveal and elucidate the hidden depths of what took place on the cross, to see even more into this mystery than we might have seen with our physical eyes had we been eyewitnesses to the first Good Friday.
By celebrating the Mass with reverent words and actions, with gold and silver vessels, magnificent vestments and altar cloths, fragrant incense and sublime music, the Church continues what Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus began. It is the Church’s answer to the question that our Lord posed to His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15).
As Christ hung dying on the cross, nature announced it as a cosmic event. There was darkness from the sixth hour until the ninth hour, and when death came, the earth shuddered, the rocks were rent, and the veil of the Temple, a tapestry two inches thick, was torn in two (Matt. 27:45, 51). At the French Benedictine abbey of Cluny, according to an eleventh-century customary, it was the practice that when a monk was about to die, a wooden clapper was sounded, summoning all who heard it wherever they were to begin the recitation of the Nicene Creed on behalf of their departing confrere, and at his death all the monastery bells would toll (Liber tramitis, book 2, chapter 56).
It can safely be said that most of the Masses offered throughout the world in the course of a day are offered for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed. For the Church, the death of any man or woman is never merely a statistic. It can never be for her a matter of cold indifference. For as Dietrich von Hildebrand expressed it, “A supernatural view of death discloses the majesty of God, the great importance of the fate of every human soul, the ultimate significance of holiness and sin” (The Devastated Vineyard, Harrison, N.Y., Roman Catholic Books, 1985, p. 224).
At the time of this writing, there are signs that the pandemic which has hung over our nation since the end of February is beginning to wane, albeit slowly and amid uncertainty as to what lies ahead. Yet the relief that there is an end in sight is tempered by the reality of what has already taken place. There is no other way to describe what has happened as anything other than a profound tragedy for our country. In a period of only seven weeks, from March 17 to May 5, we have lost seventy thousand souls, with over twenty-five thousand deaths in just a two-week period during April.
These deaths are not “fake news.” In many places, including the village where I live, the flags are flying at half-staff, and fittingly so.
In late October of 1348, during the apocalyptic plague known as the Black Death, the bishop of Winchester, England, William Edendon penned a letter to his clergy about what the plague had already wrought across much of Europe and what his own diocese was facing:
“A voice has been heard in Rama and much lamentation and mourning has echoed through various parts of the world….For what is terrible to hear, cities, towns, castles and villages, which until now rejoiced in their illustrious residents . . . have now been suddenly and woefully stripped of their inhabitants by this most savage pestilence, more cruel than a two-edged sword. . . . .Broad, fruitful acres lie entirely abandoned now that their farmers have been carried off” (letter of October 24, 1348, in Rosemary Horrox, trans. and ed., The Black Death, Manchester Medieval Sources Series, Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 2003, p. 116).
A week ago, while I was driving home at night, as I came to what is normally one of the busiest highway interchanges in the New York suburban county where I live, an interchange where five different highways and roads converge, I realized as I looked about at the entrance and exit ramps that I was the one and only car passing through.
Of course, the roads are deserted because of all the stay-at-home directives, yet such scenes of desolation are in a symbolic sense a reminder of the very many people whom we as a nation have lost in a matter of a few weeks just as deserted farm fields were for the survivors of the plague a haunting reminder of their dead.
Behind each of these deaths there is a unique tragedy, a particular family’s loss and grief. For several decades now, grief for the dead has been something our contemporary culture has not been willing to come to terms with. Perhaps this pandemic will change perceptions in this regard, because there’s no convincing way to whitewash or trivialize such a staggering loss of life.
In his last book, Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven, Dietrich von Hildebrand stresses the true magnitude of each and every man or woman’s death, that there is a “solemn majesty” and “ceremonial authenticity” about the transitus of each human soul:
“Death offers a striking contrast to all that is ungenuine and unnecessary. It has a solitary and authentic grandeur. . . .
“When a man dies, quite apart from his condition at the time, there shines forth in a special way his nobility as a human being. His death, and the death of each of us, has something about it that is grand, genuine, and significant. In death, a man partakes of something mysterious and great, something ultimately serious and noble, despite all the dread we have of it. This noble aspect of death implies the continuance in existence of the human soul and, indirectly, even the supernatural view of death….
“At death’s approach, everything nonessential fades away. Everything else becomes truer, more valid, and conclusive” (Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven, Manchester, NH, Sophia Institute Press, 1991, pp. 48, 117-118).

A Desperate Battle

Behind each of the deaths from this pandemic there also lies a story of battle, a desperate battle fought by first responders, nurses, and doctors to rescue the life of the person dying before their very eyes. That this battle has been fought countless times a day and so intensively for the past two months is yet another testament to the sanctity of all human life, that each and every human life is so very precious that it is worth all the time, effort and personal risks that these medical professionals have taken to try to save from the grave those entrusted to their care.
The prospect of death is likewise a humbling experience that levels the superficial differences that are created in life between the rich and famous and the poor and lowly. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, Prince Henry, reflecting upon the death of his ambitious rival Harry Percy, observes:
“Ill-weav’d ambition, how much art thou shrunk! / When that this body did contain a spirit, / A kingdom for it was too small a bound; / But now two paces of the vilest earth / Is room enough…” (Henry IV, Part I: act 5, scene 4).
It is a testament to just how very much our Lord humbled Himself in submitting even unto death (Phil. 2:8) that He submitted Himself even to being laid away afterward in just “two paces of the vilest earth.” In doing so, He has made all our graves sacred.
The Church has always treated the deaths of the faithful with the utmost reverence. Across the centuries, she has had her priests incense the caskets of the dead and sprinkle them with holy water, she has had the bodies of the dead carried in solemn procession with candles and cross, and she has laid them to rest in cemeteries consecrated as sacred ground.
We have had a somber Easter season this year. Yet our forefathers have known worse and persevered. “. . . .You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy . . . you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:20, 22).

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