Resuscitation ≠ Resurrection

Resuscitation and Resurrection are not the same thing. As disciples of Jesus, our true Hope lies in the Resurrection, but we often cling to a much lesser hope of mere resuscitation.

Resuscitation means temporarily going back to how our life was. Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb and gave him back his earthly life. Astounding though it was, a glimpse of things to come, Lazarus’ new lease on life was still only for a fleeting time. He was not yet ready for the glory of the Resurrection.

The Resurrection is something entirely new. Death is definitively conquered.  Jesus, once raised, will never die again. He invades hell and conquers. Beginning on Easter Sunday, he starts appearing to his deeply discouraged and disheartened disciples – astounding and surprising them with unimaginable joy.

Resuscitation does not last. It is not definitive. It does not change the underlying problem. Nonetheless, it has great appeal. Not only does it temporarily extend one’s earthly life, it also allows us to return to what is familiar. We know what to expect, and so we feel in control.

Resurrection is unpredictable and catches us by surprise. It is “New” because it ushers in the New Creation. In the Resurrection, God reigns. We experience his Kingdom in all its power and glory. That means surrendering to the unknown of his infinite goodness and dying to our urge to be in control.

It’s totally understandable that we want to cling to this present existence – it is still so amazing, even though it is only a limited experience of God’s glory. But it won’t last. God truly made us stewards, and we have used our freedom to disobey, allowing corruption and death to have dominion. God will not undermine or erase our freedom. The world as we know it will pass away. But he is creating something new by means of the Paschal victory of his own Son. Through Faith, Hope, and Love we are being initiated into the New Creation.

But there is one catch – we have to die first if we are to rise. And let’s not forget about the agonizing period of watching and waiting in between. What incredible joy it must have been to encounter the risen Jesus on that first Easter Sunday! Peter and the others had left him alone to die on the Cross. Their final moments with their beloved Savior and Messiah were shameful moments of betrayal and weakness. Now that same Jesus suddenly appears to them, clearly victorious and beyond all harm, and speaks astounding words: “Peace be with you.”  What a deep and amazed flood of joy they must have felt!

True Resurrection brings joy, even as its newness surprises us. But it is only possible if we first experience the death and the waiting, if we are willing to go into the depths of grief and loss. We often resist!

“I just want things to back to normal!”

How many of us have said or heard these words the past few months! Pining for the way things used to be is itself a normal human tendency. Change is hard. Loss is hard. Grieving our losses is incredibly hard – even though Jesus promises that those who mourn will be comforted and blessed.

We tend to resist true Hope. We prefer to settle for mere resuscitation rather than endure the pain of watching and waiting, not knowing when or how God will fulfill his promise of new life.

In this resistance, we are in good company. Peter and his friends, even after Easter Sunday, still struggled with wanting things to “go back to normal.” In John 21 Peter declares that he is going fishing – going back to his old way of life before he got to know Jesus. No one stops him. Indeed, the others join him!

Jesus surprises them yet again, leading them to a miraculous catch of 153 fish and inviting Peter three times on the seashore to renew his love. As in the Upper Room, he does not shame them for their weak human tendency to turn away. He meets them in their place of heartache and grief.

It’s so hard to grieve, so hard to lament our losses, so hard to open ourselves to the new and better heavenly realities that Jesus is opening us to.  It’s much easier to deny or minimize. It may be absolutely obvious that things will never go back to the way they were, but we will keep pretending, keep holding out false hopes. Or we will identify a scapegoat that we can blame, someone to lash out at because things are not the way we want them to be. One need only spend a minute or two on social media these days to find many examples of these behaviors!!

It is much harder to lament – to allow ourselves to feel the depth of grief and agony and to express it to God and to others. Lament and hope are intimately connected. Refusing to settle for any false messiah, authentic Christian Hope stays open to the promises of God – even when God seems to be painfully slow and silent in answering.

The most hopeful people I know are those who are willing to cry out to God like little children – to weep, to groan, to sob, or to scream – but always seeking the face of the living God.

Hope is defiant. It resists the cheap substitute of resuscitation. It does not settle for going back to the way things were, but holds fast in Faith to the promises of Jesus. Blessed are those who mourn; they will be comforted. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; they will be satisfied.

Hope hurts. It is much easier to cling to control, to protect ourselves, to numb our pain, or to cast the blame on others. It is so hard to reach out in Hope when we do not know how or when the answer will come (indeed, what if no answer comes?). There is so much vulnerability there. And so much freedom.

Resuscitation can be a good thing. But in the end, it can only bring us back to the present world of corruption – a world still destined to pass away. Only Resurrection can usher in the New Creation, in which God promises to wipe away every tear, in which there will be no more mourning or death.

During these painful and challenging times, you and I have a choice. Will we cling to our flimsy hopes in resuscitation – or will we go into the depths of grief and lament and dare to hold out Hope in the Resurrection?

A Time to Replant and Rebuild

This past summer, I often found myself thinking of two great prophets. One is the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, and the other is a modern-day prophet, the pope of my childhood: Saint John Paul II (pope from 1978-2005).

I am definitely one of those who call him John Paul the Great, and I believe that he had prophetic insight and an uncanny ability to read the signs of the times. One of his deepest prophetic convictions was that we are now entering a “new springtime of evangelization” in the Church as we go forth boldly into the Third Millennium. He urged us with the words of Jesus to “put out into the deep waters” for a great catch. With Jesus, he often exhorted us: “Be not afraid!”

I remember twenty years ago when some of us would ask ourselves, “Why does he keep saying that? What is there to be so afraid of?” Today I can say with truth that these are sad and scary times to be a close follower of Jesus. AND they are times of enormous hope, great promise, and signs of new life. We can weep and lament the great ruin and destruction of much that is fair and beautiful AND notice the new growth and new life that is springing up.

The prophet Jeremiah captures the paradox perfectly, by appealing to seasons of the year. I had an “aha!” moment this summer while reading him. So much has changed in Church life, and it often leaves her members feeling disoriented, confused, or angry – even when their parishes make good and healthy changes. Part of the challenge is that the seasons have changed – and that means changing how we approach our labor in the Lord’s vineyard. With occasional exceptions, we in the Church today are not living the fall, in a time of fruitfulness and harvesting. We are passing through a harsh winter and beginning a new springtime.

The destruction and decimation has been going on for some time – especially for those of us in Catholic institutions. Our programs are often geared at children (in schools and in CCD programs), but the parents themselves – if they come to church at all – are often part of a second or third generation of Catholics who did not learn how to have a personal relationship with Jesus and who did not learn the basics of their faith. For at least fifty years now, when teens receive their Confirmation, they leave. We used to tell ourselves lies that they would come back eventually – when it was time to get married or to have their children baptized. A small percentage of them do; the great majority never return. Many of them specifically identify themselves as “ex-Catholics” or even “atheists.” Church marriages are down – way down. I could go on and on.

Much has been lost. God’s Temple and God’s vineyard are lying in ruins. There is cause for lamenting here.

When bad things happen, our human tendency is to avoid grieving – it’s so painful and hard. We typically pass through various stages as we grieve – denial, anger, blaming, bargaining, depression, and (hopefully) eventual acceptance. If we do not somehow express our grief and anguish, our anger and bitterness, we will not come to true acceptance. Presently, we are living in a toxic culture that does not know how to grieve in a healthy way. Most anywhere we turn, we are invited to numb our pain with addictive behaviors or to funnel our rage into political or ecclesial divisiveness.

By contrast, the prophet Jeremiah knew how to lament, how to express sorrow and anguish to God. So much did he turn to God and lament that there is an entire book of the Bible entitled “Lamentations,” traditionally attributed to him.

There was much to lament. The Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem, destroyed God’s Temple, and taken most of the people into captivity. They were left with a mere remnant – just as the prophet Isaiah had foretold.

Weeping over ruins of once great cultures, once great nations, once great churches, and once great institutions is a holy and healing exercise.

I think the crumbling and ruin has been especially hard for longtime Catholics. With so many things changing or collapsing around them, they desire that their own parishes be the one hub of stability, the one constant in their life. But we can’t do that – not if we care about saving souls!

Most of our American Catholic institutions were built up in a season of summer and autumn. Our immigrant forefathers had a tenacious Faith and didn’t hesitate to sacrifice everything to build up these institutions. They were serious about prayer and serious about discipleship. Their children learned the faith from their parents and practiced it in the home. There was a great boom in the number of priests and religious sisters.

The programs set up in our parishes were all about harvesting the fruits from healthy vines that were already there. The presumption was that all the members were unquestionably committed to Jesus and to his Church. As long as most of them were, parishes were booming.

That was a very, very long time ago. The destruction has been enormous. Over half of those vines are now dead. Only a remnant remains.

I remember as a seminarian hearing our bishop (now the world-famous Cardinal Burke) express with the Psalmist: “Foundations once destroyed, what can the just do?” (Psalm 11:3). I remember as a young priest amidst teens in the high school, feeling the sad truth of those words and taking them to prayer. I remember God speaking clearly in my heart a hope-filled answer: REBUILD THEM. I received great peace and much motivation from those God-given words. I still do.

We will find more strength to rebuild if we allow ourselves time to lament. Lamenting is a lost art. When we truly express our grief, God comforts us. We find ourselves having new strength and new resolve. The writings of Jeremiah do not end in despair or anger, but in renewed hope, with many promises of replanting and rebuilding. A new springtime.

We are not in a season of summer and autumn anymore. We are living amidst a harsh winter that is transitioning into spring. What is more, the majority of the vines in our vineyard been ruined and destroyed.

Many of us need to do much lamenting and much grieving. We have more pain in our hearts than we care to admit. God wants to hear our cries. He wants to comfort us.

Then, when we are ready, he will show us what replanting and rebuilding look like. Many of the things that have passed away will never return again – not in the same way at least – and that is worth the shedding of tears. Meanwhile, the new growth is already there in our midst. Amazingly, from the very ruins, new vines are appearing. They are very vulnerable at this stage and need much nurturing and caring. But they are beautiful!

If we would like to see those new vines grow and bear fruit, we need to learn how to live in the seasons of winter and spring. Our parishes need to step back from the “same old” way of doing things and ask what it means to replant and rebuild. Instead of spending most of our time, money, and human resources on the vines that clearly are bearing no fruit, we need to recognize new and divine growth when we see it (sometimes it shows up in surprising places!). We can then focus our energy and attention there. New vines are fragile and need much protecting, much nurturing, and much gentle encouragement.

It may take many years to see the new fruitfulness – God alone knows. Sometimes we sow and others reap. But we can take hope in the fact that Scripture often promises otherwise. We are promised that the sowers will be overtaken by the harvesters (Amos 9:13), and that those who sow in tears will reap with joy (Psalm 126:6).