Gnosticism Resurrected

It seems like every Easter some journalist takes a swipe at Christianity by stirring up some “new” controversy about Jesus and the Church: Did you know that there are “other” gospels the Church doesn’t want you to know about? Did you know that there were early Christian sects who believed in very different ideas – until they were suppressed by Church authorities?

As French author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Kerr said in 1849, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

As my longtime friends know, if you really want to see me fired up, just start talking about Gnosticism! Maybe it’s because I was ordained a priest on June 28, the feast day of Irenaeus of Lyons. His Against Heresies (written in A.D. 185) offer an in-depth refutation of the Gnostic sects of his day. Maybe it’s because – like Irenaeus – I truly and passionately believe in the dying and rising of Jesus. And I look to that Paschal Mystery for the answers to all our ultimate human questions.

For Gnostics, the answers are found, not in a relationship with Jesus Christ, but in esoteric insight. “Gnostic” comes from gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge.” We find ourselves stuck in this corrupted cosmos, unable to escape. Jesus is the logos – “the Word” – but in a different sense. He comes from heavenly realms to bring secret passwords, with which we can escape this dimension and enter the pleroma – the spiritual fullness from which we are cut off.

For the Gnostics, Jesus was a spiritual being who only pretended to be human. He didn’t really take on human flesh; he didn’t really die; and he didn’t really rise. So much for Christmas and Easter! There is a reason why the early Church rejected Gnosticism so strongly, and rejected Gnostic gospels as not of God. Gnostic beliefs strike at the very heart of Christian faith: the dying and rising of Jesus as a real historical event that really transforms and restores us.

Gnosticism also distorts the original goodness of God’s creation, including our human bodies. For Gnostics, fleshly existence is a burden, a prison, or an illusion to be escaped. Such views were common in some of the other philosophies or religions of the ancient world. They are common today. Most people I know look on their own bodies with some level of shame and contempt.

By contrast, in the Book of Genesis, Jews and Christians believe that God created us humans as bodily beings, male and female in his own image. He looks with delight upon what he has created and declares our bodies to be “very good.”

We are spiritual bodies (or embodied spirits – take your pick). To be non-bodily is to be less than human. God’s plan is to divinize our bodies – not just to cancel our sins, but to cause us to share in his eternal glory, in our very flesh.

For early Gnostics, one way or another, human flesh was “less than” or corrupt. They could take that one of two ways. Some sects pursued extreme asceticism, shunning all fleshly pleasures (including sexuality and procreation) as a trap. Others were highly permissive of hedonistic indulgence because – after all – what you do with your body doesn’t matter; you are a spiritual being at your core and will one day be rid of your body.

Can you see how these early heresies are finding new life today?

Then and now there is a tendency to look upon our bodies and our sexuality with shame and contempt. Then and now there is a tendency to avoid accountability about what we do with our bodies. Genuine accountability is radically different from shaming (which plenty of Christian families and churches are good at!). Accountability means I am willing to look honestly and truthfully about how kind my choices are toward myself and others. It means I care about my relationships and am willing to repent and repair if I see that I have caused harm. It means claiming the inherent goodness of my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. It means (like Romans 7 and 8 describe) hoping for redemption and resurrection even when bodily existence in this fallen world feels futile.

Gnosticism shows up at funerals: in the obituaries, in the eulogies, in the burial practices, and on the tombstones. A walk through a cemetery can be quite telling. Where once you found crosses and Scriptures reminding you of God’s promise of resurrection, you now find fishing poles and Green Bay Packers Helmets. Where once Christian prayer ritually remembered the story of the dying and rising of Jesus (and connected it to the baptismal faith of the deceased), there is now only a backward looking celebration of life.

Mind you, it is a blessing to celebrate with gratitude the earthly life of our loved ones. AND we Christians believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Or we used to. I find that few people actually, truly believe those two truths anymore.

The resurrected body of Jesus was the same body, yet new and different. So will it be with us. This very body – or what is left of it – will be raised from the grave (John 5:29). We will see God as he is and become like Jesus – he who is ascended and glorified in human flesh.

Gnosticism is so tempting because it avoids the pain of Hope. It is easier, in the end, to find a solution that gives up on the redemption of our bodies, and gives up on truly being transformed to be all-holy in Christ. It is easier to answer our deepest religious questions in a way that doesn’t have to enter into a relationship with the living God – and therefore doesn’t risk him disappointing us. It is easier to condemn our bodies in shame.

Disciples like Paul refuse to bypass Hope. If you read Romans 7, you see that he is a sinner like you and me – the good that he desires he doesn’t do; instead he does the evil that he hates. Then in Romans 8, Paul expresses the agony of Hope, using words like futility, labor pains, and groaning. Living a bodily existence this side of paradise often feels that way! But Paul refuses to give up on seeking his answers in the promises of Jesus Christ. Jesus will resurrect this lowly body of ours; he will redeem and restore us, causing us to be fully at peace in his Father’s presence. Where he has gone, we surely will follow – if we dare to Hope.

Paschal Triduum

We will soon celebrate the Paschal Triduum. We will enter the holiest three days of the year. We will remember the dramatic story in which Jesus redeemed and renewed us.

“Paschal” is another word for Passover. That connection is lost when we use the common English word “Easter.” On Resurrection Sunday, my Spanish-speaking parishioners will say to me, “¡Feliz Pascua!” which literally means “Happy Passover!”

For us Christians, the Passover observance has been forever changed by Jesus. No longer do we spread the blood of a slaughtered lamb on the doorposts and lintels of our homes. Jesus offers himself as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He willingly becomes the lamb, once slain, who now lives, never to die again. His dying and rising are one single offering to the Father. They are now, for us, one single celebration.

In terms of calendar time, the Triduum spans three days, beginning the evening of Holy Thursday and concluding the evening of Resurrection Sunday. However, it remains one single event, a seamless moment in time.

Scripture scholars distinguish chronos and kairos, two Greek words for “time.” Chronological time marches along with steady precision, and with utter disregard for our lived human experience. Sometimes time can’t move quickly enough, as on a Friday afternoon when students and employees stare at the sluggish clock. At other times the hours, weeks, or even years seem to be racing past us. By contrast, there are kairos moments within the passage of time. Whether such a moment lasts a few hours or a few months, we remember it as one significant event or era. The Sacred Triduum is THE kairos event of human history.

For many of the disciples, it was largely a trauma event. They abruptly lost their Lord, and found themselves falling away from him. Within moments, they experienced dread, doubt, confusion, betrayal, loss, guilt, and shame. Trauma has its own sense of timelessness. When we feel powerless, it seems like the anguish will never end.

Jesus transforms our human experience. He willingly enters the depths of human drama and human trauma, conquering every single moment with perfect love.

For some of you, “Triduum” is a new word and a new concept. Others among you have been observing it liturgically for decades. Either way, I invite you to gaze and ponder afresh what transpired during those three days. This three-day event is willed by God to become the very heart of every human story.


Remember that in Jewish tradition, the new day begins at sunset. Therefore, Day One of the Triduum includes Jesus’ suffering, dying and burial. He initiates this new Passover event by sharing a meal with his disciples. They spend much of the meal debating who among them is the greatest. He declares the bread and wine to be his own flesh and blood and commands them to commemorate this offering. He prays to his Father in the garden. He watches his friends abandon him as he faces arrest, trial, torture, mocking, and crucifixion. His physical torment alone is enough to move human hearts to repentance. But his emotional and spiritual suffering were so much more intense. He willingly takes on our own infirmities, freely entering every traumatizing human experience: abandonment, rejection, the violation of his body, shaming comments, and a felt powerlessness. His cry to his Father gives voice to every human heart that ever has or ever will endure such experiences: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But unlike each of us, Jesus remains faithful and true. He surrenders in trust; he holds out hope; he loves to the end. Day One concludes with his burial and the sealing of the tomb, just in time for the Sabbath.


Day Two is so easily forgotten by Christians. Jesus’ body remains in the tomb on a Sabbath Day like no other.

Imagine what Holy Saturday was like for the various followers of Jesus. Many had abandoned him or denied him. Imagine the shame they felt! The gospels don’t specify what Peter and the others were up to on this day, but we know that by Sunday most of them were on voluntary lockdown, cowering in the cenacle.

Most of them had their messianic hopes crushed. Despite Jesus’ miracles, parables, and constant proclamation of the Kingdom of God, each follower continued to clutch a more tangible kind of salvation – deliverance from the Romans or restoring the Kingdom of Israel.

Others, like Mary Magdalene, were actively seeking him, like the beloved in the Song of Songs, going out into the night and earnestly searching after the one her heart loves. Desiring and not possessing is an agony like no other – the agony of Hope.

There is also the Hope of Mary, Jesus’ own mother, who had spent thirty years with him, had stood with him at the foot of the Cross, and had always pondered his words and events in her heart. She knew his promises better than anyone.  As at the Annunciation, as at Bethlehem, as during the flight into Egypt, as when seeking and finding Jesus in the Temple, Mary believed that God was ushering in a new and greater human experience. But she couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like. She persevered in Hope. Scripture doesn’t tell us about what it was like when Mary encountered the Risen Jesus, following the agonizing Hope of Day Two. But we can imagine the surprise and the joy.

In Catholic life, each Saturday is a day of devotional remembrance of Mary. We forget that it is her day because Holy Saturday is the day on which she persevered in Hope.


Jesus rises on the Third Day, during the night preceding the dawn of Resurrection Sunday. No other human being directly witnesses his Resurrection, but the encounters explode, like kernels of corn beginning to pop – at first one by one, and then rapid fire. In every encounter, the Risen Jesus catches them by surprise, and fills their hearts with unimaginable joy. Their narrow and preconceived ideas about the messiah are shattered against the event of his dying and rising. He helps them to understand how everything in the Law and Prophets – indeed everything about our human story – points to this new Passover. This event of his dying and rising (and the agonizing wait in between) is what gives meaning and purpose to your story and mine.

Even still, you and I have a tendency to bypass the Paschal Mystery. Resurrection sounds nice, but what about fully entering with Jesus into suffering, dying, and an agonizing wait at the tomb? Like the characters in the Bible, we prefer perfectionistic rule-following, secular political solutions, or to the old standbys of pleasure, prestige, and power.

This Holy Week, may we allow our minds and hearts to be reawakened to the Faith, Hope, and Love that the Sacred Triduum offers us.