CHAPTER X — CHRIST THE VICTIM
Men and the mysteries of suffering and death: The place of suffering and death in human life
TO THE superficial observer, suffering is obviously an interruption of the motion of life, while death is its end. Naturally, then, men have felt keenly about suffering and death; they have felt even more keenly about their inability to understand them. When the two are thrust full force upon the attentions of men, as when the world is subjected to a siege of severe suffering and violent death, philosophies of protest spring up like mushrooms to mark the soil made fruitful of doubt by the flood of mystery. From the early nineteen-twenties, for example, philosophers rebelled at the idea of a providence, of a good God, of an orderly world because men had just been through a World War. No doubt in the nineteen-fifties, if human reason is still recognized, a whole new crop of protest-philosophies will rise up and set themselves against eternal truths because men by the millions have suffered and died.
It is plain that the divine model of human living could not ignore these two spectres that dog the steps of every man. An extremely rare few may escape physical suffering; no one escapes death. Christ had come that all men might know by a glance at His life what they were to do at any moment of their own. To make sure there would be no mistake about these two crucial periods of man’s life, He merged the two in a gigantic climax to His own life that the attention of these two thousand years might be focused on that part of His life. He did not minimize the importance of a knowledge of the meaning and technique of suffering and dying.
Their significance for human life: Meaningless catastrophes
In one way or another, every man must meet these supremely hard facts of suffering and death. The way men have met them is an indication of what they have learned of the business of living, how much they have known of the meaning of life. To some men, stopping short at a superficial view of life, suffering was a thing of horror, a meaningless catastrophe which interrupted work, love, pleasure; the mystery, finality, the corruption, and inevitability of death were terrifying, it was the complete end of the only life, the only value they knew. In the face of these threatening unknowns, they fled; but of course they did not escape They are still trying to escape by pushing the suffering of others from sight, by legalizing any means to avoid suffering of their own even though this demands the coining of such high, sounding names as euthanasia, therapeutic abortion, mercy killing, and so on for the dastardly act which has always been known as murder. Obviously, there is little of nobility or mercy in this sort of thing when death means what it does to these modern champions of escape — the end of everything.
Inhuman events inhumanly met
Other men could find no human meaning in suffering; it was an inhuman thing and they met it inhumanly. Sometimes the weapon of defense was the perversion of sadism and masochism, a perverted wringing of pleasure from pain from which nature itself shrinks in revulsion. In their flight to an ecstasy of passion to block out all reason, these men faced suffering by digging down to a level beneath that of the animal. Still others met this inhuman thing by brutalizing their own sensibilities, by animalizing man. They submitted to suffering stolidly, like dead things, not because suffering had any reason to it, but in a kind of stupid endurance that was a denial of the individual’s own nature.
Means to ends worthwhile
Men who saw beneath the surface of life met suffering and death humanly. They saw that the motion of life was not merely the movement of arms, legs, lips, or eyes, but also of mind and heart. Life was, above all, a spiritual race to a spiritual goal; it was not to be held up by a physical impediment, any more than an angel is to be thrown by a stalwart football player. These men left suffering and pain intact, not denying them, not meeting them with brutal indifference, not twisting them into a horrible pleasure; rather they ordered them to the soul’s high purposes which are not to be interfered with by any created force. They destroyed nothing of man, neither his higher nor his lower nature; rather they subordinated the lower to the higher in all reason, thus perfecting the whole man.
A divine prescription for success: The way of the cross and its interpretations
In His death on the cross, Christ gave the full human meaning of suffering and added to it the rich flavor of the divine. He was not merely submitting to suffering, making a virtue of necessity; He embraced suffering. So the graphic symbol of His last moments became the universal symbol of all His doctrine and His Life. Those who watered down His doctrine in later centuries quite logically stripped the body from the crucifix; those who revolted against Him, trampled on the crucifix or made it a mockery. They were quite right. For on Calvary, by His cross, Christ gave the full statement of His way of human living, the full details for life to those who would come after Him. If we are to abandon His way of life, we should destroy the cross.
The friends of Christ and His gifts to them
He Himself has said that the only way to follow Him was to take up the cross; and this has been astounding advice to human ears. It is strange to men that divine wisdom, in mapping out the best way for men to live, could hit upon no better way than that of the cross. This was not mere theory, even divine theory, for God took that royal road Himself; it was not a drastic exercise to round the spiritually flabby into shape, for He gave it to the most perfect of His friends — to Peter, James, John, Magdalen, and His mother. His methods have not varied. The very special gift to the followers of Christ has always been a full cup of suffering; their response to His gift has always been as astounding as the death of the Author of life on the barren hill of Calvary. To them, suffering was not a thing to be cringed from in terror; it was not a brutal dose to be taken in dull stupidity; rather, it was a share in and a completion of the works of the Master to be joyfully embraced, a vital help to others, a safe, sure, short way to heaven. Above all, it was an opportunity for the concrete expression of love, for sacrifice.
On Calvary, Christ’s way of dealing with suffering and death was mocked as evidence of effeminate weakness by those whose god was brute strength. The hedonists of the time, whose norm was pleasure, recoiled from it. The intellectually proud, who could not see beyond the walls of the world, looked on with pity or indifference.
Paradox of eager suffering and instant charity
The men of the world have not changed much since then. The Cross of Christ is still seen as an exhibition of weakness, a shocking, revolting thing, or a needless, useless loss. This paradox of a suffering and dying God is not to be understood by the world. The initial paradox was bad enough, that He Who had come that men’s joy might be full should leave a prescription of suffering. The consequences of it have been positively bewildering: for the most joyous people in the world are those who most eagerly embrace suffering for themselves; yet these willing victims are the most thoughtful, the most kind, the most pitying towards suffering in others But, then, isn’t this a fairly exact correspondence with the Model Who had time and heart, even in His agony, to continue the work of healing the sick, comforting the distressed, forgiving sinners, and providing for the lonely hearts of the world?
The secret of this paradox, as of all the paradoxes of Christian action, is to be found in the union of the divine and the human. Those of Christ’s own life flowed from the substantial union of human and divine nature in the Person of the Word of God; those of the twentieth century’s Christian life take their rise in the participation of divine life by men through grace. Of course Christianity is a puzzling phenomenon to those who know nothing of God and little of man. The full implications for human living of the crucified Christ are gathered only by one who knows both God and man and spends a lifetime of contemplation, with divine assistance, of both.
It is certainly true that any appreciation of the paradox of Calvary depends upon a humble study of the union of the human and divine in that tragedy. A whimper of pain immediately awakes some pity in us, for pain is well within the field of our own experience; when we have traced it down and found that a man and not a dog is suffering, our appreciation of the pain is deeper, our pity more profound, for we know how much more it means to a man to suffer than to a mere animal. On Calvary, we are trying to understand something of the sufferings of God. The work of this chapter is to look at the passion of Christ in itself, to see what it means for a God-man to suffer.
The suffering of Christ: The passion itself:
The necessity and manner of it
Obviously Christ did not have to suffer as the sea has to roar in a wild wind; He did not have to suffer as a man is forced to stand upright because he is lashed to a post. Had Christ not passed through the hands of His enemies untouched when they tried to seize Him earlier in His life? Even there in the Garden of Gethsemane, the crowd that had come roaring out for His blood fell down at the mention of His name. On His own word, He could have had twelve legions of angels when God knows one alone would have been more than enough. His word had called the world into being; and men came to reduce Him to helplessness with swords and clubs! What stupid weapons for a battle with God!
It is essential that we see clearly that Christ was not forced into His passion. What necessity was involved was that of a means to an end, the necessity a man is under to walk across the street if he is to get to the other side. Man was to be freed from sin, the humanity of Christ was to be exalted, the prophecies of Scripture to be fulfilled; and the passion and death of the Savior were the means by which these things were to be done. This is not a denial of the possibility of other means to attain these ends; the point is that this is the way that had been decided on by God, and God’s are not changing plans accommodating themselves to last-minute information pouring in from the ends of the earth.
His choice, then, of the means to the end of the Incarnation was a supremely wise, eternal choice. The passion and death of the Son of God were the best ways to obtain the things for which the Incarnation took place. The point is worth stressing. Perhaps we can understand it by a glance at the reasons for the superiority of the modern transparent, compact, extremely light raincoats for women over a raincoat made, let us say, of sheet-iron. The latter would certainly keep out the rain and so attain the chief end of a raincoat; but it would be folded into a hand-bag with extreme difficulty, would hardly be beneficial to the clothes beneath it, and might easily wear off a few layers of skin. It would certainly be no help to the disposition in hot weather, and be an irritating thing to find draped over a chair. The modern raincoat contributes many more things by which the end of all raincoats can be more fittingly attained. The Christ-child might have glanced around His stable nursery, given one baby smile, of infinite worth because He was God, and then returned to eternal glory. This would have been more than sufficient to redeem men, to attain the principal end of the Incarnation. But would that divine smile have produced all the other things which pertain to the salvation of men over and above the forgiveness of sin?
Would it, for example, have given them that unanswerable protestation of limitless divine love that would stop their human hearts and start them off again in a rapid, eager beat as they attempted to respond to that love? Would men have had that terrifying estimate of the price of their souls, with its consequent conviction of the grave necessity for avoiding sin? Would it have flashed before men’s eyes the living examples of humility, obedience, constancy, and justice that were struck out from the flint of the cross? Would it have sent men down the ages with their shoulders a little straighter, their heads a little higher, their step a little firmer in the knowledge that man, who had been conquered by the devil, had turned about and given his enemy a beating; that man, who had merited death, had conquered death by dying on a cross?
That cross against the sky with its arm flung out to the world was not a beau geste. It was not the exaggerated declaration of love from a cavalier professional in these matters. Hung between the earth and the sky, the blood that edged slowly down its rough surface to the earth beneath it consecrated the ground men walked on, while its arms purified the air as if to say a new world had been made. It stood there on the brow of the hill in a bold, challenging rebuke to the fears of men. This was the worst men could do and it could not stop the triumph of a Man; what, then, is to be feared from men? By the fruit of a tree, men had met defeat; by the bitter fruit of this tree, they conquered. Here was the new Moses with arms outstretched, praying. Here was a new rod, striking not the living rock but the very gates of heaven to swing them wide and loose a flood of grace upon the hearts of men.
Fighting men returning from war usually bring back a full quota of strange and interesting stories. It is to be noticed, however, that the stories revolve around the comic side of army life, the strange customs of foreign peoples, the compelling beauty of strange lands. These men have practically nothing to say of suffering and death. It is hard to go into the details of these things. It is much harder when the subject of the suffering is not merely a companion in arms but a companion in heart. Thomas, for all his reputation as a cold-blooded metaphysician, showed this same reticence when he came on slow feet to the very cross itself and looked at the divine Victim. He makes no attempt to detail every suffering of Christ; indeed, what human word could contain them, what human heart hold them? Rather, Thomas adheres to a generalization of Christ’s sufferings, to a classification rather than a description of them.
Looking at the cross through the eyes of Thomas, it is evident to us, as it was to him, that there is no question of Christ facing the evils which affect the soul directly, such evils as sin or the loss of grace. Nor could there be question of such intrinsic evils as sickness or the corruption of the body. What Christ suffered was brought upon Him from extrinsic sources. In this sense, Christ underwent all suffering.
Not that Christ underwent every individual suffering. Even the ingenuity of hate has its limitations. The officers of Elizabeth had to work fast to complete the sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering. Had a few more details, such as drowning, poisoning, shooting, scalding, and overeating been added, their complete obedience would have been impossible. Add a few modern touches, such as airplane crashes, train wrecks, plunging from skyscrapers, and it is fairly easy to see that no one man can possibly undergo every individual suffering. What Christ suffered was every kind of suffering. His passion was the work of Jews and gentiles, of men and women, of princes and their officials, of priests and people, of friends and enemies. What can a man suffer? Well, he can be deserted by his friends. He can be stripped of his reputation, robbed of respect and honor. He can lose his possessions, even his very clothes. His soul can be weighed down by the weariness of distaste, by fear, by sorrow. His body can be beaten and wounded. It was in this sense of a man utterly stripped that Christ hung naked on the cross.
A man’s body can be made to suffer in a great variety of ways. His head, for instance, might be crowned with thorns, his hands and feet transfixed by nails, his face beaten and spit upon, his whole body torn by lashes. He might suffer in his sense of touch, in his sense of smell as by dying in a place long used as a depository of dead criminals, the place of skulls; his ears might be assailed by insults, obscenities, blasphemies; and his eyes might reveal to him the course of the tears streaming down his mother’s face as she watched him suffering all these things. All these could happen to a man; all of them did happen to Christ.
He suffered every manner of suffering and His sufferings were greater in intensity than any other the world has seen. Understand, we are still viewing the Victim under that merciful light of generality. It is quite possible that some other man be crowned with sharper thorns or carry a cross a greater distance; the question here is not of this or that suffering but of all these sufferings taken together in a subject Who was the Son of God. We have some notion of the intensity of Christ’s sufferings even if we stop at their universality and the slow, exceedingly painful relief that comes through death by crucifixion.
A more penetrating light is thrown on this intensity of suffering if we keep in mind the interior sufferings of Christ. It must be realized that He was bearing the sins of all the world, bearing them with a wisdom and charity that brought the full horror of sin, every sin, directly before His eyes. We must appreciate something of the torment of His soul when we remember that He could look into the very souls of His executioners and disciples as they sinned; and He was God to whom nothing is more hateful than sin. This last point, the subject of these sufferings, brings out fully the length to which God will go in search of love from men. Knowing that this man was God, we can know with what suffering the Man Christ saw the slow approach of death, the loss of this life which was above all other lives, the life of God. The wine at Cana had astonished the master of the feast for, like all things miraculously produced, it was perfect. So was this miraculously produced body of Christ endowed with the keenest of senses, the sharpest responsiveness of appetite; it was most perfectly fitted to respond thrillingly to the lightest touch of joy and, by that very fact, to shudder with the utmost of agony under the brutal blows of pain.
In other men, pain may be assuaged by reason; the martyrs, for example, in their ecstasy could be insensible to pain, or a woman in labor be joyful in her pain thinking of the child who will soon be in her arms. A child might even rejoice a little in the misfortune of having to have a sliver removed from finger, considering the reward promised for submitting bravely to the process. There was none of this in Christ. He would not permit it; rather, He insisted that every faculty operate to its fullest for the redemption of man. All this suffering was in the most complete sense voluntary. He took upon Himself the amount and degree of suffering proportionate to the fruit that suffering was expected to bear — nothing less than the redemption of all men from all sin; proportionate, that is, to the sins of all the world. That He should have died so soon, after only three hours of agony, could be a surprise only to those who did not know what suffering He was undergoing, only to those who did not understand that this was the perfect Son of Mary Who was redeeming the world.
In insisting on the universality and supreme intensity of the suffering of Christ, Thomas is not forgetting that Christ enjoyed the beatific vision, the joy of heaven. This in no way interfered with or lessened the tragedy of Calvary; rather, the very absence of its resonance in the body of Christ is just one more word in the long recorded testimony of divine love.
The superior reason of man is not a direct subject of sorrow; its object is truth. It becomes involved only in the suffering of the whole man. And it was by this superior reason that man sees God in heaven. Christ on the cross did not suffer directly in this superior reason; but intolerable suffering came to it indirectly from the suffering of the whole man. At the lame time, the limitless joy of the vision was in Christ’s will, but damned up lest one trickle of it relieve the suffering offered for men. In heaven, the flood of that vision to the body is such as to spiritualize the material, to glorify the body with the radiance that was seen in the transfiguration of Christ; but on Calvary, this played not the smallest part in relieving the suffering of the body of Christ.
Death seems so far removed from the young that it is particularly hard to watch a young man die. Christ died a young man, in His early thirties. There was this comfort in His dying: since he surrendered that life in the name of love, there could never again be any question of the unconditional character of that love. The perfect age of thirty is a sad time to die. But it is the right time to bring out the full, deliberate offering of a life for love.
The hill upon which Christ died is just outside the old walls of the city of Jerusalem. It rises sharply from the very foot of those walls to a height that is just about level with the top of the old walls, and so close that a man could easily throw a stone from the wall to the brow of the hill or, peering a little, could read the inscriptions over the crosses of the criminals dying on the hill. Jerusalem was the place for Christ to die, for Jerusalem was a royal city and He was a king; Jerusalem was the killer of the prophets and He was the greatest of the prophets. According to St. Thomas, Jerusalem was the center of the world, the navel of the universe; and this is certainly true if we are speaking of the world of the spirit. It was a fitting place for Him to die Whose death was to have repercussions to all the ends of the earth. He died outside the walls as the scapegoat of humanity, rejected and outcast by His people.
He hung on the cross between two thieves. Perhaps that special touch of disgrace was added in the hope that the people whom He had loved and healed, comforted and forgiven would identify Him with these criminals; if so the hope was vain. Ever since, the world has talked of His cross with hardly a word for the other crosses; kings have searched for and found and carried His cross, particles of it are still adored throughout the world. The others? They have played their part. They clustered around that central cross as around a judgment seat and heard a divine sentence passed. They showed to all men that suffering can be a soaring flight direct to heaven, or a weight pressing us down deeper into hell; for it was from the vantage point of a cross that one criminal recognized the throne and royal robes of the King, while the other saw only a dying criminal who could be safely mocked.
The cause of the passion: The part of Christ
Christ, dying on the cross, was a willing victim but He did not kill Himself. It was not Christ Who stripped off His garments, drove the nails into His hands, or the spear into His side. His enemies could and did kill Him; but only because He submitted to them. He could have rendered them impotent or, submitting, He could have brought His body unscathed through their feeble, human gestures of attack. He did neither. Life was not so much being taken from Him as being laid down by Him. Not envy, not hatred, not the power of His enemies, but the obedience and love of the victim tells the real story of His sacrifice; He was obedient even unto death. An unwilling sacrifice is no sacrifice at all; surely, it is not the means of such a sweeping reconciliation as Christ planned. Man had lost God by disobedience; here, God was regained by the obedience of a Man.
Christ laid down His life in obedience to the command of His Father; the obedience, like the command, was inspired by an infinite love for men. That obedience brought out the terrible severity of divine justice’s refusal to forgive sin until the penalty had been undergone; at the same time, it revealed the infinite goodness of God Who sent His only-begotten Son into the world to die that men might escape the penalty of their sin. With the help of His own people, Christ was handed over to the Gentiles to be put to death; salvation follows the same course, from the Jews to the Gentiles, not for the destruction of God but for the happiness of man.
The part of His executioners
Strictly speaking, there were very many who had a part in Christ’s death, but their roles were vastly different. His Father gave Him over to death moved by justice, goodness, and love for men. The Son surrendered to death from that same goodness, and from obedience. Judas betrayed his Master from greed; the Jews betrayed Him from envy. Pilate handed Him over to the mob because of a cowardly fear that made him tremble at the name of Caesar. The surrender of the Father and the Son will be praised for all eternity; the acts of the others will be condemned without end.
True, there was some little excuse for the Romans. What did they know about the Messiah and His coming? What interest did they have in the rumors they had heard of the wonders worked by Christ? There was even some excuse for most of the mob that hooted at the heels of Christ up to Calvary; and then dunk away in terror to their homes. They had none of the expert knowledge of the Scriptures that would enable them to judge of Christ independently; even though they had been impressed and enthusiastic about His life and works, it was the function of their leaders to approve and dis approve. They themselves were easy subjects of deception.
But the leaders of the people — there is a different story. They had the Scriptures and they knew them. They had followed the works of Christ in detail and had examined them with expert eyes. They had the norms of discrimination between the works of God and the works of men. Like all the others gathered on Calvary to kill Christ, they did not know He was the Son of God; but they, above all others, should have known. They could have known only by faith; but they did not receive the faith that would allow their eyes to pierce the veil of His humanity because they did not want that faith. They put the impediments of hate, envy, arid deceit in the way of faith; and only those of good will can see the things that belong to the eyes of God.
On them, as they wished, rests the blood of this innocent Man. Theirs was the greatest sin, a sin in itself greater than any other that can be committed. As we pass down the line of the executioners, the sin becomes less, for the norm of gravity in sin will always be the malice of the will; that malice lessened definitely after Judas and the princes of the people, coming down in a steadily decreasing degree to the common people, Pilate, and the Roman soldiers.
Some one has defined the efficiency of modern transport as the ability to get us a long way quickly so that we can start back sooner. This is really more than jest; it is an epitome of the fact and the vanity of our worship of activity. We have actually come to the irrational stage of seeing positive virtue in rush, hurry, aggression. As a corollary of that, there is pity in our hearts for the poor people who are condemned to live their lives in one place, particularly a small place. To our minds, what a man does with his hands, his feet, or even his brain, are all important; we do not at all appreciate what a man can do with his heart. To the thorough modern, then, Christ on the cross is a picture of utter helplessness, of complete frustration; He could not go anywhere, could not get anything done. A religious-minded modern might ponder sadly on what those helpless hands of Christ might have done, what words the swollen tongue might have spoken, what sinners might have been sought out by the transfixed feet. As a matter of fact, it was when Christ was so helplessly fixed to the cross that He got the most done.
Mode of operation of the passion — merit, satisfaction, sacrifice, redemption, and efficient causality Divinity has certainly gone to extreme lengths to bring us to our senses, to a realization that in rushing around the world we are only circling back to the place from which we started. We move in circles, inevitably, unless it is our heart that moves. All that Christ had done in those busy three years in which He had not so much as time to eat, was as nothing compared to what He accomplished on Calvary. Just when the full causality of the God-man was unleashed, men stood mocking or pitying His helplessness. From that cross, Christ’s divinity operated as the efficient cause of all the wide effects produced by the passion of Christ in the lives of men; Christ’s human will, from the deep roots of grace and charity, merited all those effects; His flesh satisfied for the punishment due to our sins, freed us from the slavery of sin, and was the means of sacrifice by which we are reconciled to God. The efficient, the meritorious, the redemptive, the satisfactory, and sacrificial causality of the redemption of men flowed out from a man dying on a cross. This was God’s way of getting things done.
Effects of the passion: Negative
A modern true to his training would immediately object that as far as could be observed, all that Christ did on Calvary was to die in disgrace and tear out the hearts of His friends. Just what did Christ get done there? To understand the difficulty of answering that question to the satisfaction of the twentieth century, as well as to appreciate how far we have drifted today from the goals of men, it is only necessary to reflect for a moment on how little the revolutionary effects of Christ’s passion mean to the modern world. What do these things mean today: liberation from sin, freedom from the power of the devil, release from the punishment due to sin, reconciliation with God, the opening of the gates of heaven, and the exaltation of the God-man, Christ? What a snicker such a litany would win in Union Square! What reasons for a man to die!
Yet, it is only by these effects that a man can win the fight of his life. Indeed, it is only the thoughtfulness of divinity and the divine respect for the powers of man that still keep every man’s fight his very own. These effects of Christ have been won for us; but we must allow their application in our own lives. The life of man is a battle he must win himself, one that is worth winning for himself as an individual, but one that he can win only because God died on a cross. And the world shrugs in indifference!
The death of Christ: The fact and its effects:
When Christ bowed His head and died, His life ended, as every man’s does, by His soul leaving His body. But it is a serious mistake to see that dead body in the arms of His mother as so much human wreckage, a mass of matter destined for corruption. The soul of Christ was not a tow-rope hooking His body to divinity any more than His flesh was a chain tying His soul to divinity. There was no intermediary of that union of God and human nature; the union was immediate and by reason of the Person. As He was taken down from the cross and during those three days of death, the Person of the Son of God and His divinity were still intimately united to that body, still intimately united to that soul, even though soul and body were separated. This Person did not result from the union of body and soul, nor from the union of human and divine nature; this was an eternal Person, not to be destroyed by the destruction of the union of body and soul. What God took, He kept. That grace of union; like all grace, could be lost only by sin; and there was no more sin is the dead Christ than in the living one.
The burial of Christ: Its reasons
In this light, the care and love given to the dead body of Christ, the courage of Joseph of Arimathea in demanding it of Pilate, the sorrow of His mother receiving it from the cross, were more than the reverence that springs from loving memories. Everything suffered by that dead body, even though it were only the caress of love, had infinite value for the souls of men. It is true, of course, that during those three days, Christ was dead; that is, He was no longer man, for man is not a body, neither is he a soul, but a composite of the two. Here that composite had been dissolved. The dead body of Christ was a body without a soul; but otherwise it was exactly the same, still possessed by the same Person, still united to divinity through that Person. Christ had not merited death, but He took it; He had not merited corruption of the body, and this He would not take lest there be any slightest doubt of His divinity.
Its effects on the body
Indeed, it was not at all fitting that that body should suffer corruption; the fact that it did not has ever since been a serene comfort to men and an unanswerable refutation of Christ’s enemies. It was a foregone conclusion that men would doubt Christ’s death; even though Pilate sent a spear through His heart, and His tomb was sealed and guarded day and night. Precautions such as these cannot stop the doubts of men when doubt seems so much more comfortable a thing than belief; even though it may be necessary to stoop to stupidity by hiring sleeping witnesses to testify to events happening during their deep, such men will have their doubts. Either Christ’s death or His resurrection must be rejected under penalty of accepting every single detail of His life and doctrine. For us, who have no doubts, there is comfort in watching Christ placed in the tomb; from that time on, men could watch those they loved placed in a tomb and remember that the doors of every tomb are not eternally locked, that every tomb has an exit as well as an entrance, that it is a gate rather than the end of a road.
Perhaps, too, the burial of Christ was to remind us that we are to die to sin by Baptism, to be buried from the world, and separated from the inordinate passions of men. Christ was in that tomb for two nights and a day that we might know it is a double death, the death of sin and the death of the body, that we escape by Baptism and its full consummation.
The descent into hell: Its fittingness
As His body drooped on the cross with the breath of life gone out of it, the soul of Christ descended into hell; not to the hell of the damned, but to the hell which we call Limbo. There was already confusion and despair enough in the devil’s kingdom as the knowledge of His victory became more apparent; in Limbo the souls of the just awaited the opening of the gates of life by the death of the Author of life. It is not at all strange to us that Our Lord’s first thought in death would be for others, as all the thoughts of His life had been. Only God knows how long the centuries had seemed, waiting there in Limbo; perhaps that was why He hurried so. Surely, only God can tell us of the hilariously joyful reception given the Savior of the world by those who tasted the first fruits of His sacrifice.
Recipients of its benefits
When the short visit was over, there would be a little note of sadness such as perpetually dogs the steps of sin. For there would be souls in Purgatory who had not yet satisfied for their sin and these could have no part in His triumphant possession of His kingdom until the last farthing had been paid; the souls in Limbo would still bear the stain of original sin, and so could never enter that kingdom. As for the damned in hell, He had not come to them, He had nothing to bring them, not the slightest bit of their punishment was relieved. They had chosen, and held fast to their choice; not even the Conqueror, the Master of the universe, the God of all, forces the human will to change even so stupidly disastrous a choice as this.
Mary, on the arm of John, went down from the hill and its sepulchre into a city empty of Christ; but she carried with her the secret that would change forever the view of men on suffering and death. To Mary and John, the mystery of death and suffering was cleared up by faith: its finality was done away with by the knowledge that it was the beginning of a new life; its corruption was more than matched by the glorification of the body that was the ultimate goal of death; death’s inevitability was more than made up for by the certitude of immortality.
Conclusion. Philosophies of suffering: Philosopy of joy
In other words, they entered that empty city in full possession of the Christian philosophy of suffering and death. They had learned from the dead Christ that suffering was to be joyfully embraced yet to be mercifully and constantly relieved in others. They knew now that suffering would be their lot in order that their joy might be full; that the way of the cross, for all its sorrows, was a joyful road leading to fuller, and perpetual, joy.
Philosophies of suffering: Philosophy of gloom
In sharp contrast to this, the materialistic philosophies of their age still shuddered before the sight of suffering and the terror of death. To them, suffering and death still remained mysterious, something for the most part hated, yet, paradoxically, something that is quite willingly inflicted upon others. Those philosophies were then, as they have been ever since, apparently dedicated to pleasure and to flight from pain; yet in actual fact, they were philosophies of gloom and pessimism not only to the victims sacrificed to their ends, but to the very champions of these philosophies.
Double basis of difference: The sufferer a victim or a sovereign master
Mary and John, and all who would come after them, faced suffering and death, not only as men and women, but as men and women who had been made partakers in the life of God. Their materialistic contemporaries, and ours, faced these mysteries of pain and death, not as participators in the life of God, not even as men and women, but in a fashion worthy only of something less than a man. Really, it should have been so; the basic differences of the two views clearly would allow nothing less sharply contrasted to the Christian, the victim, the sufferer who dies, is in reality a sovereign master, wielding even such terrible weapons as his own pain and death for his own high purposes, rising above the material and what the material can inflict upon him, always carrying within himself that spark that gives him independence of all that is less than the spirit. In the other view, the sufferer is simply and solely a victim of superior forces; he is beaten, vanquished. There is nothing within him to give him title to independence of the forces that crash upon him to his destruction; he is the slave of obviously superior forces; his outlook is one of hopeless despair.
The goal of great worth
In fact, the materialist has no reason for fighting against hopeless odds. He has no place to go, no goal worthy of suffering, nothing worth the price of death. The one thing he knows is the life he has in his hands, and he knows precious little about that; to preserve it, he should logically go to any lengths, scruple at no means however base. On the other hand, the follower of Christ along the way of the cross aims at goals that are not only worthy of a man; they are goals proper to God, goals so far superior to anything material as to make the loss of any material things, or all of them, a mere trifling price to pay. The Master’s question still remains unanswerable: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” His incredible promise still holds: “He that shall lose his life shall find it.” For there are some things worth the price of all the suffering a man can endure, even of all the sufferings that the God-man could endure; and there are some things to which death is not a threat but a gateway.
The Victim Who conquered and His book of the cross
The world of our time, or of any time, gazing on the Son of God dead on the cross, looks at a willing Victim who conquered, at a Man who died and, dying, conquered death, at a Man who wrote in the indelible words of infinitely precious acts a fundamentally important lesson for all men to read. There it is written, never to be erased, that the spiritual is superior to the material, that all things in man’s life, even life itself, are to be ordered to the good of his soul. In the crucifix, the universal symbol of the life, doctrine, and death of Christ, He has left us the whole book of divine wisdom for human living. It is a compact thing, readily scrutinized by the most ignorant, though it is never exhausted by the most wise and the most holy. It has been the book of the saints. In that book there is the answer to the enigma of suffering and to the horror of death. There is the ultimate chapter on human living by the divine Exemplar of human life.