CHAPTER XI — THE CONQUEST OF DEATH
To a young doctor just beginning his practice, or a young married couple setting out on their common life, it seems impossible that anyone can ever get too old to dream. In a sense they are right; but it is true that it is the youth of a man that is filled with dreams. As adolescence changes into manhood and womanhood, vast horizons open up to give birth to the dreams of the young. The long, wide roads are faced with a tingling joy of anticipation; yet in the very midst of the grand dreams of conquest, there is often a note of misgiving, a tinge of fear on venturing into this huge new world.
If this fear actually takes precedence, an unhealthy state of indecision develops, spelling the end of effort, of accomplishment, even of life in the human sense of hearty living. On the other hand, if that fear is kept healthy, it is an invaluable check-rein on our plunging hearts, keeping them from running wild by insisting on caution and some measure of prudence in even our boldest efforts.
This strange mingling of joy, anticipation, and fear seems to be the common note of all the goals that open up new roads, the ends which are beginnings. It seems to be the genius of our nature to be forever seeking wider, longer, harder goals, to approach them with mingled joy and fear; yet to be stagnated, stifled without them. All this is, of course, true of the goal of death which opens up the horizons of eternity. From this point of view, the story of Our Lord’s resurrection was particularly well told, with its note of fear on the part of the soldiers, of great joy on the part of the disciples; for the combination of these two is typical of the emotions of every man as he reaches an end that starts him off again on a new road.
The double note in the conquest of death: Of joy in the destruction of its finality
There is reason enough for joy in Christ’s conquest of death, for it tore down the wall at the end of life’s last blind alley, lifting the barrier of finality which lies heavy across the path of every human heart. A barrier is always a source of suffering for a human heart with its innate drive for newer, wider, higher goals, and which never has enough of traveling, since it was made for the infinite. When the last door, the door of death, swings wide, there is an immediate, joyous release from the haunting fear that perhaps there is an end of love, of knowledge, of accomplishment, and of all the other things that the human heart treasures; the fear that what a man presses on to so desperately for all of a lifetime may yet be taken away from him.
It is quite certain that life is not long enough by far. Youth surely does not know the deep values hidden in the roar and confusion of life; it takes time to appreciate these things, since we learn so very slowly. Life is a cathedral which must be visited many times to get more than a dim appreciation of the beauty of its lines; it is a masterpiece that must be looked at lovingly hour after hour, day after day, if our eyes are to see the soul of it; it is a book to be read again and again, each reading giving its lines new significance, new depths. When life is nearly over we begin to put proper values on such familiar, homely things as spring sunshine and the pure beauty of winter. Not even then have we more than scratched the surface of the mystery of love, of sacrifice, of selfless family life, and God’s hovering benevolence. We need more time. It would not do to lose life just as we begin to penetrate its worth.
Of fear in the guarantee of responsibility and judgment
Yet, seeing this door of death swing wide into a new life, there is, too, a distinct and healthy note of fear in facing the endless stretches that will satisfy our hearts. For if death is conquered and life goes on forever, while the good is preserved, the record of evil, too, has to be faced. Man cannot wipe out his deeds with the help of a faulty memory; he must face his life, all of it, with responsibility for the evil as well as with pride and affection for the good. The man who is utterly fearless at such a prospect is somewhat of a fool. Briefly, the conquest of death not only opens up the possibilities of heaven but also of hell; it guarantees judgment, complete and accurate casting up of all accounts.
Basis of the denial of the conquest: Fear of living
This is a fearful truth for a man; it is insupportable for a coward. To some men of every age, the news of Christ’s resurrection has been bad news, so bad as to drive them to the childishly irrational extreme of refusing to read the news as though that would destroy it. A prospective lawyer who would burn the report of his bar examination for fear of learning that he had failed would soon discover that he could not begin his practice simply because he had destroyed that report; the men who refuse to read the news of Christ’s resurrection must ultimately learn that they cannot go out and live just because they maintained their ignorance of life. In actual fact, what they have done is to give fear the upper hand, ending all real effort, real accomplishment, real living by going on record as denying anything in life worth living for, worth the awful burden of responsibility.
Pride of life
In a strange paradox, these cowards who are afraid of life put their denial of life on the basis of pride and thus join hands with others whose pride has gone so far as to submerge even healthy fear. Both conclude to the supremacy of man. One, by releasing him, through a denial of responsibility, from answering to any superior; the other, by a strong, indignant rejection of dependence as a slur on human greatness: what we cannot reach by our human powers simply cannot exist.
It is hard for the hand, the eye, or the mind of a man to reach to the uttermost limits of truth; so hard, in fact, as to be impossible. Though the truth that the soul of man is undying can be reached and has been reached by the human mind, these men will have none of it. As for the resurrection of the body to eternal life, that is incredible. After all, we have only God’s word for it; and we are not taking anyone’s word for anything. We, they say, depend on no one. We live our own lives. We stand on top of the world. Though we had nothing to do with our own beginnings, though we have less to say about our own ending, though our knowledge of the space between these two is pitifully vague and our knowledge of the space beyond either beginning or end is necessarily second hand, we are supreme. After all, we can know more than a tree, a dog, or a cosmic force; so we must know all that can be known.
Pride and fear are no new things in human life. It is true that we have no record, in the story of Christ’s resurrection, of the kind of fear we know so well today, the fear that destroys life in preference to living it. But we have a record of a pride that would go so far as to bribe witnesses to deny the uncomfortable truth. However, neither pride nor fear destroys truth. Christ rose again from the dead; man has his life to face, both its good and its evil.
The conquest and the Conqueror: The resurrection of Christ:
Its necessity and fittingness
In a sense, Christ had to rise from the dead. He had made the resurrection the test of the divinity of His mission; it was the supreme sign granted to the stiff-necks of His own generation. Without the resurrection, His doctrine and His life would have seemed to men only another episode in the long history of pseudo-prophets, continuing to our own day, who promise to return shortly after death and whose disciples have kicked their heels while they waited, feeling more and more foolish, more and more angry at having been duped, until, finally, they stalk off, through forever with the master who did not keep his appointment.
The Mother of Christ, in her triumphant song, had said of God that He exalted the humble and brought down the mighty. Her Son had insisted “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”; “He that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” He Himself had been humbled to the utmost degree, even to the disgraceful death on the cross. The exaltation of His resurrection was God’s only fitting answer to the humiliation of Calvary.
The heavy hearts and slow steps of the disciples trudging to Emmaus are a faint picture of the feeble faith that would have flickered in the disciples of Christ had He not risen; Paul was right when he maintained that if Christ had not risen our faith would have been vain. Notice the bitter regret in the words of the two disciples making their way out of Jerusalem to escape the scene of their great disappointment; they explained to the risen Christ, Whom they did not know, that they had hoped their Master was the Messiah Who had come to save all Israel. This is only a faint rumbling hint of the thunderous, crashing disappointment that would have come to the hearts of men if Christ had not risen, a disappointment the more disastrous because of the great heights to which the hopes of men had been raised.
The coaxing phrase which they addressed to Christ, “it is now toward evening and the day is far spent,” is much more than a statement of the time of day; it is a threat of the approach of an eternal night over the hearts of men if their Master be not risen. On the contrary, the high hearts and eager steps with which they rushed back to Jerusalem, not waiting for rest or food, shows us faintly to what faith and hope, confirmed by the risen Christ, will reach: no hour is too late, no day too fatiguing, no journey too long. For we have risen from the death of sin and the bright goal of eternity lies invitingly before us.
A half-finished job may be a testimony to a man’s good intentions; in deference to these, we sometimes blind our eyes and still our tongue before this pitiful evidence of man’s wavering will. That half-finished job is, in fact, an unanswerable declaration that its author was a victim of impulse. Perhaps it is because he did not realize the backaches that must go into a garden that he must now survey a healthy crop of weeds; perhaps it is because he did not see the hardships involved in what Stevenson has called “domesticating the recording angel” that a man of today finds himself in a divorce court. At any rate, while impulse is a great beginner, it is a very poor finisher. God is not the victim of impulse. He never turns out a half- finished job, laughing it off or hiding it in confusion. What He starts, He finishes; that is why He started it. All this is, of course, true of our redemption. It is the work of God and so it is not left half-finished. Christ did not come merely to free us from evils, for that is only half the job; He came, finishing the job, to move us to good. Salvation means much more than throwing off the chains of sin; it means rushing forward to scale the walls of the kingdom of heaven. To achieve the first of these, Christ bore our evils for us; for the rest, He gave us a start, a goal, and an exemplar of the high things to be accomplished by the keen, sharp steel He put into our hands.
Perfect as the work of redemption might be with the full wisdom and power of divinity to guarantee its completion, men could still attempt to escape it. As is the way of God, He allowed men to go their tortuous way when they insisted on blinding themselves. But, again in His divine way, He foresaw and forestalled the vagaries of the human mind in its attempt to dodge a difficult truth. There was a human and divine nature in Christ; so, of course, some men would question His divinity, while others would doubt His humanity. God left no grounds for either uncertainty; if men must escape the truth, they would be forced to spin their doubts from the frail thread of falsehood.
If Christ had popped out of the tomb as soon as the guards arrived, not giving them time to settle themselves for a long vigil, they might have questioned the reality of His death, considering it a conjuror’s trick with the executioners playing the part of accomplices. If He had let weeks, months, or even years roll by, men might easily have forgotten about His death, have surrendered hope, and actually have questioned the resurrection when it did happen. It was, of course, for Christ to choose the moment of His resurrection. That absurd gesture of the cords tied about the hands of God in Gethsemane was no more absurd than the solemn sealing of His tomb and the establishment of a soldier guard before it; as if the Omnipotent were to be held by bonds that are efficacious against men.
As a matter of fact, Christ had tried to ease the reception of the news of the miracle of His resurrection by what might be called the practice sessions or rehearsals: the resurrections of Lazarus, the son of the widow of Naim, and the saints who walked the streets of the Holy City after His death. He could not hope that men would accept the fact of a man walking from the tomb quite as nonchalantly as they do the fact of a man walking from the door of his house in the morning; but, at least, the shock of contact with divine power in meeting death might be eased enough so that the minds of men would not be numbed by it. Of course, these were merely rehearsals; these men who had risen from the dead had to die again, and men saw them die. Christ was the first Who rose from the dead immortal; He was the real conqueror of death. The rest of us are to share in that conquest but it was first accomplished by Him.
Its primacy and cause
It is obvious that a dead man can do little for himself, otherwise he would certainly not put up with the banked flowers that cloy the air with sweetness. Man’s re-entry, like his first appearance on life’s stage, is not written into the script by man himself. Christ the man was as helpless as any other human bang. In fact, once He had bowed His head and died, that Man no longer existed; His soul was separated from His body and their reunion could not be arranged by either the body or the soul. It is to be remembered, however, that divinity was still united to that dead body, still joined to that separated soul; the Person of the Son of God still possessed both the body and the soul. By the divine power of that Person, the soul and body could be reunited, and they were Christ raised Himself from the dead. It was by His own power that the soul and body were reunited and the Man walked forth from the tomb: not in answer to a command, as did Lazarus; not raised up by the hand of another, as was the widow’s son; but of His own power, for Christ was God.
All through this tract on the conquest of death by Christ, Thomas walks on the solid ground of divine authority. This is not material about which a man can afford to guess. These things are important. We must know them, and beyond all doubt, because they are the things that wait at the end of life and give it its fullest meaning. At that, Thomas’s caution was no more than an imitation of the caution of God; for every detail of this conquest of death was expressly brought out by God Himself and carefully set down in His inspired writings. In this tract, every article of Thomas proceeds from an explicit text of Sacred Scripture.
Body of the Conqueror: Its reality
From the darkness of the narrow tomb, through the daylight of that first Easter morning, came the same Man Who had died on the cross, possessed of the same body and the same soul. The body, kept incorrupt in the tomb for three days by divine power, was now reunited to the soul; the identical body that had been laid in the tomb by others now came forth by itself. There was no point in an apparent or fantastic body being shown to men that morning; that would mean that Christ had not risen and, as we have seen, Christ had to rise from the dead. Lest there be any doubt of the reality of that body of His, Christ invited the terrified disciples to “Touch me and see, that a spirit has not flesh and bones as I have.” With the condescension to their defects, such as we make to the blind in allowing them to run their fingers over our face that they might feel what they cannot see, Christ allowed His disciples, spiritually blind, to feel what they could not believe they saw.
The body they touched, while the Son of God stood patiently suffering their incredulousness, was the same one they had seen nailed to a cross; now it was whole, integral, with every drop of blood lost in the passion recovered. Though Christ had come through closed doors, He allowed the disciples to touch Him; but even sight and touch were not enough.
They must have been strange with Him, tense, pretty well capable of speech; after all, one doesn’t have much chance to practice talking to a man who has just died. At any rate, something was needed to break the ice, some little human thing that would put everyone at his ease; with that subtle divine graciousness that is a compliment in its benefactions, Christ asked the disciples if they had anything to eat. At once they were at home with Him again. They had hold of His arm, they were sitting at table with Him, talking to Him again after the nightmare of Calvary.
Though Christ’s body was the same, it was now in a quite different condition. It was no longer capable of suffering, for it was a glorified, a spiritualized body with all the sublime qualities of a body completely subject to the soul. Now there was no longer any need, as there had been in the beginning, to stem the flow of the double glory of Christ’s divinity and His human soul. Christ came through closed doors, walked with the disciples to Emmaus and they knew Him not; He was at table with them and, when He willed, they immediately recognized Him and He disappeared from their eyes. He could eat food but was not dependent on it. He could move from place to place with the speed of thought. One quality of a glorified body He kept hidden, lest it overwhelm them as it had on Tabor, and that was the splendor that shines through the body from the beatific perfection of the soul.
At our own resurrection, considerable repair work will be necessary. There will be broken noses to be straightened, lined faces to be smoothed out, missing teeth to be recovered, gnarled hands to be returned to the fine beauty of youth. There was none of that repair work necessary in Christ. His body, being miraculously formed, had been perfect. The one thing that might have been done, the removal of the awful scars of the passion, was left undone; these scars were no longer awful but rather things of striking beauty They were a badge of merit, an eternal prayer for men, a declaration and an inspiration to courage and unquestioning love. They were identifying marks that would be worn in their turn by thousands of men and women who literally took up His cross; to others, who would refuse that cross, they would be an eternal rebuke, as unanswerable as unrequited love.
When we speak of the witnesses of the resurrection, following the lead of Scripture which itself uses the word, we must be careful to understand what is meant by the phrase. The resurrection of Christ was not the sort of thing that could be seen or tested by human means. Our knowledge has a wide scope, but it also has a limit; certainly, one of its limits is marked by the tombstone. What we know of the future life, we know, not by human investigation, but by being told, that is, through revelation; and the resurrection of Christ, being well beyond the milestone of death, certainly pertains to the future life.
We can see the punishment and pains of life; so men witnessed the passion of Christ. We see public rewards, and reasonably so, for these stir other men on as punishments give them pause. But the punishments and rewards that follow on death are not administered in a market place for all to see. They are God’s secrets; through His goodness, they are told to some that the good news might be spread. So it was with the resurrection; it was not a public fête but rather the mystery of an Easter dawn.
We know nothing whatsoever of Christ’s first visit with His mother, though merely on human grounds, leaving aside His divine thoughtfulness, we can have no doubt that His first appearance was to her. We do know, however, that, of all His other appearances, the first was to a woman, Mary Magdalen. That appearance was the climax of a story which has meant more to sinners than anyone but God can tell, showing them what they know deep in their own hearts, namely, that their capacity for great love is not less but more than their capacity for great sin. Even on Calvary, Magdalen had hardly reached such heights of loyalty, of unselfish devotion, and complete, unquestioning love. Of all His followers, she alone received the risen Christ without question; in that scene there was no room for explanations, for protestations, for demands. He merely said, “Mary”; instantly, joyously, she responded in words that left nothing to be said: “My Master.”
One turns from the scene regretfully, as though much more had been missed than had been seen, as much was there to see. Outstanding is the delicate thoughtfulness of God balancing womanhood’s accounts; a woman had begun the sad story which ended in man’s death, now a woman began the glad story of this Man’s conquest of death. Then, too, there is the divine recognition and appreciation of human love. This woman had been faithful even to the end: when the disciples scattered before the threat of Calvary, she was under the cross, when they huddled in fear and doubt in Jerusalem, she was at the tomb; even though it was apparently empty, she clung to it, for it was all she had left of the Master to Whom she had given her heart. His first appearance to a woman was a rebuke and a refutation to the pride of men. For it is not by strength, power, or keenness of intellect that our place in the kingdom of God is determined; but by our success in living, a success which is measured by the heart’s approach to God.
There were no eye-witnesses to the resurrection of Our Lord. True, the guards had good reason to suspect that something was happening: “there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, and drawing near rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment like snow. And for fear of him the guards were terrified, and became like dead men.” One can understand their terror; but it was terror of an angel, not of the risen Christ. The picture of a glorious Christ stunning the heavily armed soldiers by His splendor is more an artistic summary of the whole significance of the resurrection than a portrayal of the fact. This resurrection exceeded all human knowledge; it could be learned only from above. As the order of divine providence has always been to lead the lower by the higher, men learned of the resurrection through the angel who sat on the stone where Christ was laid and answered men’s unspoken questions: “Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth. He is not here. He is risen.”
For themselves, and for the rest of the world, it was important that the disciples know, and know well, the facts of Christ’s resurrection. In making it His personal business that they should know, Our Lord stressed two points: the truth of the resurrection and the glory of His risen body. The first He brought home to them by appearing to them, talking with them, eating and drinking with them, permitting them to touch His body. The second, that is, the fact that He had risen to a different life, He brought out clearly enough by showing His body’s dominion over matter; and even more impressively, from the standpoint of the human heart, by His refusal to return to that life of constant social intercourse and familiarity which had marked all His days with them.
Manifestation of the conquest: Its limitations
Superficially, it would seem a mark of much greater love for Him to give them the full measure of the comfort of His presence during the few days still left before His Ascension. Actually, however, that would have been a rather feeble, nearsighted love which could not look beyond the moment into the future, beyond the surface into the depths of the souls of the disciples. They might easily have fallen into the error, had He lived intimately with them again, that would hide the full sweep of life after death; they might have been satisfied that He was among them again, falling back into old ways, taking for granted that His life now was as it had been before. There was no chance for this when the Master was here only for a moment and gone again.
As it was, there was no time to get used to Christ, to begin to take Him for granted. He came from nowhere and disappeared as mysteriously. Locked doors, great distances offered Him no impediment. To some, He revealed Himself fully and clearly, matching the clear, solid faith in their minds with the clarity of His appearance; to others, it was only with a veil of mystery about Him that matched the veil of doubt and confusion that their tepid faith had allowed to drop before their eyes. Under such circumstances, they were always on tiptoe of mystery and expectation; their minds were sharp, their attention keen, their ears alert, faith digging deeper and deeper foundations in their hearts.
The proofs offered
Christ did not attempt to argue His disciples into accepting the resurrection by overpowering them with syllogisms. This thing was not susceptible of proof; in its beginnings and in its goal, it was outside the whole scope of nature. What He did do again and again was to give them evident signs of His resurrection, signs of the credibility of the mystery. The signs were indeed necessary, for their hearts were not easily disposed to belief; their very slowness and stubbornness adds a force and validity to their testimony which place it above all suspicion by those who came after them through the centuries. In a real sense, we might say that all men put their hands into the side of Christ along with Thomas.
There was an abundance of these signs sufficient to satisfy the most exacting, the sort of abundance we have come to expect from God. There was, for instance, the testimony of the angels and that of Scripture to the fact of the resurrection. To assure men of the reality of His risen body, Christ did everything but put Himself under a microscope: the apostles saw His body, they touched it, they even put their hands into His side and their fingers into the wounds of His hands and feet. In testimony to the living character of this body, to its being vivified by a soul, Christ performed all the operations proper to man: on the side of the nutritive powers, Christ ate and drank; on the side of the sensitive powers, He saw and heard His disciples, answering their questions, saluting them; on the intellectual side, Christ discoursed with them, and explained the Scriptures. On the divine side, He showed the possession of divine power by the miracle of the fishes the apostles found already broiling on the shores of the Lake of Galilee when they scrambled from their boat to greet Him. To the glory of the resurrection, He brought the testimony of entrance through closed doors, invisibility or visibility as He willed, and so on. In view of all this, it would be an unreasonable man indeed who would doubt that it is reasonable to believe that the Son of God had risen from the dead.
Causality of the conquest: As to bodies
It is a truth well worth the believing. For it is the model, the exemplar of every other resurrection. Indeed, it is the cause that lies behind the rise of the countless thousands of men who have lived and died, and will live again; this is the fact that changed the rock at the door of the tomb from a blocking boulder to a triumphal arch. Perhaps we can see this best if we look at the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as an integral whole, as indeed they were, destined to destroy death and restore life. This whole was the instrument used by the first cause, divinity itself: thus the life, passion and death of Christ were the common instrumental causes of both the conquest of death and the beginning of eternal, glorious life; His resurrection, by way of exemplar, was the cause of the destruction of our death and the restoration of our life to immortality.
As to souls
In exactly the same way, the resurrection of Our Lord is the cause and exemplar of an even more wonderful resurrection that goes on about us every day: the resurrection of the soul from the death of sin to the life of grace. That spiritual tomb is sealed by our choice of sin; it is guarded, not by the soldiers of Rome, but by the legions of Satan and the disorderly hordes of inordinate appetites, guards who do not fall asleep. Because Christ has risen, the soul can come forth from this tomb in its original splendor. Again, there are no witnesses; only the weeping Magdalen, our own soul, overcome at finding the Master and Friend once more.
Consequences of the conquest. The ascension of Christ: Its fittingness
We are never more conscious that we were not made for earth than after such a fresh resurrection from the tomb of sin; then, above all other times, we realize keenly that we are pilgrims, that our soul is a little lonely, a little out of place in a world of matter, a little anxious for the world of the spirit. In much the same way, the body of Christ was a little out of place after the resurrection; it did not belong in a world of corruptible bodies, for it had begun an immortal and incorruptible life. It belonged in a heavenly and incorruptible place. So, when the time of consolation and instruction of the apostles had come to its close, the Master took them to the top of the hill overlooking Jerusalem, said His last farewell, gave the last assignments that would keep His followers occupied to the end of time, and ascended into heaven. Behind Him He left a lonely, frightened, helpless group which was yet the nucleus for the conversion of the world. That group was so stupefied by His loss that it took an angel to get them back into the city; there, they huddled in fear of their lives for ten days in an upper room.
Had not Christ said He would be with them always? Yea He was and He will be by His divine presence. But He also said, “It is better for you that I go,” and He was right, as God is always right. This was the work of strong love, not of that coddling, imperfect, weak love that saps all the strength out of the one loved. It was better, much better. It would be hard for them ever again to tear their hearts away from the goal of heaven, for He took a large part of their hearts with Him. It would never be hard for them again to hope, knowing He had gone before to prepare a place. Now, indeed, their faith would have its full scope, resting utterly without question on His word alone. He had given them a few days of consolation; now they must stand on their own feet, through His help; not attached to creatures, not dependent on men, not holding even to such a lovable thing as familiar, human life with the Man Christ.
Its cause; its goal
Christ rose to the height, of heaven by the same power by which He had come forth from the tomb. He ascended to a place above every other created thing, a place worthy of His grace, His merits, His dignity. The Head of the Mystical Body blazed the trail in glory as He did in suffering, preparing our way. He is the high-priest entering the holy of holies that He might constantly intercede for us, taking His rightful seat at the court of heaven as Master and Lord of all things, not forgetting us but rather sending us His divine gifts in new abundance. Of course He took our hearts with Him, deepening our reverence and awe for His glorious humanity, with no lessening of our faith, our love, our hope of one day standing before Him and saying with Thomas, but without his doubts, “My Lord and my God.”
His place at the right hand of the Father
We may smile at the astonishing versions a child can give of the Apostle’s Creed; but, after all, “Jack Dempsey shall come” does not sound so very unlike “from whence He shall come.” It would be only just if the angels smiled at an adult’s no less childish mistake of trying to picture the right hand of the Father. The phrase, of course, is not to be taken literally; it contains no slight to left-handed people, indeed, a left-handed God would be no more absurd than a right-handed one. The phrase is a vivid metaphor with at least three senses. The right hand figuratively means the glory of divinity, the happiness of heaven, or the judicial position of the Judge of the world. For Christ, then, to sit at the right hand of the Father means that with the Father He has the glory, the happiness, and the judicial power of divinity. By His divine nature, Christ sits at the right hand of the Father inasmuch as He is equal to the Father; according to His human nature, He occupies that position because He is in possession of the divine goods of heaven in a more excellent degree than any one else in that kingdom. But it is precisely as judge that the risen Christ captures our fascinated eyes.
His judicial power: His title to judgment
To be a judge, clearly it is not enough for a man to look like one, talk like one, or walk like one; he must have power. Even possessed of power, he is no judge whose judgment proceeds from anger, greed, or any other vice; he is a mock judge rendering mock judgment because he is not judging from justice. If these two, power and love of justice, are the predispositions to judgment, the very soul of it is the wisdom by which it proceeds. So true is this, that in human affairs that wisdom is not left to individual capacities to the best of our ability, we embody our common wisdom in the law by which a judge must judge. The predispositions to judgment are evident enough in Christ: He is the head of all men, the Son of God, with complete power and jurisdiction; He had died for love of justice, the justice of His offended Father. But it is particularly on the third count, the wisdom which the soul of judgment, that His pre-eminent title to judgeship is clear; He is the incarnate Wisdom, the Word of God.
It is true that judgment, as a work external to God, is common to the whole Trinity; it is attributed, however, to the Second Person as to divine Wisdom. God is always the first source of just judgment; but, as in this life the power of judgment is committed to men relative to those who are subject to them, so in heaven the power of judgment is committed to Christ the Man. After all, He was a man himself, living His life intimately with His fellows His judgment, severe as it may be, will not taste so bitter coming from one of our own. It is eminently fitting that the risen bodies of men be brought before the First of the risen and the Cause of the resurrection of all others; then men can stand facing their Judge, looking into His eyes as they have loved or feared to do during life.
Even if Christ did not have title to Judgeship on the grounds of His divine nature, even if His supreme dignity as Head of the Mystical Body, His superabundance of sanctifying grace, and so of justice, be put aside, there is still the strong title of His merits. He had earned that judgeship. It was just according to the justice of God that He should judge Who had fought so hard for that justice, and conquered; Who had subjected Himself to the judgment of men and tasted all the bitterness of their unjust judgment.
The extent of the judgment
The sweep of the judgment of Christ staggers the mind. If we attempt to conceive of a judgment that takes in every detail of one human life, we must confess our failure. Extend that to all men living at any one instant, or, indeed, to a judgment of all men dying at any one instant, and we are overwhelmed by the massive detail involved. If we push it further to include all men who ever have lived and died or ever will live and die, and then go on to the myriads of the angelic host, at the same time realizing that we never have evidence for a complete judgment of any one human action because we cannot reach the hearts of men, it begins to dawn on us that judgment is God’s work. Perhaps we had best leave the working out of it to Him.
The second judgment
The angels have already faced judgment by the Son of God when, in the beginning of the world, they fought their fight and lost or won; yet, they must face another judgment, as every man must, for the details of their lives, like ours, are not finished for years, for centuries, perhaps even to the end of time. An attempt to judge the damage done by fire is futile until the fire is extinguished. Neither can the life of a man be judged until its very last effect is accomplished; it is often only after the passing of time, even of long periods of time, that we can determine whether those effects are ultimately good or bad.
Our lives, you see, are not contained within the narrow boundaries of our years. Our smallest actions, because these are our own and we are answerable for them, are not to be measured by the distance a voice will carry or the fragile things our strength will crush. We have lived and we die; but we live on in the memory of men, a memory which may treasure a lie of ours that will endure for centuries doing its deadly work, a lie that must ultimately be damned to make way for truth. Our children live after us, and theirs after them. Who can say when the surge of our life dies out of theirs? The apostles preached for a few years before being crushed by the power of Rome; has the effect of that preaching yet stopped? The great heresiarchs Arius, Luther, and the rest — were stopped by the barrier of death; their words and works were limited by the finite limits of a man’s power, but the effects, which were their very own, are still being reaped by other harvesters though centuries have passed.
Something the same is true of the angels and the devils, for they play their part in the world of men and the actions of men. They have their work, a work of hate or of joy; they will have their rewards and punishments, meted out fully only when the last trace of that work has ceased to agitate or ennoble the world. The whole of a man’s life is to be rewarded or punished, all of it; and the reward or punishment is given to the whole man, all of him, body and soul.
Conclusion: The battle of life and death
It is only when bodies and souls are reunited that the conquest of death has reached completion; only then can the last word be said on this conquest. It may seem odd that the word “conquest” has been insisted on again and again in this chapter. Really, no other word will do. It is a fighting word to describe a grand fight. Even in the physical sense, these two, life and death, are at each other’s throat from the first instant of infant life; death is a threat, an enemy encroaching, an enemy who never gives up the fight. In the spiritual sense, the same battle of life and death, of virtue and sin, is on from the first dawn of reason; it is a struggle where no quarter is possible, no end in eight, until one or the other has lost.
It is not the kind of fight a man can stand aside and watch. There is no possibility of neutrality. He is plunged into it by his very manhood. He must take sides. It is paradoxical, but strictly true, that those who think too much of life, fight desperately on the side of death; those who think too much of the joy of life, fight unceasingly on the side of misery; those who think too much of the glimpse of heaven possible in this life, fight strongly for hell. Men must take sides and they do. Life or death must win in the career of every man. We have seen the results of the victory of life; how about the victory of death?
The conquest of life by death: Its double aspect: of relief and of sadness
In the denial of the resurrection, that is, in the surrender of the palm of victory to death, there is a double note paralleling, at least on the surface, that of life’s victory. There is, first of all, a note of relief, a sense of escape; one has succeeded in throwing off the stifling blanket of responsibility, escaped from the haunting possibility of evil into a world without barriers, a world of new freedom. Man no longer has to answer eternally for his life and his acts; he is free. But the note is false. It is a release that sets man at the mercy of his desire, delivers him up to the animal world, makes him the victim of a civil war within himself and of slavery from without.
Along with this sense of relief, there is a hopeless sadness, a penetrating, tragic thing patient of no consolation; for man is convinced that life, love, knowledge, accomplishment, justice, companionship and all the rest do have an end. Man cannot stand that sort of tragedy very long. He copes with it, in some cases, by unreasoning resignation which produces a fatalistic calm and creates its own ends of vague generalities to minister the small comfort of empty dreams. In other cases, he meets it with an eager, desperate draining of the cup of life before it be dashed from his hand. Or, finally, he arms himself with a cynical refusal to live a life which has no meaning; it is this attitude which takes its ghoulish satisfaction in a mocking disruption of the lives of others and the destruction of its own.
Common significance of these two
Both these notes of death’s victory take the heart out of human living. The first, in the name of freedom, delivers a man to slavery, a fact easily verifiable in any “age of freedom.” The second either squeezes the meat out of life, destroying man’s taste for the very things he started out to clutch so eagerly — leisure, pleasure, power, and the rest; or, in the case of the fatalist, it makes life a ghostly thing, a hollow, haunted existence. In these victories of death, men must walk in the darkness of unreason, if they are to walk at all, or frankly face the despair of it and surrender unconditionally.
Their common consequences
In a word, death has conquered life and made of it a grim masquerade of the living dead. The air, the odor, the very color of death in its corruption penetrate the deepest reaches of life; the blinding darkness of the tomb hovers over all; its doors are already closed forever.
The conquest of death by life
In Christ, life has conquered death. The air, the odor, the very color of life enter into the darkest corner of the tomb. Death is a gateway, as is life; a motion to high goals, as is life; a fulfillment of hope, an unveiling of faith, a consummation of charity, as life never is. Life’s promises are fulfilled by death’s opening up of enduring life. The rehearsal is over, death lifts the curtain, and the eternal play is on.