Easter is an uncomfortable feast. Unlike Christmas, it dwells on death rather than life. While it finally celebrates the triumph of life over death, in the Resurrection of Christ, it gives solemn attention to a prelude of pain and appalling desolation.
Easter testifies to a feature of human nature that is inescapable – the yearning for immortality. All of the world’s great religions, including Christianity, have sought to satisfy, in their different ways, this universal yearning.
Even our own secularist age, which proffers the goal of material gratification as a substitute for spiritual fulfilment, has not managed to ignore the appeal of eternity. The leaping advances of medical science have fostered the hope of a continuous earthly existence.
Disease and disability have yielded to pharmaceutical and social control, while developments in surgery, such as organ transplants, have created the vista of an indefinite postponement of death.
And yet, does medical science finally offer the grim prospect of Jonathan Swift’s Struldbrugs, those sad inhabitants of the Kingdom of Laputa, who cannot die and spend their time envying the dead?
It may seem that our age has produced a secular version of the Resurrection, treating the deceased person as if he were still physically alive.
Evelyn Waugh, in his novel The Loved One, savagely satirises the presentation of death in American culture. He captures, in the cosmetician Aimee Thanatogenous, our illusions about death, and the tendency to satisfy spiritual longings with material deceits.
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In Waugh’s scarifying words, Aimee “presented herself to the world, dressed and scented in obedience to the advertisements.”
Her name was deliberately chosen – Aimee being French for “loved one”, and Thanatogenous being Greek for “born of death”.
As each body is presented to her, it reflects the changing mood of the mortician – the corpse appearing sad at certain times, grinning on other occasions.
Aimee’s work in the mortuary promotes the illusion of material survival – as a substitute for bodily resurrection and spiritual immortality.
Easter is uncomfortable for another reason: it proposes the enduring value and importance of every human body.
Despite the pleasures of the flesh, the constraints and afflictions imposed by the body are well recognised, especially as youth gives way to age.
Moreover, prevailing attitudes to the body affect our capacity to understand and accept the reality of physical resurrection.
On the one hand, the body is celebrated to the point of adoration; on the other, it is distrusted for its inflexibility, and despised for its untrustworthiness. It is now subject to endless manipulation and modification, both technological and ideological.
Especially in the areas of sex and gender, we celebrate the body by denying its essential nature – in fact, the idea that it even has an essential nature.
Practices such as contraception, while they are universally presumed to be the best way of safeguarding sexual activities, have hardly contributed to the security of sexual relationships – whether in marriage or, even more, as has been commonly documented, among couples who live together without any pledge of fidelity.
It is hard to resist the conclusion, looking back over the past half-century, that the overall impact of contraception was entirely unforeseen by its advocates.
The results, however, are now in. The rejection of procreative sex has served to trivialise relationships between men and women. It has led to a plunging birth rate, and to purity being identified with sterility rather than its fundamental – and historically accepted – purpose of fruitfulness.
This is not only the case with physical but also spiritual life – in the fidelity of married love, as well as the integrity of chaste devotion, not only among the unmarried but also in special communities such as monasteries.
A demanding beatitude with which we are all familiar is: Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
It has been an inescapable basis for responding to Christ. He stretches out His love on the Cross and, insofar as we have purified our hearts, He fulfils our most profound yearnings.
The signs of physical self-love and indulgence in our culture are obvious, but how curious that they should be accompanied by a powerful strain of distrust of the flesh?
This may seem an extraordinary suggestion.
Yet our culture is unmistakably torn between indulgence and denial of our bodily natures.
Certainly it echoes certain ancient puritan tendencies, such as manifested historically in Manicheanism and Gnosticism, which insist on a deep and unbridgeable chasm between the world of the spirit (identified with good) and the world of matter (judged to be evil).
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These attitudes tell against the idea of a resurrected body, based as it is on a belief that the body is good and – for the Christian – supernaturally good. The body is sanctified by Christ’s Incarnation, and glorified by His Resurrection.
A remarkable testament to the Resurrection can be found in the 20th century French Catholic author, Georges Bernanos. His various books, in particular his most famous novel, Diary of a Country Priest (1936), reveal his insights into the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus. In the words of his biographer, Robert Speaight:
“It is not too much to say that from his earliest years [Bernanos] lived and wrote in the shadow of the Cross, and his hope was one that only the Resurrection could justify. He had seen too many victories thrown away to believe in any other victory but this.”
At his death, a close friend, Pierre Bourdan, gazed upon his mortal remains and saw a prefigurement of his resurrection:
“The cause that Bernanos served was as wide as the universe. Such men will not have lived in vain, since their image is before our eyes to renew our confidence, when we are afraid to see humanity reduced to the law of numbers, of statistics, and of material gain.
“If I ever need a fresh assurance that the destiny and the glory of mankind is not to be contained within these dismal limits, it will be enough to recall the luminous vision of a face where the last act of a serene faith was able to wipe out sixty years of suffering, and bequeath to mankind, in exchange for this long ordeal, a smile of victory and ineffable promise.”