The Greater Parkdale Area this morning is under a covering of snow, like a pretty Christmas card. Regardless of the weather, and the walking conditions, we have a little ritual up here in the High Doganate. It is to play on Easter morning, upon our wee yet booming CD machine, BWV 249 — Kommt, eilet und laufet! — which is to say, Bach’s Easter Oratorio. It is set from text in the Gospel of John. On checking the files, we find that I have mentioned this before.
It is so beautiful: the shock of the magnificent opening symphonia; the brief adagio; and then the symphonia returns in all its power, now with full chorus: Kommt, eilet und laufet!
“Come quickly, come running!”
It was the women who first discovered what had happened, at Christ’s tomb — His so loyal, and uncomplaining, so selfless, and reliable, unflinching female apostolate, the complement of the male.
The stone, moved. The tomb, empty. Mary Magdalen’s horror. She goes running, to Simon Peter, and to John (“the other disciple, whom Jesus loved”) to tell them what has happened.
Peter and John are found. And they are told: “Come quickly.”
What is this about?
“Come quickly! Come running!”
What is going on?
And then Peter, and John, running. Running quickly, indeed, running wild. Peter slipping, John catching him up. John slipping, Peter catching him up. The wild look on their faces, reflecting the wild look that had been on Mary’s. Peter breathless, falling behind. John gets there first.
Verily, the stone is out of place. The tomb has been left open. John can see the linen shroud lying flat inside. (Now, perhaps, in the Cathedral at Turin.) It is not covering a body any more. He does not know what to think. Ever the most reticent of Apostles in the presence of the unaccountable and holy, and most deferential to true authority, he does not step inside.
Peter arrives: that man who would be our first Pope, already Elected to office as it were, with all his little foibles. He behaves in the way we might expect, without hesitation. He goes right in: sees the shroud. The napkin that had been wrapped about the head is lying separately. Then John, cautiously, enters. The body is gone. They step out, and walk away in confusion, in total confusion, unable to understand what they have seen.
Mary remains, weeping, staring into the darkness of the empty tomb.
And then dimly she begins to descry: … What is this? There would appear to be two angels. One is at the head, one at the feet, of the place where the body of Jesus had been laid.
“Woman, why do you weep?”
“Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.”
There is a man standing behind her. Slowly she turns towards him. Perhaps he is the gardener.
“Woman, why do you weep? Whom do you seek?”
“Sir, if you have taken Him, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take his body away.”
And He replied, “Mary!”
And she looks up into His face, and she says, “Rabboni.”
Which, being interpreted, meaneth: “My Lord!”
Even today, I daresay, the mall shoppers — post-Protestants, “recovering Catholics,” secular humanoids, and so forth — have some general idea what Easter is about. The eggs are a nice symbolic touch. The chocolate bunnies have long been on sale. And fresh hot cross buns may still be available in some of the more upmarket groceterias.
These last were an English custom, associated with Good Friday. They were what you got to eat that day: one hot cross bun. By an old convention, they were to be baked one at a time; as I understand, there were anciently rules and regulations. The baker who sold them on other than the prescribed days was liable to have his whole stock confiscated, and distributed among the poor.
This was some time ago, however. The law may well be still on the books, in England, but I doubt that it has been enforced, these last few centuries. Hot cross buns were anyway baked mostly at home, as a matter not of state, but of family tradition. The custom spread, with the British Empire, and so was thoroughly Canadianized. I have a memory from my littlehood of laying the shortcrust pastry (made, sinfully, with lard) for a Cross. It could not have been in my own home, however.
I fasten upon the bun, in the knowledge that it is something very small. Ditto for that Shroud of Turin, a little keepsake which, it appears, Christ left for the entertainment and diversion of modern science. Readers who are interested may catch up on the discoveries associated with it, which are numerous, and layered, and remarkable, and continuing.
My favourite discovery is no longer that of the NASA scientists, who established a few years ago that the Shroud contains “distance information,” of a sort that allows us with the latest computer technology to construct a precise, three-dimensional image of the body. That is old hat now.
It is instead the more recent tests on the substance which covers the cloth, from which the image was somehow imprinted. It covers the entire surface, except the end bits from later repairs; and it rests discretely upon the cloth’s top layer of microfibres. It is not burned in. Nor is it painted. Every known earthly substance that could have been laid there, enwrapping only the top microfibres, would have seeped at least slightly into the cloth (as the blood did in many places corresponding exactly to Christ’s wounds, as described in all four Gospels). This was an accomplishment no mediaeval forger could likely have performed. For it is still beyond our technological capabilities.
But then what is the surprise here? We are surrounded by things that could not be made with human hands, including ourselves. One hundred percent of what we find in this world was not made by human hands, and all we can do is manipulate the materials — within very tight and inescapable parameters. Nothing like this: nothing that comes embedded with the very dust and pollen of old Roman Palestine — now reliably dated to a window in time that actually centres on 33 AD.
And this extraordinary image was laid after all the markings of the body: it is on top of them. Let me spell this out for gentle reader. We have, if the Shroud itself is to be believed, evidence not only of Christ’s death by crucifixion in the anatomically meticulous manner described in Scripture, but over top of that, evidence of the Resurrection. Good Friday is there to be sure, bred into the bone-weave of a first-century linen cloth, seeped through the whole fabric, and accountable down to the blood type (AB), and the colour of those bloodstains, caused by organic shock. But overlaid, we have Easter morning.
Until recently, of course, plausible deniability was still quite possible. My own empirical scepticism remains in play, as it always has and perhaps always will so long as I am breathing. I do not put my faith in material things. Still, it is interesting, at least to me, that we now require an extremely elaborate “conspiracy theory” to deny what the (highly credentialled, and not all Christian) investigators of the Shroud have told us.
A lawyerly atheist I know has a good trick. It is as plausible, and illogical, as it is demonic. He demands physical evidence or irrefutable witnesses for any Christian claim of a miracle. This we often have in abundance. But then he discounts to zero, as self-interested, any evidence that came from a Christian. Now, as we have seen quite recently at Turin, and on innumerable occasions before, the people who find irrefutable evidence for the truth of Christian claims, tend to become Christians themselves. (Me, for instance.) This means that their evidence can no longer be accepted.
We — which is to say moi, plus all Christians — could easily have lived in this case with the discovery that the Shroud of Turin really was a mediaeval fake. Instead, we have received overwhelming evidence that the article is genuine.
The Life of Christ, the Death and Resurrection, are a narrative, to be sure, but the authors of these Gospels are not biographers. Their chronologies are vague, accidental, and their omissions frustrating from the angle of “human interest.” (It is because I have been an editor, that I tell you with certainty that these accounts have not been systematically “recensed.”) Writing as and when they did, the “storyline” is almost taken for granted. They write to witness, not to story-tell. And the minor inconsistencies between one account and another sound the very ring of truth.
Matthew has the habits of a bureaucrat, Mark is more street smart, Luke is courtly. Our appreciation of the respective “points of view” has been not enhanced, but diminished by generations of scholars, determined to believe in phantoms, to “get behind the texts” by postulating some evolutionary development of them, on the basis of no hard evidence whatever. Their “theories” are pure speculation, for which the evidence itself must be hypothesized. Parallel passages in the Synoptics give them such encouragement as they can find — they count it a flaw when the memories match exactly, and also when they do not exactly match.
Their task is the lawyerly one of seeding doubt, of refuting the veracity of the texts they are attacking — to seed as much doubt as they can in the jury of both faithful and faithless. Again and again this crumbles, for the most brilliant prosecution may fall apart when new evidence comes to hand. (To my knowledge, not one of the self-confident claims made by the older schools of “textual criticism” is still standing.) It is especially in the field corresponding to the “deposit of faith” in Saint John, as we are more and more finding, that this patient and exhausting effort has been defeated. Evidence for the defence comes miraculously to the surface, and the disconsulate prosecutors are frustrated in their hope of crucifying Christ once again. They will just have to try a new tack.
At root, the question is plainer than textual fussment can belie. Jesus, the historical character, even the better-educated atheists have been compelled to accept. But Jesus the Christ is another thing. There is Christ, or there is no Christ. Significant details are presented in the Gospels, of the small that enunciates the large. More is provided from the very Tradition which attests the canonicity of those Gospels. What we find on further modern inquiry — and what I found, as a hack journalist, walking the old roads of Palestine to the archaeological sites, and reading what I could of the current literature back in the 1990s — is that the account of Tradition holds up extremely well, and in points of fact, better and better with the progress of our researches.
I don’t think the issue is whether we should “accept it or reject it” any more. To the candid mind it is either deal with it, or ignore it. The way of our world is: ignore it and move on.
The way of our world is to move on, mindlessly, towards extinction. We live, as I am reminded every day and every hour, in the brave new world of ADD. The initials of course stand for “analogue-digital-digital.” Or alternatively, “attention deficit disorder.” Something big, something very big, something that begins to explain the very universe and our little lives within it, might happen; but unless it is communicated to us in terms comprehensible to our hand-held devices, we won’t take any notice. Hence the “New Evangelism,” and even Popes who “tweet,” exclusively on channels to which no one is listening. Because, as that notorious Catholic, Marshall McLuhan, once explained, the medium is the message itself — and the only retrievable message, through the hand-held media of twitteration, is: ADD.
Have you heard the news?
There are two, and I should think, only two ways to respond to what has happened, and to the Man who speaks to us from that ancient cemetery garden, by that empty tomb. One is to go on cultivating ADD, and by the path of least resistance, find our way down into the chambers of Oblivion. And the other is to reply, Rabboni.
NOTE. Thanks to Sylvie D. Rousseau, I now find my response to a member of the old Commentariat, from the days before all Comments on this site were wiped away (the good, the bad, and the ugly). It was a remark under one of the old Idleposts now re-woven into the piece above. “You don’t admit of any possibility of error in your theological framework,” the gentleman declared.
To which I replied:
“My dear CTC, it is time you realized that it is not my theological framework. After fifty years of shopping, I bought into the Catlick one; or more precisely, found that I already more-or-less had. And in the end you’re not arguing with me. You’re arguing with my buddy Thomas Aquinas, and all his buddies. And having tried to argue with them myself, let me tell ya. …
“It is a working out, over twentyish centuries of often quite heated argument and debate, of what the best minds could discern in the Christian Revelation, on the principle of non-contradiction. The result has been concisely and carefully set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which you might want to obtain as a kind of phone directory to what “people like me” (i.e. Catlicks) believe.
“Is it infallible? No, nothing from the hand of man is infallible (and check that CCC for what we mean when we say the Pope is pronouncing on doctrine ‘infallibly’). It isn’t ‘infallible’, in the sense you might use, but it is extremely good, because if anyone, Catholic or non-Catholic, can find a contradiction in the thing, we sweat it through until we’ve fixed it.
“But by now that body of doctrine has been remarkably stable for a very long time. This is because our best minds have sweat it through all these centuries. And in fact most of it was clear enough to the candid and honest and intelligent from early on: working from what they sincerely believed, and for good reason, that Christ had told them about what’s what, checked and re-checked interminably against the known facts of ‘reality’.
“You don’t have to believe a word of it. There are many soi-disant Catholics who never bother to consult it (even before speaking publicly ‘as a Catholic’), and who believe what they want to believe. Some of them even serve in your Congress. ‘Cafeteria Catlicks’, if you will. People who don’t listen when being corrected on fact. What can I say?
“But there it is, Catholic Doctrine. And since the whole of Western Civ was erected upon it, I suggest you check it out. So that you can know, at least, what it is you are rejecting as you walk off into the scientistic aether, pitching Western Civ to the dogs.”