Popular Culture and the Mystery of the Resurrection

April 8, 2015

Fr. Juan-Diego Brunetta, O.P., Promotor for Media for the Province of St. Joseph, delivered the following homily on Easter Sunday at Rosary Hill Home, the Motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. Sometimes different is just different; but sometimes different is new. And while we can all agree that indeed, sometimes different is new, I offer that perhaps we are not always so very comfortable with new. No, in fact, we are quite happy—and settled—with the familiar, the normal, the way we always do it. Yet on that first day of the week, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, things were not at all as she had expected it to be. For, as St. John tells us, “she saw the stone removed from the tomb.” How could this be? And, instantly, she is afraid. So unprepared for something new was Mary of Magdala that she concluded with some reason: “They have taken the Lord from the tomb and we don’t know where they put him. As Father Steven told us last night, while the Jews had a belief in the resurrection of the dead, such a resurrection was to occur at the end of time. Not now. For the believing Jew, “new life was linked to the inbreaking of a new world and thus made complete sense. If there is a new world, then there is also a new mode of life there,” Pope emeritus Benedict writes. “But a resurrection into definitive otherness in the midst of the continuing old world was not foreseen and therefore at first made no sense” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 245). And so, the empty tomb does not immediately signal resurrection to Mary, and Peter and the Beloved disciple. Rather, it signals theft, desecration, loss. Sometimes different is just different, but sometimes different is new. But new is disorientating, it is scary. For this reason Jesus’ promise of his own resurrection “remained initially unintelligible to the disciples” (ibid). St. John tells us at the close of the Gospel passage today: “For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. The different-that-is-new is in fact so disorientating and so scary that we sometimes choose simply to reject it. This makes us feel safer; makes us feel in control; makes us think that all is as it always was and that different is not new at all, but just different. It was my Junior year in college—the end of my 15th year of Catholic schooling. I was majoring in Biology and minoring in Theology because I had decided that perhaps I could be both a doctor and a priest. At the time I was interested in becoming a Jesuit (we see how well all of that turned out). And I had a meeting with the vocations director of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. Part of the meeting was a standardized test that someone had developed to help “detect” vocations in young men. It was called the “Priestly Perceiver Interview.” It sounds kind of strange, perhaps, but apparently it was all the rage back then. I remember nothing from the hour and half inventory except one question. It has stuck with me all these years: “If the bones of Jesus were certainly and irrefutably discovered, how would that affect your faith?” A pretty heavy question. But, hey, I was bright, I could think on my feet. So, you know what I said? “Well, I guess it wouldn’t affect it much at all. We still have the good example of Jesus’ good works. We can still live lives inspired by the things he did and what he taught. We could still be good people. Nah, it wouldn’t matter much at all.” And St. Paul rolled over in his grave. WHAT was I thinking? Well, the answer is that I wasn’t. The answer is, that I had never pondered such a thing before. The answer is that, certainly I believed that Jesus had risen from the dead, but I didn’t understand the significance of that resurrection even with my 15 years of Catholic schooling. I didn’t understand what it means for faith, what it means for belief. And because I didn’t understand, and I was confused. “The fact is, however, that our Christian faith stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead. If this were taken away, it would indeed still be possible to piece together from the Christian tradition a series of interesting ideas about God and men; about man’s being and his obligations; a kind of religious world view: but the Christian faith would be dead. [For] Jesus would be [only] a failed religious leader, who despite his failure remains great and can cause us to reflect, but he would then remain purely human, and his authority would extend only so far as his message is of interest to us. [I repeat, his authority would extend only as far as his message is of interest to us]. “But he would no longer be a criterion of our faith; the only criterion would be our own judgment in selecting from his heritage what strikes us as helpful [and what strikes us as helpful today; for we are a fickle lot]. [In other words,] we would be alone. Our own judgment would be of the highest instance. [Whatever we deemed interesting to us at the moment]. “Only if Jesus has risen has anything really new occurred that changes the world and the situation of mankind” (ibid, 241-242). Yet, as I said earlier, the different-that-is-new is in fact so disorientating and so scary that we sometimes choose simply to reject it. This makes us feel safer; makes us feel in control; makes us think that all is as it always was and that different is not new at all, but just different. We can see evidence of this in popular culture. Sisters, I know that you are likely not aware of the following, but the people who come to the home surely are. If not the guests themselves, then surely the families and visitors, the volunteers and the staff. Right now we are in the 5th season of AMC’s series “The Walking Dead.” It is about zombies. I know, not the normal fare of an Easter morning homily. Zombies, not particularly pleasant creatures; however, they appear regularly in the life of horror to warrant at least a consideration. And for a reason which I hope is relevant to the great feast we celebrate today. Zombies were once human beings just like you and I. And then for some reason they suddenly are not. Most frequently these days the cause of the zombie hoard seems to be some viral infection that ends human life and takes over the functions of the human corpse. Significantly, and to the point, zombies are not considered alive at all. Instead, zombies are referred to as “the undead. The undead. The zombie hoard caused by viral infection. The new plague and threat to civilized humanity. On one level so utterly bizarre, and fascinating. On another, I offer for you, just a popular presentation of the different-that-is-merely- different. Another example of otherness that is within our control; within our sphere of understanding; otherness that does not so utterly shatter our expectations. After all viruses are pretty nasty things; surely if they can cause death, they can cause the undead, right? And while we are afraid of them (because they eat human flesh, don’t you know?), we sleep easily when the zombies, the undead, are locked outside. We are “safe.” And we can continue pretty much as we always have; save, the zombies, of course. Yet, what we encounter today on the first day of the week, while it was still dark is not the resuscitation of a corpse, much less the viral creation of the undead. What we encounter toady is an otherness that is not within our control, not immediately within our sphere of understanding, and otherness that shatters the expectations of Mary of Magdala and Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved. For the dead are not supposed to rise. They are supposed to be dead. And more significantly, the dead are not supposed to be resurrected. And yet this is exactly what Jesus the Lord does. He rises from the dead into an utterly unexpected newness. As Father Steven [Boguslawski] reminded us last night: “Jesus rises into the vast breadth of God.” And he promises and ensures that we too will rise with Him. And this disorientates the first believers, and it can disorientate us when we grasp what has been revealed. For sometimes the different is new! And with the revelation of the resurrection, it can no longer be business as usual. We discover the hard truth that we are not in control. We learn that it is not merely our judgment of today that is to guide our lives and actions; whatever we find interesting. But rather, we discover that the Risen One has dominion; He sets the path. Now, in a sense, at least subjectively, this can make us feel very “unsafe” now. For we cannot go along as we always have: life must change; life has changed. But really, rather than being unsafe in this change, we are more secure than we have ever been before. For we have encountered the different that is truly new. Or rather, He has encountered us. And nothing will ever be the same again. Thank God for that. It is this newness of life that we celebrate this day: the resurrection of Christ “into the vast breadth of God.” And our entrance with Him to that new life. For “This is the day the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.” Surrexit Christus, sicut dixit! Alleluia!! Christ has risen, as He promised! Alleluia!!

More News & Events