Living the Paschal Mystery in the Battered Time

Article excerpt

As we enter the Sacred Triduum, the three most holy days of the church's liturgical year, we naturally think sequentially. On stark Good Friday we pray in sorrow; hear once again the Passion according to St. John; venerate the bare cross; receive Communion reserved the day before. Holy Saturday is the time of emptiness--the suspension of time in fact--when the tomb of the Lord evokes the tombs, the losses, the rampant emptiness of our own lives. Easter is then the day of light, of song and risen hearts. He lives, who was our sacrifice. He calls to us, who had fled his cross. He gathers, forgives and imparts his peace to us, who no longer had any reason to hope or even pray.

With good reason we move thus through solemn rites, one after the other, even though we know instinctively that the reality we celebrate is not a sequence of events but rather a single mystery binding time and eternity, loss and love, empty hearts and fulfilled communities. No words, images or rituals suffice for the new reality offered to us. It is the fulcrum of our lives, their hope of being real and true, of becoming fully ours while also fully God's. We celebrate that new reality over the hours of days that intimate a presence, a joy and a communion transcending time. Not that time is left behind, discounted, rendered less important. Rather, its innermost possibility, its real calling, its true destiny are revealed--and brought home.

It is the one paschal mystery that we celebrate, the unitary manifestation of the cost and promise of our lives together, before and with God, with all their sorrow and tears, base abuse and miserable waste, selfish aggrandizement and inhuman neglect--but also their laughter and exhilaration, beauty and achievement, friendship and care.

The wonder, in part, is that the one mystery of the death of the crucified Jesus who was buried in the earth but also carried into the heart of God was of an entirely particular time and place and yet is offered to all times and places. On the hill of Golgotha outside the city of Jerusalem, shortly after a Jewish Passover, the man from Nazareth was slung on wood that he had carried himself to his place of execution. There he died all but alone so that we, and all other men and women, might live together with him.

Each age seeks imagery, however inadequate, to suggest the glory of this foundation of faith--from the mosaics of Ravenna to the statuary and windows of Chartres, through early Renaissance altar pieces to exuberant Baroque inventions, and on to heartfelt paintings of black American artists such as Jacob Lawrence and William Johnson. No one style is enough. No one Gospel is enough. Each time has means, moods, needs of its own. We must support each other in responding as authentically as we can to this celebration of paschal mystery, which in fact is life in that mystery. And we must hope for the artists who will help us.

One such artist, Georges Rouault, seems a special blessing in this time of war, widespread poverty, and the arrogant misuse of power. Born in a working-class district of Paris, in a basement to which his mother fled from the violence of the Paris Commune in 1871, Rouault brooded throughout his life over the plight of the poor, the indifference of the powerful, and the promise of Christ. After apprenticing as a boy in a workshop for stained glass (whose strong color and lines he carried with him always), he had enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and studied under Gustave Moreau (Henri Matisse was a fellow student), becoming in fact the famous Symbolist's favorite student. Influenced also by the novelist Leon Bloy and by Jacques Maritain's Christian philosophy, he was all but haunted by biblical themes, particularly the passion of Christ, and rendered them repeatedly in a distinctively emotional and rugged expressionist style. Today he seems providentially close to the earth, intimate with the ordinary, a man who sympathized almost unbearably with the suffering and downtrodden. …