Page 4, 16th April 1976

16th April 1976
Page 4
Page 4, 16th April 1976 — Norman St John-Stevas
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The Meaning Of Easter

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Norman St John-Stevas

And so the greatest of all the Christian Feasts Easter — is almost upon us once again and we can rejoice and be glad at the goodness and kindness of the Providence who has called us out of nothingness and preserved us so that we may celebrate again the great fact of Redemption.

We can be grateful too that Easter, unlike Christmas, has not been commercialised or paganised: we can enjoy a little quiet and some peace.

The message of Easter is one of Hope: that whatever the appearances may tell us of suffering and death, the reality is different, life, joy and glory.

At Easter we sec, in the most dramatic moment in all history, the eruption of that power into the world which St Paul tells us upholds the -universe.

"And this is my prayer," he tells the little hand of Christians at Ephesus, "That God, the Clod of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the all-glorious Father will give you spiritual wisdom and the insight to know more of him: that you may receive that inner illumination of the Spirit which will make you realise how great is the hope to which he is calling you — the magnificence and splendour of the inheritande promised to Christians — and how tremendous is the power available to us who believe in God."

That power hurls the rock hack from the tomb, puts the last enemy to flight, and opens :he gales of salvation through which (we may hope and pray) the entire human race with Jesus at the head will one day pass. Easter also positively affirms the value of the body: in one sense Christianity is the most materialistic of religions with its insistence that it is not the spirit that survives death but bodyspirit.

Too often we think of ourselves as souls in the disguise .of animals, spirits encased in flesh, condemned to drag a deteriorating carcase around with us for seventy years or more until death accomplishes a merciful separation.

Whatever religion that may be, it is not Christianity, for Chistianity declares always, but especially at this season, that the body was holily created, holily redeemed and will be raised in holiness from the dust of the dead.

The rejection of the body has nothing to do with Christianity . as such, although there are certainly plenty of Christians who have done precisely that. The blame is put upon St Paul, but Paul, when he was contrasting flesh and spirit, was opposing different spiritual attitudes, the spirit of this world and other worldliness, not pointing up a. contrast between body and soul, That was the heresy of the Gnostics who, in the second century, began that opposition of spirit to matter from which we are still suffering.

The invasion of the Northern Germanic tribes made matters worse. As Hilda Graef has written "These rough warriors who could only very gradually be introduced both to Christianity and to a reasonably civilised life had a powerful physique and the instincts that went with it: and to make Christians of them their bodies had to he subjected to a very stringent discipline.

Fastings and vigils, the principal penitential practices of the early Church no longer sufficed. Now hairshirts, chains, and floggings were introduced, though these forms of penance were also favoured because they imitated the physical sufferings of Christ."

Today we are surrounded by a world which elevates the body and downgrades or ignores the soul, but if our response to that is to downgrade the body and elevate the soul, we are not in fact much better off.

We would, in such cases. be defeated by the irreligious through a circuitous route: reproducing one error by the mirror image of another. As Christians we have to affirm the essential link between soul and body.

Archbishop Roberts used to say that we have no experience of communion more intimate than the link between spirit and human matter in the person. "The very body of Christ with which the apostles lived depended on the union of spirit and matter in Him as much as in their own bodies.

"The first Easter Sunday saw the beginning of the Christian conviction that this Communion became completion only when body and soul became so perfectly united that death lost all its power."

The separation of the body and the soul is an unnatural sundering. Perhaps that is why as the moment of death approaches there is in human beings a sense of agony as the components which by their inner constitution are intended to be united are forced apart.

What happens to the soul until it is reunited to the body we do not know. Abbot Vonier is one of the few spiritual writers to have tackled this problem and I remember Fr Corhishley theorising that reunion was acconiplished immediately after death.

St Paul speaks of a glorified body and it is comforting to reflect that after death, not only will our spiritual inadequacies he -banished but our physical ones as well.

We shall be, in body and spirit, in that beauty which was our heritage until it was lost by rebellion and sin. We shall be more ourselves not less. As Maurice Baring once remarked, dying is like opening an envelope and finding the letter inside.

So as Christians, we have true joy and love and gratitude at Easter, knowing that our shortcomings and sufferings and inadequacies will be transformed by Ilim whose presence in its magnitude fills the Universe but which is found in particular in that humble, human, and loving figure of Jesus, whose obedience is glorified and commemorated on Easter Day. A happy and holy Easter to all Catholic Herald readers.




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