Summary: The moment of greatest defeat is the beginning of a cosmic triumph in Christ.
I invite you to view with me the broken body of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Messiah of the Jews, hanging from the cross. Around him, almost dancing with joy, are his enemies, challenging him, “if you are the Messiah, come down from the cross, if God really loves you.” Egging them on is the Father of Lies, who has used every kind of prevarication to put this God-man on the cross. It is, he thinks, the ultimate revenge on the God who cast him from heaven, on the upstart archangel Michael whose sword chained him in hell, and on the whole human race who were made–unlike himself–in the image and likeness of God.
Beneath the cross of Jesus were a handful of the faithful–his mother, of course, who was always faithful, the boy-man John, the beloved disciple, Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons, and a couple of others. But that was enough. That would be the beginning of the rest of the story, the infant Church. On them with his dying breath he breathed out his spirit, just after giving all of them his mother who in agony was bringing forth this new assembly, this new body of Christ.
It was at that moment that the Father of Lies knew he had made a grave error, that the death agony of this guy was the moment of triumph of the community of man, of the plan of the true Father, of what was now clearly the God-man, Jesus the Messiah. And as they saw the death of the faithful witness, declared even by the Roman centurion to be the Son of God, those who engineered his death also realized their mistake. They had broken their own law by crucifying a just man, the one who could forgive their sins. So they went off to their homes to celebrate Passover, but they went away beating their breasts.
Not quite three days later, in the evening of the day after the Sabbath, Jesus appeared to all his cowering apostles–the word means “those sent out”–in the same room where they had celebrated the first Mass. His first words as Risen Messiah echoed his last as Suffering Servant, when he asked his Father to forgive his executioners for their stupidity. He said “Peace be with you; whose sins you shall forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained.” He breathed on them, giving them the only power that humans really need, the power to live as repentant, forgiven men, the power to undo the curse that Adam and Eve brought on them, the power then to live forever in the presence of God.
Truth, then, in the person of Christ and the teaching and celebration of the Church, is triumphing even when it seems that falsehood is ascendant, as it does when you see the mainstream media today. But Goodness and Beauty are also triumphing, and we see the signs just about every day in the Church that is completely true to Christ’s teaching and the ecclesial communities who have not yet embraced the full truth of the Gospel. As we have seen, Jesus Christ has risen, taking captivity captive. And he has given the Holy Spirit, the greatest gift, along with the corollary gifts of the Spirit.
Good works abound–not enough, it is true, to eliminate ignorance and want, but enough to make the world pause before trying to destroy the Church. We still perform the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Religious orders still minister to the poor. The St. Vincent de Paul society still helps those in need. Consider Food for the Poor and Habitat for Humanity and all the other great works begun and continued, mostly, by Christians, especially Catholic Christians. The Holy Spirit is inspiring us to do good for others.
And then there is beauty. It is true, unfortunately, that in the heady days after the Council, amateur musicians and liturgists seized the high ground and brought rock and roll into the sacred precincts. Sacro-pop, which one commentator calls “wiggle-waggle music” invaded with the Boomer generation, and all of a sudden, instead of attracting the unchurched world to Christ by the sheer beauty of our music and liturgy, we told the world that what we had for them was not as good as what they had for us. We violated the first principle of marketing–to advertise what makes you different from every competitor–and we wondered why people left the Church in droves.
But Jesus’s last promise before his ascension was that he would send the Holy Spirit and be with us always. That’s the Church in the world, not necessarily the Church in the U.S. But there are signs of a renewal of beauty and attractiveness even in the United States Church. Not everywhere, but in several dioceses. New churches are being constructed and the worship space looks like a church in the European style, not a multipurpose room. Acoustics are livening up as architects discover that their buildings sound better when they accommodate good music. And scholas for chant and choirs for part music are springing up. Moreover, they are finding new and inexpensive music to sing, music that respects our two-thousand year history. Much of this is free on the Internet. This is undoubtedly the work of the Holy Spirit to make the true intent and direction of the Council alive in our day. This, along with the new evangelization that is sharing our faith with the world on Christ’s terms, is carrying the Church into the new millennium.