The National Catholic Review
Thomas J. McCarthy

I’m not sure what to do with the Easter season. I’m more comfortable, if that’s the right word, with Lent’s symbolic richness—dust, ashes, desert, wandering—than I am with the joy of the resurrection. Not surprisingly, at this time every year I’m less jubilant about the risen Jesus than I am stuck in the Passion, an emotionally intense, piercing story filled with weeping, bleeding, betrayal, desolation, isolation and, within it all, a measure of consolation. What, I wonder, is the relationship between The Passion and passion in my own story?

When it first entered the language nearly a thousand years ago, passion denoted suffering and agony. So if the Passion, or simply passion, was the price paid for our salvation, then humankind ever after is released from sin and thus from the same suffering and agony, right? Not so fast. If this were true, then what about all that Baltimore Catechism I was taught? What about all that emphasis on my sinfulness, the need to do little acts of kindness, as I was told, "to gain grace"?

The calculus of my own personal salvation consumed no minor portion of my mental and psychic energy between the ages of 6 and 12, but the subtleties of grace were no doubt lost on me. While I do recall the odd reference to joy in some of my religious upbringing, and while the most winning image for me was of my friend Jesus ever at my side, nonetheless the basic idea taking root in my head (planted from authoritative heights, in no way attempting to single me out but managing to do so anyway) was that I was an undeserving and ungrateful lout.

As I got older and encountered people who were raised in different ways in different faiths, the question occurred to me: Does God want me to be happy on earth, or is happiness a state reserved for the next life, in the event that I made it, through God’s grace and others’ prayers and the intercession of the saints, to Purgatory and then, maybe, one day, to Heaven? Although I knew that salvation couldn’t be earned, I also knew that this life was merely a prelude to what one hoped (mind you, not too eagerly) would be eternal happiness. In other words, I must have developed no real distinction between happiness and eternal happiness; the former was subsumed into and inseparable from the latter. This meant that life was wholly and exclusively a preparation for the Great Beyond. Therefore living in the moment meant lapsing from my purpose in life, which certainly was not to be happy. To prepare well meant to pray, serve, sacrifice, obey, confess, do penance—in short, to follow the straight-and-narrow path.

In this light, I came to regard the Easter season as a weird, if welcome, anomaly. I knew that the whole picture made sense only if Christ rose from the dead; it had an irrefutable logic to it that suited my well-catechized sense of order, discipline and justice. And besides, I spent 40 days and 40 nights longing to put candy in my mouth on Easter Sunday. Still, a whole season of joy? It seemed excessive, not to mention confusing. Either we were rescued from sin and death, or we weren’t. And in my book, we weren’t. The elation of discovering an empty tomb (and a well-filled Easter basket) was a short-lived aberration; straying, sorrowing and steadily plodding onward—these were the staples by which I’d come to understand myself and my place in the cosmos.

Searching, not discovery, then, became my predominant metaphor for life. The dictum "Seek and ye shall find" has always been for me heavy on the "seek." The Easter mystery is less the miracle of how a man rose from death than the mystery of what to do with that after Lent. Christ reconciled all things unto himself, but how do I reconcile in myself the Passion with the resurrection, the dust to which I will return with the soul which I hope will rise? As a human being and a believer, is my defining feature my spirit or my flesh?

Giving over these very questions is among the most problematic and most crucial steps a believer must take. It entails relinquishing control, or the illusion of control, over our fate. And this, I suspect, lies at the core of the Easter mystery that eludes me. Giving over a burden means, in essence, receiving; and receiving demands a disavowal of my familiar role as staunch, dutiful sojourner-in-the-wilderness. Perhaps what I’m missing is that, in order to be fulfilled in my heart, the Passion requires a movement beyond unworthiness, beyond sackcloth and ashes, into a kind of passionate leap. Maybe the Passion, no less than passion, means to be moved, broken, changed: to roll the stone away from my mind, to get out of my head and my habits and rediscover for the first time what miracles are.

The same vast ignorance that made prehistoric peoples look to the heavens for the answer to their innermost hankerings, their numinous inklings, gives us pause still. Somewhere along the way I came to believe that the joyous aspects of my faith, to the degree they existed at all, were sharply proscribed. Thus, while I embraced the theological significance of the resurrection event, to be ignorant of the human joy emanating from it was, in my mind, a virtue. To untwist all this and realign and realize, finally, the place of Easter’s passion in my journey may be the single most vexing, and liberating, leap of all.

Recently in Columns