Catholics tend to focus on what happened on Good Friday at three o’clock. That’s appropriate: The incarnate Son of God, out of love for sinful man, bowed his head and died.
In his revelations of Divine Mercy to St. Faustina Kowalska, Our Lord asked us to honor the “Hour of Mercy,” and “if only for a brief moment, immerse yourself in my passion, particularly in my abandonment at the moment of agony.”
That said, I’d like to focus on what happened on Good Friday at four o’clock.
There was a sense of urgency on the little hill outside Jerusalem.
Part of it came from the weird stuff going on and the rumors flying around: an eclipse, an earthquake, Temple damage. Maybe the guy on the middle cross was not as accursed by God as they said he was.
But it was a spring Friday before a “holiday weekend.”
The sun would soon set for Sabbath, and this one was a special Sabbath. Those executions were supposed to be over fast. The middle one was dead, but those other two were still moving and breathing.
Two new men arrive, and, from their appearance, neither seems to be quite the up-country peasants that Jesus and his crowd were. Maybe he did have some friends in high places — at least, apparently, in the Sanhedrin — but too bad they didn’t get here about five hours earlier.
They took his body down and gave it to his mother, who enfolded it in her arms.
The bloody mess was done with one, but two more kneecaps needed cracking.
Now, try to make sense of the picture I just painted, given the rise in American Catholics’ experience with and acceptance of cremation.
The cremation explosion — some have suggested at least 40% of deaths now lead to cremation — has put the body into eclipse.
The body is less frequently seen, much less encountered.
Death is not associated with a body, nor are remains with lived continuity: There is no body, and these granules (if they have not already been hermetically sealed from sight) don’t look anything like the Uncle Joe I knew.
So, does the Pietà make sense to the modern, post-cremation Catholic? Rather than an expression of maternal tenderness, have not our funeral practices fostered a mentality that would see Mary being handed the bloodied body of her Son as a repulsive and cruel act?
Cremations also result in deferred funerals, sometimes scheduled for the mourners’ convenience.
The traditional funeral two or three days after death is increasingly threatened by cremation.
When death, instead of interrupting our schedules, is instead managed to accommodate them, how do we escape a mindset that everything — death included — can somehow be controlled?
How does that not lead to the idea that euthanasia is a choice of control? And how does the contemporary Catholic feel the insistent urgency of death when funerals can be put off?
And, again, what about that missing body?
In 17th-century Brittany, a cult of Christ’s passion spread, and almost every church had elaborate artwork depicting it.
In one, there is a life-size depiction of Jesus laid on the stone in the tomb, surrounded by Mary, the other Mary, John, Joseph of Arimethea and others. The living are colorful, carved in painted polychrome woods. The dead Christ, like the slab on which he is laid, is made of cold, white stone.
Now, try to imagine that same picture with Mary, John and the others surrounding an urn.
The body matters.
I have written several times on cremation — including in these pages — and I know that a frequent argument in its defense is the cost. I don’t deny that.
But we should ask whether there’s something else at stake: the intelligibility of Easter faith.
How does one encounter the Easter tomb if tombs become more infrequent among today’s Catholics?
When it permitted cremation, the Church reiterated its desire that Christians ordinarily lie in the earth, as did Christ.
Perhaps one reason it recommended that was that so, as we prepare to follow Jesus through death to resurrection, the experience would make sense to us — because it was ours, too: first through friends and loved ones, then one day ourselves.
He “who was like us in all things but sin” took the wages of sin — death — on himself, in solidarity with us.
The question this Eastertide is: Is that experience of solidarity with the risen Lord being lost because of how we are now increasingly marking death?
John M. Grondelski writes from Shanghai, China.