Jesus Christ Destroyed Death and Restored Life

During the Paschal Triduum, we remember the Divine Mercy that has turned death into a remedy for sin.

Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), “Christ as the Man of Sorrows”
Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), “Christ as the Man of Sorrows” (photo: Public Domain)

 Six weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, we received ashes as a sign of our mortality. Tomorrow evening, as the Church begins the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Lent 2022 ends. That Mass marks the beginning of the Paschal Triduum, the three most sacred days of the Church’s year.

For these past six weeks, we have reflected on the meaning of human mortality, as symbolized in those ashes. We sought to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, not because God so willed it but because we inflicted the wound of sin on ourselves. God made man to live, and we cannot even conceptualize non-existence. God made man for good, and our orientation to morality and the good — our orientation to love — opened our perspective on life after death. We examined why death determines who we are as human beings, and how the Church helps us to prepare sacramentally for that determining moment through Penance, the Sacrament of the Sick, and the Eucharist.

This week, we’ve come full circle. On Sunday, we commemorated Our Lord’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. The palms we received in memory of that first Palm Sunday will be burned to create the ashes that will be imposed on our foreheads next Ash Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. 

The most important connection with this week is not, however, the raw material for next year’s ashes. The most important connection is between the mortality we were told to remember on the Ash Wednesday just passed and the death we will commemorate in two days on Good Friday. His death defanged ours. Ash Wednesday carries us to Good Friday (and Easter Sunday).

Ash Wednesday reminded us that death as every human being except the Blessed Virgin Mary knows it is tinged with the sting of sin (1 Corinthians 15:55-57), a sting removed by Jesus’ death. He became sin in our place to take away our death (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The whole purpose of Lent has been to lead us to these Three Days. It has sought to remind us that human history is the history of sin and the still greater history of God’s mercy and love. 

If Christ did not die and rise for us, we would indeed be in a sorry lot. The rule of death would reign over us. 

But because Jesus died, you don’t have to … unless you want to.

Obviously, because we are sinners, we will die, and we will to a greater or lesser extent also experience the fear of death as the destruction of our personal unity and life because that is what sin is. But that does not have to be the last word in human history. Jesus has made possible our life. He is our Way, Truth and Life (John 14:6). 

As man, he took on himself the consequences of sin, which included death, even though he was sinless; as God, he “destroyed death and restored life” (Eucharistic Prayer IV). 

Man continues to experience physical death, but he need not experience moral death, spiritual death … unless he wants to. For God is love and he invites man to that love. But love, being love, can be refused … and one cannot receive the gifts of Love if one rejects the Lover.

Jesus incorporates us into his death through Baptism. Baptism is a share in Christ’s Death in the hope of his Resurrection (Romans 6:3-11). In Baptism we die to sin and come alive in Christ. 

Do we ever meditate on the significance of our Baptism? It is wrong to imagine Baptism as just a moment, probably long past and one which most of us do not remember. But that moment rescued us from death and committed us to Christ and Life. That moment repaired the disruption sin introduced between our utter orientation to life and our utter incapacity to attain it because of sin. Some so-called “intellectuals” today would like to pretend that this rescue from sin is somehow a violation of “human rights.” Perhaps, in a culture of death that considers death a legitimate “choice” (even though man cannot even conceptualize his nonexistence since he cannot escape his thinking mind) self-destruction is a “right,” but this is certainly not the “man fully alive” that God seeks (and of which St. Irenaeus of Lyons spoke). 

The highpoint of the Church’s liturgical year, the Easter Vigil, puts great focus on Baptism: this is the night par excellence to celebrate dying and rising with Christ in Baptism. 

But this celebration of Baptism permeates Easter. It is no accident that, at the Easter Vigil and on Easter Sunday, we reaffirm our Baptismal Vows rather than recite the Nicene Creed. Ash Wednesday led us into a period of intense reflection on our sinfulness and the mortality that followed from it; Good Friday reminded us that Christ healed our sinfulness and mortality on the Cross; on Easter, we recall that we share in that healing, in that death-in-the-hope-of-resurrection, through Baptism. It is, therefore, fitting that we conclude our Lenten and Paschal Triduum reflection on mortality with our rejection of the author of that mortality — the Devil — and our affirmation of faith in the Triune God, culminating in our profession of faith in “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

That  — the “resurrection of the body and life everlasting” — is what God intended for us, having made us in such a way that we are congenitally hardwired towards being, existence, and the good – even if, because of sin, we could not attain them on our own. The Paschal Triduum reminds us, however, that in remembering our mortality, we must even more remember his Mercy that has made out of death a remedy for sin and mortality. Easter makes us remember the ashes of Ash Wednesday not as a futile loss but a “happy fault, which has gained for us so great a Savior.” A Savior who saves from death, who restores us to what God intended: that man live forevermore in communion with his God.

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

Don’t Wait to Cram for Your ‘Final Exam’

“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)