An Easter Season Parable

COMMENTARY: The Rite of Baptism was first liturgically celebrated on Easter Sunday, in order to make the point that unless Christ himself had first overcome death, there could be no baptism for anyone.

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Imagine yourself as a caterpillar. Yes, that’s right. And never mind how completely ridiculous it makes you feel. It’s just a game, and it won’t take long. Besides, as a brown study, you don’t look so bad. Plus, you get to go creeping along this lovely garden path, leaving you largely undetected, which must be great fun. So, what’s next? Where are we going?

Well, let me tell you. You and a few other creepers are on your way to a meeting of all the caterpillars in the neighborhood in order to discuss matters of common concern.

An urgent issue has just come up that requires immediate attention. It seems one of the caterpillars has gone off his rocker and is spreading the most arrant nonsense. Something quite extraordinary, he exclaims, is about to happen. “We’re all going to become butterflies!”

Silly creeper, doesn’t he know anything? Probably delusional. Frightened, too, as he’s nearing his end and can’t face the prospect of extinction. What’s to be done? How do we assure all the other caterpillars that nonsense like this must not be encouraged, nor even tolerated for that matter?

But then, as the meeting unfolds, something truly extraordinary does happen. All the caterpillars — yes, every blessed one — find themselves suddenly becoming blooming butterflies!

Is it possible? How can that be? And will any of them even remember what they were before?

That was a question, by the way, a very bright 5-year-old put to a hapless adult, who, bless her heart, didn’t even pretend to know how to answer it; nor did she particularly care to know. “Go out and play,” she told her.

Good advice. And unless you just got off the bus, or you really are a caterpillar, the story I’ve just spun is a metaphor, an analogy, suggesting that the metamorphosis of the one, from earthbound bug to flying butterfly, represents an upheaval in the order of nature rather like the far more stupendous upheaval in the order of grace which is what we call Easter, an event that totally belies the evidence of our senses; indeed, it is a fact far more confounding than the mere transformation wrought by the poor caterpillar who suddenly found himself a butterfly.

I mean, what does human experience tell us? Dead people do not typically climb out of their graves. And if, in the teeth of everything we think we know about death, it nevertheless happened to one man, mightn’t it be possible that it could happen to everyman? To you or to me, for instance? In other words, here is someone so intensely alive (I am paraphrasing Hans Urs von Balthasar here) that he can afford to be dead.

“A good way of testing the caliber of a philosophy,” writes George Santayana, “is to ask what it thinks of death.” There can be no plan of life, no set of beliefs about the world, until the question of death has been faced. And since to deny that death happens would be an obvious absurdity, then the only honest question is to ask, “What does happen when you die? Is it the very last word in the story? Or does the story go on and on, death having somehow lifted me quite out of this world? And if so, to whom do I owe thanks?”

These are not questions that a caterpillar, suddenly morphed into a monarch butterfly, is likely to ask. But a 5-year-old will, and even 5-year-olds are entitled to know the answers to such questions.

So what does happen in death, that dread horizon against which we rise in the morning and go down with at night, knowing all the while that each day draws the curtain a little closer?

The only satisfactory answer to that question is Easter Sunday. But only if we insist on giving it all the specificity it warrants. Because what we’re talking about here is an actual event, something which took place in real time, in the order of history, not the realm of ideas or suppositions. Belief is tethered to certain scandalously specific time-bound events; otherwise, it’s nothing more than the airiest of abstractions, no more real than the ozone that surrounds them. Real events, I’m saying, like birth and death, are essential to the whole scaffolding of faith, furnishing what Joseph Ratzinger has called “the ineradicable positivity” of the Christian religion.

This is why the Rite of Baptism, which immerses the child into the very depths of Christ’s own death, was first liturgically celebrated on Easter Sunday, in order, that is, to make the point that unless Christ himself had first overcome death, there could be no baptism for anyone.

That “final mutation,” Pope Benedict XVI has called it, “in the evolution of the human species,” would be worthless. But death, “the last enemy,” as St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15, has been conquered, definitively destroyed, because Christ, in his risen body, showed us how to do it.

Regis Martin, S.T.D., is a professor of theology and a

faculty associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life

at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.