HomeCommentary'Deep Cross and Resurrection': Paschal Mystery and Cosmos

‘Deep Cross and Resurrection’: Paschal Mystery and Cosmos

I grew up in the rural parish of Oslob, in the southernmost part of the island of Cebu. As a young boy, I followed all the rituals of the Holy Week.

On Good Friday, the church is literally, made bare, with no plant or flower decorations. The statues, the only symbols of once living beings, are covered. The Roman liturgy wants to erase any symbol of life on the altar, even the ringing of bells is muted and replaced with the clapping of wooden planks.

But outside the church, the “carrozas” (coaches) of the saints for the long Good Friday procession are full of flowers, colors, and lights. The Santo Entierro, the dead Christ, has the most decoration of all. Even the stage where they deliver the Siete Palabras is full of plants and leaves. After these events, people would rush to them, bringing the leaves and the flowers home as symbols of the Christic mystery that was just celebrated.

In faraway Banahaw in Quezon, spiritual healers and shamans pray in caves, bathe in streams, and meditate under trees, waiting for God’s power to strengthen them. They do these on Good Friday when Jesus died and joined the place of the dead. Church authorities have the tendency to look now on these practices as “superstition” that needs catechesis.

Another way of looking at it, however, is through the intimate relation of the Paschal Mystery with the rest of the cosmos, with the rest of God’s creation. My question is: how do we understand the Paschal Mystery from the perspective of the growing ecological consciousness of our era?

We have the impression that the dominant narrative of Christianity is that Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection only happen to save all humans — to ransom us from our sins, to express his solidarity with us, and to liberate the poor from oppression and slavery.

But where is the non-human species in this scheme of God’s love? Did Jesus also die for them? Has God’s love reached their inner beings? Do they also participate in the dying and rising of God and humanity? When Jesus was hanging on the cross on Good Friday, where was the rest of God’s creation? Do they also need saving and liberating?

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The “turn to the poor” is happily acclaimed in present theology. The Church of the Poor is already good news in the post-Vatican II theological development even if it still has to be realized in church structures. Integral liberation, preferential options for the poor, the fight for human rights, and social justice have already become important parts of church language in our times, even if conservative Christians spend all their resources toward Tridentine directions.

But even as this theology of “crucified peoples” provides a liberating message to the communities, my rethinking of the Paschal Mystery does not stop there. There is a need to extend the “good news” beyond the Anthropocene, beyond the well-being of the human species, to include the whole of God’s creation.

There is an important statement in Laudato Si that gave me a hint on how to think about these things. For many commentators, this is the central message of this recent encyclical by Pope Francis.

“We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (LS, 49).

The cry of the earth is also the cry of the poor. Like the poor, the earth also needs God’s salvation. Today, people are crucified together with the earth, our common home. And listening to the cry of the earth is also listening to the cry of the poor — both of which express the cry of God. For instance, I am thinking of the hunger in Madagascar — called the first “climate change famine” in the world.

I am also thinking of the nuclear scare in Ukraine, and the destruction of Gaza, not only of their buildings but also of the olive trees planted there for centuries and have become the source of livelihood. I am also thinking of the havoc created by the COVID-19 virus from which many have not even recovered yet. All these are called “sins of the Anthropocene”. Because of human sinfulness, the earth is crying, the earth is dying.

As a theologian, what does this tell me? My concern is beyond its ethical demands. Of course, we need to change our lifestyles or limit our carbon emissions. But the real challenge strikes at the heart of our theological frameworks. What consequences do ecological issues have on the way we think of God, of Jesus, of the sacraments? How do we think of the Paschal Mystery from the lens of these ecological concerns?

I would like to borrow a term from the Danish theologian, Niels Gregensen — deep incarnation. “Deep incarnation” means that the “God in the flesh” goes inwards, deep downwards, into the fundamental physical structure of reality, and reaches outward also to include all nature, the entire cosmos, transforming the whole in every part by uniting it with God.

Come to think of it. At the beginning of the gospel of John, he writes: “The Word was made flesh (sarx).” He did not say “And the Word was made man (Anthropos)”. Incarnation thus means God participating in the mortality of all that the meaning of “flesh” and all that it entails. Niels Gregensen writes:

“The ‘flesh’ assumed in Jesus includes the entire human race (women and men), as well as the nonhuman creatureliness. The most high (the eternal thought and power of God) and the very low (the flesh that comes into being and decays) are internally related in the process of incarnation. In the embodied Logos, sarx and Logos are coextensive. The incarnation is as wide as the cosmos.”

He calls this “deep incarnation”, God becoming flesh, not just becoming human. God breathes his life into the whole of creation. And by “conjoining God and the world of creation so intensely together,” Gregensen continues, “there can be a future also for a material world characterized by decomposition, frailty, and suffering.”

The letter of St. Paul to the Romans writes about the frail inward groaning of the whole cosmos and its accompanying hope: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8: 22-23).

God is also in solidarity with suffering creation. God who breathes his spirit on the whole creation also suffers with it. At the time of Jesus’ death, nature commiserates with it. The evangelist Mark says “darkness came over the whole world” (Mk. 15: 33; Mt. 27: 45) because of an eclipse of the sun” (Lk. 23: 44-45). Matthew was more descriptive: “And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom/ The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Mt. 27: 51-52).

In all narratives, the cosmos cried with the death of the Son of God. They groaned with him. They joined with Jesus in his mortality and death. And is one with him in hope for the resurrection.

Borrowing from Gregersen, the feminist theologian, Elizabeth Johnson introduces the term “deep cross and resurrection”. Let me quote her in full:

“The cross is a mysterious and profound sign that God enters into our darkest trials of human suffering, death, and near despair. In solidarity with the human race, Jesus crucified and risen abides in intimate contact with all people who walk through the valley of the shadow of death… [But] the logic of the deep incarnation gives a strong warrant for extending divine solidarity from the cross into the groan of suffering and the silence of death of all creatures.”

In short, the divine solidarity with all suffering creation brings Godself into all fleshly beings who are perishing in utter pain and darkness—humans and non-humans alike—and share with them a glimmer of the resurrection. Of course, all beings follow the cycle of life, of birth and death. But the cross of Jesus brings God’s solidarity into the depths of all our groaning until all creation, all creation, will be restored in Christ.

But the tree of the cross is not the last word. Easter in many countries, the season of spring, is a sign of hope. Flowers blossom, shoots sprout, birds chirp, and light appears on the horizon.

The Easter liturgy is a liturgy of bodiliness and creaturely existence. There is a living eco-drama unfolding in front of our very eyes: darkness and light, water and oil, leaves and flowers, wine and bread. These symbols of God’s creation remind us that Jesus is risen. In the resurrection of Jesus, “the earth itself arose,” says St. Ambrose of Milan.

The lyrics of the Exultet sang at the Easter vigil show this intimate connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the rejoicing of the whole cosmos. It is a hymn to the heavens and the earth that Jesus is truly risen.

“Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,

exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,

let the trumpet of salvation

sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!

Be glad, let the earth be glad, as glory floods her,

ablaze with light from her eternal King,

let all corners of the earth be glad,

knowing an end to gloom and darkness…”

On Easter, the tree of Calvary blossoms into the vibrant tree of life. In the apse of the church of San Clemente in Rome is a cross as a tree of life. On the mosaic is the whole of creation with the cross at its center — with doves and a fountain, feeding chicken and cattle, a grapevine, and a monk writing a book. The cross is really a tree of life.

No wonder even the Santo Entierro, the dead Christ on Good Friday procession, is full of flowers and leaves, of brightness and light, of hope and life.

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is the President of Adamson University in Manila. He is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community on the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York.

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