Saturday, March 2, 2013

Jesus Christ: "filling fallen death with his risen eternity"

For Roman Catholics Lent begins with receiving ashes on our heads or foreheads. As he imposes the ashes, the one doing so usually says, Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem revertis (i.e., "Remember [O man] that you are dust and to dust you will return"). In his magnum opus, the Apologeticus, sometimes referred to as the Apologeticum, Tertullian wrote: Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!- "Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you'll die!"

Over the past few days, I have been very struck by an article in the current issue of Communio: "Singulariter in spe constituisti me: On the Christian Attitude Towards Death," by Adrian Walker. In the article he writes about how the Christian takes the pagan view of death and has it illuminated by the light of the real event of Christ's resurrection- "In a sense, the Christian must be a fierce critic of the regnant bourgeois utopianism, a thoroughly unpagan monster incapable of giving life (cf. contraception) - because it cannot or will not acknowledge how deeply the fruitfulness of our existence is bound up with a certain (sacrificial) acceptance of death." In this context it does not seem inappropriate to mention that a popular French euphemism for the human orgasm is la petite mort (i.e., "the little death").

Walker ends his article with what I can only describe as a crescendo:
How, then, does the Christian attitude towards death, his "singular hope," fulfill pagan wisdom about death? In De Bono Conjugali, Augustine entertains the hypothesis that even an unfallen Adam would eventually have had to exchange the "animal" condition for the "spiritual." Had man not fallen, this hypothesis holds, he would still have had to undergo an earthly end, though he would have known it as a purely joyous transition into the eschatological state without any stain of constraint or privation, or corruption
Dormition of the Virgin La Martorana Palermo, 12th century

Here Walker takes what I found to be an utterly breathtaking Balthasarian/Ratzingerian move: "If we adopt this hypothesis - which Augustine regards as at least tenable- then we can say that only the Dormition [bodily Assumption] of Our Lady fully reveals what a 'natural death' would have to look like." To this he appends a footnote that addresses the divisive issue concerning whether the Blessed Virgin Mary actually died or not: "This intuition contains the seed of a demonstration that Mary's Assumption could involve her death without prejudice to her Immaculate Conception."
For the same reason, the believer who recognizes the Theotokos as "our life, our sweetness, and our hope" would be charged with the task of keeping alive, and even intensifying, the pagan's wonderment over the strange interweaving of life and death in the conditio humana. For this wonderment would itself be an internal requirement of the believer's confidence that, in filling fallen death with his risen eternity, Christ also quickens it with a breath of Eden's morning freshness, a hint of the radiantly beautiful form in which unfallen Adam would have gathered his earthly existence into the beginning of incorruption: "pure nature" as the ripe fruit of the Tree of Life
Walker ends his article by quoting a prayer after the third Old Testament reading in the Easter Vigil in the Extraordinary Form: "All things return to their integrity through Him from whom they took their origin, Our Lord Jesus Christ."

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