Womb to Tomb: Celebrating Pascha 2016

This year, we are commemorating the day of Christ’s death on the same day that we commemorate his birth. A little weird, but wonderful – and not accidental. First, a little history… then Mystery…

Origin of “Easter”

English speakers use the word “Easter” in reference to the Most Holy Day in Christianity. Most other languages, however, use words rooted in the Hebrew word for Passover, “pesach”, as the ancient Christians used the Greek word, “pascha” for the Holy Triduum of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Solemnity of Our Lord’s Resurrection[1]. We are celebrating the Paschal Mystery, after all! This is Christ’s “passing over”; he is the Paschal Lamb sacrificed for us – and risen to glory. The friends and familial loved ones of Jesus celebrated his Resurrection on every Sunday and, as the number of disciples of Jesus grew (and grows) this tradition continues. Within the first two centuries, however, Christians began wanting to celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection with especially great festivity and joy once each year. So, the question became, On what date should we celebrate the Pascha?

Calendar Calculations

The key, ancient Christian scholars and leaders believed, was in determining the original date on which Jesus died. Although you might think this would be easy because of the biblical accounts… well, it wasn’t. Finding equivalents in the different solar calendars that Christians used for the days of Nisan in the ancient Jewish lunar calendar, was, let’s just say challenging. (For more on the history, see footnotes[2].) Anyway, in the course of these calculations, ancient Christians also sought to determine dates for celebrating Christ’s birth and conception, and other holy days, always keeping the Pascha as the base, the heart.

Incarnation and Sacrifice

Eastern Christian calculations came up with a date for when Jesus died upon the cross, a date equivalent to April 6, while Western calculations determined that Jesus died on the date equivalent to March 25. In choosing times to commemorate other Mysteries of Christ’s life, including Christmas, ancient Christians, both East and West, seemed to want to give a roundness, or fullness, to his life[3], and, so, chose the day of his conception in his virgin mother’s womb to coincide with the day of his death and burial in a tomb. Beautiful.

Truth and Beauty

We humans have a tendency to get caught up in technical details, calculations, charts, even dates themselves. Scholarly debates still abound on the history of date choosing and calculated dates still differ. But, Jesus did not die upon a cross for the glory of our digital ruminations. He died so that his blood, shed in divine love and mercy, could wash us clean of our sins – and that is something that we are not going to grasp with the math portion of our brains. Jesus came, Jesus comes, to reach the unique and transcendent connections of our minds, to speak to our hearts.

The “calendar date” is not what’s important. What’s important, what’s of earthshaking and ego-shattering importance, is that Christ Jesus is God Incarnate, that he was (is) truly human and truly divine, and that he died for love of us – and rose from the dead so that death will never be the end for any human being. This is why the name of Jesus is above all other names, this is why true Christians willingly sacrifice out of love for God and neighbor, this is why we are a people of hope and joy.

Yet, the dates in the Liturgical Calendar are not without rich significance. The Church lays out the Holy Days for our hearts and minds, so that, throughout the months and seasons, we may enter into the Mysteries of Christ and live intimately with him all year. There is truth in the content of the Holy Days and beauty in the context of their timing. Saint Augustine expresses this reality exquisitely:

For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since.[4]

Ponder This

Beautiful timing is befalling us this year and it is something highly worth reflecting upon …. In the Year of Our Lord 2016, we are called to commemorate both when Christ died and when Christ was conceived on the very same day!

Yes, the Annunciation coincides with Good Friday this year, as ancient Christians in the West believed that it should. Mark it and marvel. The thought gives me a beautiful sense of awe. And that sense deepens when I look upon my local church’s statues of both the Blessed Mother and Jesus on the Cross covered over for Passiontide, wrapped in veils, hidden from our eyes… Mary conceived Jesus as she was overshadowed, covered over, by the Power of the Most High… and, when her son, the Son of God, died on the cross, darkness covered the sky and his body was enshrouded and sealed in a tomb… waiting for revelation to the world…

I gaze upon the veiled statue and I can almost see Mary’s belly pulse and ripple beneath the purple cloth …

veiled Mary copyright

And as I gaze upon the veiled crucifix, I can almost see Christ, wrapped in his burial shroud, the cloth starting to move as his chest suddenly rises with the returned breath of life…

 veiled Jesus copyright

Awaiting the revelation of what is hidden from our sight, we mourn, we hope, we celebrate…

Happy Pascha!

 

© 2016 Christina Chase

Photo credit: Dan Chase, inside St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, Suncook, NH


[1] See Religion Facts: Easter

[2] the calendar used by Jews in the first century was lunar, with an extra month thrown in once in a while by the will of the Sanhedrin to keep it in line with the natural seasons. Christians used solar calendars, but there were many different calendars, with different months and dates. See: Catholic Encyclopedia: Easter

[3] in-depth exploration of “integral age” of Prophets with a Jewish source here at National Catholic Register ; Also see : William Tighe’s article   Passover to Easter and Calculating Christmas

[4] Saint Augustine. See: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf103.iv.i.vi.vi.html

In the Cloud of Glory a Portal Opens

Mary Series: Part 2 (continued from A Stranger Appears… )

        First troubled with wonder and puzzlement, then sincerely trusting and deeply curious, a young woman’s response to a strange visitor is about to change the world. Of all the human beings to be conceived in all of time, she is the single one chosen for the single most earth-shattering – and earth-redeeming – mission to be given to a creature born of woman and man. The divine message has been revealed to Mary, kneeling on the earthen floor of her childhood home, her hands lying still on her lap, bits of bread dough on her fingers, that she will conceive and bear a son whose kingdom will have no end: the Messiah, the Chosen One of God. Mary wants to know how she, as a virgin, will become pregnant – not because she is doubtful, but because she has faith in God’s word. She just wants to know, in simple and beautiful human curiosity, how it is going to happen. Mary’s angelic visitor, Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, does not punish Mary for asking such an honest and faithful question. Her innocence is rewarded with an answer.

        To Mary, the angel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”
Finished speaking, the angel waits for Mary’s response.

        Thoughts blow through Mary’s practical mind like clouds are borne across the May sky.  So, Joseph will not be the father – but, will he know? Will an angel tell him of the pregnancy so that he will not be alarmed and hurt when her body begins to swell with the child? Or will the origin of the child be kept as secret as it is mysterious and, so, she be accused of the adulterous betrayal of her betrothed, the punishment for which is death by stoning? …Son of God… And hear: Elizabeth’s long prayed for baby is given to her – wondrous news from Almighty God!  The thought vapors of Mary’s mind do not gather and darken in storm but, rather, are dissipated by the constant current of Mary’s will, enabling the light to shine clearly.

        For with God nothing will be impossible.

        Mary, ever faithful to first love purely given to her in the spark of her life, believes. She has been told that it is Divine Will for her to bear the Son of God, who shall be conceived in her womb by the power of God overshadowing her. Whatever human interference may try to thwart the plan of Providence, Mary is willing to place herself in God’s hands. No matter the earthly consequences, the cost or risk to her personal life, Mary wills not to be deceived. For, she knows that life itself is the gratuitous gift of Eternal Being – gift created by, with, and for, love. And she knows who she is – all that she has been and all she ever will be – the eternal servant of love. It is because of her great love that Mary will refuse God nothing. She is entirely willing to give all of herself away… to be the poorest of the poor, the lowest of the low, an empty vessel to be filled with God’s incarnate love.
Mary knows exactly who she is and she wills never to forget.

        Never has a human being been more free than Mary is in this moment. Unfettered, unchained, unbound is she by any self-centered concern that is but folly to one who experiences true freedom. Created in the divine image and likeness, Mary most perfectly reflects the divine power of freewill and intellect and imagination in the clarity of her mind, body, heart, and soul, here and now. God wills her total freedom. She must choose. All Creation, the natural and the supernatural, suspends.

        Holding back nothing, with clear eyes, light breath, tender mouth, and her palms upturned, Mary raises her heart to the messenger of Divinity, thus lifted up while still on her knees on the earthen floor. “Behold,” she says simply and wholeheartedly, spreading her arms open wide, “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

        Thus, in pure, free abandonment, Mary completely gives over her person and her life to God, so that God may do with her whatsoever He wills. At the sounding of her last syllables, your word, the angel of the Lord bows down low before Mary and then departs from her, as a lamp light departs with the rising of the sun.

        In the sleepy village of Nazareth, a mist is forming, laden with the fragrance of lilies and roses. Some see it merely as steam rising from cooking pots and others as smoke from the trash burning fire. The mist is rolling sweetly and with greater intensity around the home of the virgin named Mary. Within, Mary quietly, with the utmost peace in all her mind, heart, and body, every limb, continues the making of the day’s bread. As the mist enters like a cloud through the open door, the woman presses her small hands deeply into the dough and exhales, hushed, consumed by love.

* * *

        All cruelty cease in this moment, all pride vanish on earth, for what has begun with the free assent of a human being to God – Restoration to Paradise begins its rush into the world! A modest child thinks not of herself, but only of the Holy Other and, purely giving herself away, allows a portal to be opened through which God Godself enters mortality by assuming human nature.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. …the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters “…the Power of the Most High will overshadow you…” “There I will meet with you… I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat” …the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. … And the Word became flesh… in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily….

        Glory to God in the Highest! Thy Shekinah glory…

        Yes, let there be, in this fraction of a moment in the Eternal Now, not one act of tyranny nor deception nor apathy among mortals – for Truth Itself, Love Itself, is willingly taking on human flesh in utter humility, and thereby sanctifying us all. Oh, glorious heartbeat across the blue and green earth that, in this moment when time was pierced and space was torn, beat with remembered purity and freedom, when human will was married with the will of the Divine and Divine Incarnate fruit takes form! …Yet… only for that gleam of a moment, only for one quick beat of the heart, and then, humans, unaware of the actual living presence of their Savior in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, unaware of the Kingdom of God quickening, return to their forgetfulness, neglectfulness, resuming their fallen, self-centered ways, all…

        …But for Mary…

   Christina Chase

———————————————————————————————

 Scripture quotes in italics  taken from John 1:1, Genesis 1:2, Luke 1:35, Exodus 25:22, Leviticus 16:2, Exodus 40:34, John 1:14, Philippians 2:7-8

A Stranger Appears in the Making of the Bread

Mary Series: Part 1

Picture it. Nazareth. 1 BC (or maybe a few years earlier.) Alone in the simple home where she lives with her parents, a young peasant woman kneels upon the earthen floor making bread dough in a wooden bowl, completely unaware of the extraordinary conversation that she’s about to have.[i] As the ingredients come together and form in her hands, she hums a song of thanksgiving and praise. Briefly, never losing focus on her task, she thinks of the day in the future when she will be making bread in Joseph’s home. For she is betrothed to a kind and hard-working carpenter, a widower with several children of whom the young virgin looks forward to taking care.

Yes, this woman is Mary, who will be the mother of Jesus – but she isn’t yet. Right now, she is a prayerful and thoughtful girl, a good daughter and neighbor and practitioner of Judaism. She speaks Aramaic and understands Hebrew, has been taught the Sacred Scriptures and the fine skills of nurturing and caring for a family and a community. She is intelligent and considerate, never overthinking with needless worry, nor deeming any detail or any person as insignificant.

Mary begins to knead the dough, firmly but gently, when, suddenly, she is interrupted in the making of bread by the appearance of a strange visitor standing before her. Bearing peculiar salutations of mysterious portent, the stranger is illuminated all through as though by secret sunlight. Mary, bathed in the radiant glow, remains kneeling on the ground, transfixed.

Now, this stranger isn’t entirely strange to Mary. She has an unadulterated communion with the spiritual that was divinely given to her, and safeguarded in her, since her conception. She recognizes this being before her as an angel, a supernatural creature charged with bearing divine message. She knows, then, that the words spoken by this angel express the very mind of God. And this angel is hailing her, telling her that the Lord is with her, and calling her “Most Favored One” or “Full of Grace”.

Imagine being saluted by one of God’s heavenly hosts. Imagine hearing, unmistakably, imagine knowing, that you are specially gifted and favored by God. This is what is happening to Mary, but it doesn’t cause her to be puffed up with pride. Innocent as the day she was conceived, she is trying to figure out what it means and is troubled with the wonder. In full knowledge of her lowliness as a creature before the Uncreated Creator, she is humbled, disturbed in her heart by this greeting of honor.

Human beings are naturally afraid of the unknown – and Mary is human. Although she is divinely blessed by unique, supernatural grace, her intellect, imagination, and will are limited – just as with every human being. Born of working-class parents, she is the least worldly person of whom you can think, but she is rich with inherent wisdom – and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. The human mind cannot comprehend or fathom the Mysteries of God. The visiting angel knows this and sees Mary’s reaction. She is told not to be afraid. Believing that this is God’s message for her, the young woman listens and trusts. And her natural concern is quieted.

Now, the messenger of God says to Mary, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary is innocent, but she’s not naïve, and she’s no dummy. She knows how babies get made. And she also knows that, though betrothed, she is, as yet, unmarried, still a virgin, and has absolutely no plans of sexual intercourse anytime soon. So, she naturally wonders how she is going to become pregnant. It isn’t that Mary doubts the angel’s word, nor even the possibility of her becoming pregnant. But, she doesn’t know by what process the pregnancy will occur. Did the angel come suddenly to tell her of something that will happen later, in the future? Will Joseph, then, be the father of the child? Or will her pregnancy occur in a more dramatic, or even mysteriously miraculous, way? The words which with the angel described this child that she is to conceive and bear – “called the Son of the Most High… and of his kingdom there will be no end” – sound messianic to the young woman’s ears. Such a child would, it seem, deserve a miraculous beginning. But… How? What will be involved? If Mary was troubled before by the angel’s greeting, she is now sincerely, deeply, very curious. It is because of the young woman’s faith in the Divine Word and Order that she seeks, with the wonderful sparklings of the human mind, to peer into the workings of the universe, both within and beyond.

And so, at this moment, Mary, her dark, bright eyes looking up to the figure of light, opens her mouth to speak. In speaking, she knows that she will be communicating with God Godself through this divinely appointed messenger. She knows this and doesn’t hesitate to show her humble ignorance in asking her question to the Mighty One. She, like any true scientist that ever lived or ever will live, simply wants to know how something works.

Mary says to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?”

The angel, who is called Gabriel, has heard this kind of question before, just six months earlier, in fact, in human time. But that question, asked by Zechariah, concerning the angelic announcement of his wife Elizabeth’s forthcoming pregnancy, was not an honest question, was not an innocent desire for an understanding of the truth. And Gabriel had justly punished the man for his sarcastic response to God’s message, for his doubt in the power of God in the face of earthly limitations. Zechariah had been struck mute, unable to speak a further word until the prophecy delivered by Gabriel had been fulfilled. Mary, who is now asking the angel how God’s will for her pregnancy shall be accomplished, is honest and innocent and just in her asking. Her question is real, born from the virtue of her human curiosity, and Gabriel receives the question graciously. The young woman shall not be punished, but, rather, rewarded with an answer from God.

The answer that will be given will seem to only raise more questions. However, instead, from her heart, Mary will raise forth the most perfectly human response to God of all time.

*          *          *

            Prayer: Almighty and all powerful God, I am but a lowly creature before Thee. May I trust in Thee and not be afraid. I pray that I, like Mary, daughter of Anna and Joachim, may be pure and open to Thy Divine Will for me. In my lack of understanding, may I have faith. In my desire for understanding, may I earnestly seek… and find Thee. Amen.

Hail, Mary, Full of Grace, pray for all seekers of truth who seek to peer into the workings of the universe, both within and beyond.

Christina Chase

 

[i] I am no expert on the customs of the area at this time. And my narrative does not aim for historical accuracy as its most important goal – rather, I aim to take the history written in the Bible and use my flawed imagination and intellect to bring it more fully to life in my heart. I am also aware that some of the details I am imagining are less than congruent with an early account of young Mary’s life, The Protoevangelium of James, which I have only read in fractions, but which I believe is a rich and fruitful account. Read it here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0847.htm