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The Memory of the Just Will Be Forever

Reflection on the Basilica Hymn for the Fourth Sunday of the Resurrection

Sight to the Blind

Our extended reflection on the Lord’s resurrection, a reality that begins at the tomb and extends in resounding and echoing power till today, continues to develop in its insight. We began with the first witness, Mary Magdalene, and from her interaction with the angel, the tomb and the risen Lord our souls were imprinted with the power of the scene. As the reality of the resurrection begins to “soak in,” we can look around and see everything else in its light, as if we were seeing for the first time. This new perspective on the world in light of the resurrection is not one we could ever reach with our own strength or intelligence; it is the graced sight of the eyes of faith.

From this angle, things look differently than they did before: we can see everything in a new way, with greater clarity and richness. Those who wear eyeglasses may remember the first time they ever put them on, and what a gift it was for them to do so, for it was as if the entire world was re-made just for them to gaze upon: every color was brighter, every line was straighter, every shadow was darker than it had ever been. Everything in the visible universe gained new meaning, and simply to look was a remarkable joy. This is not simply a Christian reality. Aristotle begins the Metaphysics with this reflection: “All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.”

St. Paul, known as Saul before his conversion, was blinded after his first encounter with the Risen Christ. It was a “light from the sky” that began his meeting with the Lord, but when he opened his eyes, he could see nothing. It was not until he met a disciple, a member of the established Church named Ananias who laid hands on him, that “something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.” (Acts 9: 18)  We can be fairly certain that, from that point on, Paul never saw anything the same way again.

A Powerful Scene

Let us gaze, then, with our newfound sight, with our eyes of faith, at that first scene. At first, with human eyes, we attended to Mary Magdalene and her spices. We made note of the moved rock and the burial cloths. We discussed and debated the physical evidence for the Resurrection. We now look at the same scene, but believing. No longer do we debate whether or not he is risen, for some in the Church have seen him; no longer are the folded burial cloths so mysterious, for we know that he folded them himself; no longer is Mary Magdalene the central character. From the perspective of faith we can begin to see things, in some mysterious and small way, from God’s point of view. How much more dramatic a scene is it from above, from heaven!

This is the approach our liturgy asks us to make this fifth Sunday of Easter, and the first phrase of our Basilica Hymn are meant to crash more loudly than the cymbals crashing at Mass and to resound more deeply than the rock rolled away from the tomb itself:

A servant descended from heaven, and shook the foundations of the earth; he made those who guarded you like dead men; and he strengthened the women who came to your tomb, and said: “Why do you cry, and why do you seek the one crucified by men, and buried like a man? He has risen above nature! Come and see the place where he was placed; he who has abounding mercies!”

No more are the angelic beings fearful to us! Though they dwell in heaven, though they are powerful and invisible, they are now no more than servants! And, most amazingly, not only God’s servants, but ours: this servant descended from heaven to tell us about the risen Lord.

The result of this new picture is a remarkable harmony: the angel came down to the natural world and shook it to its depths, in order to describe to us the One who has risen above all of nature, and an invisible being became visible to show us how to see the world, for the first time, as it truly is.

Mar Addai

This Sunday also marks the Commemoration of the Apostle Mar Addai, one of the seventy disciples who came to preach the Gospel in our homeland between the rivers. As St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans, quoting Isaiah the prophet, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news!” (Romans 10: 15)  With him we also celebrate one of the powerful preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ:

Precious in the eyes of the Lord our God is the death of his revered one, and the passing away of his saint, the honorable apostle. He who competed in spiritual battle in all excellence and left the divine arena in victory, leaving us a choice trophy, one excellent and spotless: his revered and honorable body.  And lo, his soul processes with the angels, and offers prayers on behalf of our souls.

The two images used in this hymn are Biblical and, in fact, Pauline in nature. The first is the image of “fighting the good fight” or “running the spiritual race,” which is found, among other places, in Paul’s second letter to Timothy: “Bear your share of hardship along with me like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. To satisfy the one who recruited him, a soldier does not become entangled in the business affairs of life. Similarly, an athlete cannot receive the winner’s crown except by competing according to the rules.” (2 Timothy 2:3-5)

The second image comes not from Paul’s writings but his deeds, which are described in Acts of the Apostles: “So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” (Acts 19: 11-12)  The practice of honoring relics, that is the physical things that were near the saints or, as described here in Scripture, their skin itself, is one that our Church honors as well, and so our hymn calls the body of Mar Addai an “excellent and spotless trophy.”

Of course, all of the honor due to saints and the power coming even from their bones is only a reflection of Christ and the grace he has poured out upon his body, the Church, and which comes to the human race through her, and so the final hymn commemorating Mar Addai ends as it should, with a glorification of the Master himself:

Blessed is your commemoration, O splendid apostle, who was persecuted for the sake of the Truth, and who endured pains and afflictions, that you may be an inheritor of the Kingdom. Who is able to describe the course of your spiritual works, which you prepared in vigil, fasting and prayer? May your prayer be a shelter for the sinners who take refuge in you, and may we be worthy to lift up glory to your Lord who has exalted you!