What were they thinking? In his Good Friday homily at the cathedral in Mobile, Fr. Martin asked this question about the disciples of Jesus as they saw him arrested, tried, and executed. What had they expected of him? Certainly not this. And what did they think when their expectations were utterly crushed? There is no evidence that any of them had any idea that the Resurrection would follow.
I know what I would have been thinking. It would have gone something like this: I should have known it would all come to nothing. This is what always happens; it’s the way life always goes: a beautiful beginning, then disappointment. Nothing ever turns out the way you want it to, or not for long. Dreams always fail. You never get what you longed for, or if you do it isn’t what you thought it would be, or it disappears even as you hold it. And in the end nothing remains but the dream itself, the same old longing.
One of three or four passages in The Lord of the Rings which haunt me, and which pass through my mind almost daily, is this exchange between Gimli and Legolas, upon their parting with a lord of Gondor; specifically, it’s the words of Gimli I recall, and which might be my own:
“That is a fair lord and a great captain of men,” said Legolas. “If Gondor has such men still in these days of its fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising.”
“And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,” said Gimli. “It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in the Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”
But Gimli’s is not quite the last word; the exchange continues:
“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,” said Legolas. “And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimil.”
“And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,” said the Dwarf.
“To that the Elves know not the answer,” said Legolas.
Again, my sympathies are with the dwarf. It is not easy or natural for me to resist the feeling that in the end decline and extinction will have the last word. I almost wrote “the idea” in the preceding sentence, and changed it to “feeling,” because that’s what it is; it’s not a conviction, not a conclusion reached by reason, and in fact is contrary to my conscious belief. Yet to some extent it is an idea, though an unwelcome one. After all, is there anything in our direct experience to suggest, much less prove, that it is not true? I say direct experience: we have the testimonies of others, and our own intuitions and hopes. To believe in spirit as the source of material life rather than its product often requires a conscious effort, while the clear indications of the material world itself, and the conclusions of the sciences which investigate it, are that all, literally all, will come in the end to nothing: the heat death of the universe, utter cessation, futility and un-meaning.
So I would have been thinking, with whatever adjustments in the imagery required for the knowledge and culture of the times, had I been one of the disciples. Just another of life’s inevitable disappointments, a type of the ultimate disappointment.
And what would I have thought at the news of the Resurrection? Undoubtedly I would not readily have believed it; perhaps not until I had seen it for myself. And when finally I was persuaded, I would have made that leap with tears of joy.
But this is, after all, not really speculative. I was not there two thousand years ago, but I have passed through the same doubts and into the same belief, from darkness to light. It was not as compressed in time, not as immediately intense as the experience of the disciples, but it must be a similar transition. And every Triduum I make the journey again, imagining on Good Friday that I do not know that the Resurrection is coming. What I feel and what I say when it does come begins with “Thanks be to God,” but doesn’t end there.
I have had a smaller and more personal taste of resurrection in the past couple of weeks. I came to the Catholic Church after a sojourn of several years as an Episcopalian. Though I couldn’t stomach the doctrinal problems of the Episcopal Church, I became deeply attached to the Anglican liturgy. Moreover, my roots are in the Methodist Church, which is Anglican at one remove. And then there’s my ancestral connection to the British Isles, and my love of English literature. It was painful to leave the Anglican liturgy, even though at the point I encountered it, in the late 1970s, it was being drearily modernized. I needn’t rehash the usual complaints about the banality of the post-Vatican II Catholic liturgy; suffice to say that I shared them, at times almost to the point of despair and temptation to apostasy, and that it was a trial to my faith.
When John Paul II allowed the use of a modified Anglican liturgy under the term “Anglican use,” I had a flicker of hope that I would see such a thing, but there have never been more than a few parishes in the country using it, none of them anywhere near me. And I was pleased when Benedict XVI went further, to the creation of an Anglican ordinariate, but I didn’t expect ever to benefit from it myself. For some time now I’ve been reconciled to the Catholic liturgy as it is, happy enough to receive the graces of the Mass that I could live with the dullness of its treatment.
Then one morning at work couple of weeks ago, there came, entirely unexpected, an email from my wife telling me that she had just had a telephone conversation which brought her news that a seminarian in our diocese has begun the process of establishing regular Anglican Use worship in this area. Until the seminarian, a former Episcopal priest, is ordained, it will not be a Mass; the first event is Evening Prayer, on April 15, and my wife and I will surely be there, God willing.
Thanks be to God. I can’t even say that this is an answer to a prayer; I regarded it as so unlikely that I hadn’t even bothered to pray for it more than a few times, and those long ago. This is God giving more than was asked for or expected, as he did with his followers at the first Easter. However this works out in the longer run, I’ll remember, when I feel doubtful, the happy surprise of hearing the news.