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From Burial to Breakfast

Paschal deaths and resurrections in the priesthood

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Shakespeare was wrong! In “Julius Caesar,” the doomed Roman leader claims that “a coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death just once.” From the perspective of the Paschal Mystery, the opposite is actually true; and for good and holy priests, there will be many deaths. If we allow them to be paschal deaths, then they will be followed by resurrections.

But first of all, let us consider this: How many times has each of us died in our priesthood?

• How many times have we painfully experienced the rug being pulled out from underneath us, that what we thought we were getting into is not what we discovered we have ended up doing?

• How many times have our wonderful and energizing ideals about priesthood, church or parish life run into the brick wall of reality?

• How many times have we recognized with some anguish that what motivated us at one time in seminary or priesthood is not working anymore?

• How many times have we noticed with some alarm that we are not good at everything in ministry, that we might not even like some aspects of ministry, or that our previous successes and achievements in ministry are not sustaining us at the moment?

• How many times have we felt the torment that all the duties of priesthood during the day do not eliminate the periods of loneliness or emptiness at night?

• How many times has the loss of a loved one, a friend or a dear parishioner left a gaping hole in our own life?

• How many times have pangs of guilt haunted us because we made some real blunders in dealing with a person or a group of persons and now it is difficult to feel authentic at the altar?

• How many times has a voice of shame overtaken us and shattered a sense of the nobility of priesthood when we are confronted once again with the awful things that some priests and bishops have done to God’s children and God’s people?

If any of these deaths have happened to you with some regularity, then you are a healthy priest — you are a valiant priest, in my estimation. If these deaths have not yet happened to you, they will. And when they do, draw them into prayer; do not run from them, and do not try to bury them underneath doing more work, staying busy or seeking some form of escape. My point is this: If we have truly been called to priesthood, then we have been called to many paschal deaths in our lives. And each paschal death can lead to resurrection if we join it to Christ — but only if we join it to Christ. This is the paschal process of priestly life and ministry.

Unlike what Shakespeare claims, the noble priest dies a thousand times before his death; it is the shallow and unreflective priest who dies but once. What allows a priest’s many deaths to become “paschal” and, therefore, redemptive and meaningful, is a genuine search for connection to Christ’s own paschal death and resurrection. This process begins with the burial provided by Joseph of Arimathea.

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Redemptive Place

In Matthew’s Passion narrative we read:

“When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, who was himself a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be handed over. Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it [in] clean linen and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock. Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed. But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb” (27:57-61).

Joseph buries Jesus in his own tomb. Matthew is the only Gospel writer to offer this specific detail. I find it very significant and a rich place for pondering what it means that Joseph of Arimathea generously and graciously places the broken, dead body of Jesus in his own tomb, in the place where his own dead body would be buried one day.

What makes Joseph of Arimathea an even more compelling figure is seen in how Matthew alters the description of Joseph that he inherited from Mark. Mark claims that Joseph was a distinguished member of the Sanhedrin (cf. Mk 15:43). In the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, Mark makes it clear: “They all condemned him as deserving to die” (Mk 14:64). This suggests that Joseph was among the voices that condemned Jesus. Therefore, his “courageous” act of burying Jesus (as Mark describes it in 15:43) could be seen as a righteous act of repentance or atonement for what he did to Jesus, or a righteous act of obeying the Torah that calls for burying the dead with dignity.

But Matthew paints a much more sympathetic portrait of Joseph. As already quoted, Matthew states: “When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, who was himself a disciple of Jesus” (27:57). Thus, according to Matthew, Joseph of Arimathea is not from the circle of the Sanhedrin, but from the circle of disciples; he followed Jesus and really believed in him. Furthermore, as a wealthy disciple, he would have given the support of food, shelter and money to Jesus and the band of disciples who traveled with him. This means that Joseph was wholeheartedly invested in Jesus.

Therefore, on Good Friday, as with all the other disciples, very painfully, very excruciatingly, his hopes and dreams about Christ die with Christ. Joseph is a broken man. He himself has undergone a profound death that day. For the man from Arimathea, hope and longing for something better died on Calvary with the man from Nazareth. All things that he came to believe Jesus would be for him and for all of Israel died and were buried in Joseph’s own tomb.

How does he handle the death of the hopes and dreams that Jesus would be the fulfillment of all that he longed for as a son of Abraham, all that he was hoping Jesus would be as the Messiah? Joseph brings the dead Jesus into his own tomb; he draws the one who died on the cross into what has died in his own spirit. The tomb of Joseph becomes his and Jesus’ tomb together.

What did Joseph do in those sad, quiet moments in the tomb when he was making sure that Jesus was buried with dignity and respect? What did he allow in that dark place where he and Jesus were united in death? I am convinced that the instinct that prompted Joseph to courageously step forward to retrieve the body of Jesus and then very generously place him in Joseph’s own tomb would have also caused Joseph to take the dead Jesus into his own emotional and spiritual dying that occurred that day. Joseph courageously stepped forward to bury Jesus in his tomb because he instinctively needed to bring Jesus into his own inner sepulcher of grief, confusion, doubt, anguish, fear and despair.

By placing Jesus in his own tomb, Joseph brought Christ into his own inner dying. As a disciple, this kind of dying would happen many more times before his physical death. And that makes Joseph of Arimathea for me the patron saint of paschal deaths — the one who models for us how to unite our many forms of dying during life with the redemptive dying of Jesus Christ. In Joseph of Arimathea, we see how a paschal death is a place of intimacy with Christ — if we allow it.

As priests, it is important that we unite our paschal deaths with Christ, who is the Priest who has sanctified all deaths. For this to happen, it becomes crucial that the prayer life of the priest experiencing any paschal death allows the proper time for grieving, that he does not seek to gloss it over, circumvent it or hasten its duration. It is vital for a priest to invite Christ to be with him in the inner sepulcher of his pain, loss, frustration, loneliness, disappointment, disillusionment, doubt, fear, shame, remorse, emptiness, etc. Our inner sepulcher, where the death of so much of what we hoped for or longed for becomes buried, is the place where we meet Christ. It is the place for us to discover that as broken priests we are intimately joined with the priest whose own body was broken on Calvary and whose very life’s energy was emptied out in love for us. To be buried in our brokenness with Christ is to discover the sacredness and the grace of our paschal deaths.

Life-Changing Breakfast

When we unite our paschal deaths to Christ, then we can be led to paschal resurrections. And Christ will do everything to draw us toward a life-giving, life-changing “breakfast” with him. The scene in John’s Gospel of the appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias is an iconic moment of how Christ seeks to draw all of our dyings into a resurrection that transforms us. In John 21:1-19, there are some very interesting details about the scene describing breakfast with Jesus that reveal three dimensions of paschal resurrections.

First of all, this narrative at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry captures the entirety of what Jesus experienced, revealed and offered throughout his ministry:

• The word for “revealed” (or “disclosed”) hearkens back to Cana, where we are told, “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him” (Jn 2:11).

• In the boat on the Sea of Tiberias is Nathanael, who is from “Cana in Galilee,” once again recalling the past.

• Jesus is recognized on the shore “when it is already dawn,” recalling how Jesus is revealed as the light of the world (John’s prologue) who healed the man born blind (cf. Jn 9).

• The extraordinary catch of fish recalls the superabundance of bread and fish that are offered by Jesus at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (cf. Jn 6).

• The unbroken net that holds together despite hauling in an extraordinary amount of large fish evokes Jesus’ image of the unity of believers held together in “one sheepfold” (Jn 10:16).

• Jesus “takes” and “gives” the bread and fish in a manner that recalls the scene of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes in John 6.

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Thus everything about Christ’s identity and ministry is brought to bear in an encounter with his resurrection: light, healing, abundant nourishment, the strength of unity in him, his Eucharistic self-giving. This passage teaches us that when we encounter the Risen Christ, he is abundantly everything that he has always been for us; but, perhaps only now, because of a paschal death, can we allow ourselves to experience more fully all that Christ desires to be for us.

Second, the narrative also demonstrates that everything about the lives of the disciples before and during the passion of Christ is drawn into their encounter with the risen Lord: their place of origin/family background (Nathanael is from Cana); their way of life (fishing); their identity; their sinful past; their call to follow Jesus. Thus everything about the disciples’ personal narratives, including everything about their brokenness and sinfulness, is drawn into the encounter with the Risen Christ.

In paschal resurrections, everything that Christ is for us seeks to claim everything in our personal story: everything that marks what we have failed to be, everything we have done well, everything we have failed at, every aspect of our virtues, every expression of our vices, everything we have learned, everything we have labored at, everything we have had to let go of; in short, everything we have gained in life, but also everything that has been lost in our paschal deaths. In the end, paschal resurrections occur when we allow the Risen Christ to bring every aspect of our brokenness and sinfulness into the healing, forgiving power of new life from him.

Third, the Resurrection did not merely “resuscitate” Jesus to return to who he was before Good Friday; instead, it transformed him into the fullness of glory. When the risen Lord appears to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning (cf. Jn 20:11-18), she at first does not recognize him; there is something different about him. But there is also something that is the same; eventually, Mary recognizes Jesus’ voice. But then he warns her rather sternly, “Stop holding onto me” (Jn 20:17). Mary cannot try to contain Jesus only to what she experienced of him before his death; in his resurrection, Jesus has become so much more for her.

However, paschal resurrections are not only about encountering a transformed Christ; they are also about our transformation. Simon Peter’s “breakfast conversation” with the risen Lord (cf. Jn 21:15-23) reveals a change in Peter. He will no longer be a fisherman, but now a shepherd. He will no longer be his own man determining his own future, but he will be led to where he does not want to go. He will not be defined as a coward who denied Jesus as he was being led to the cross; he will become a heroic martyr on his own cross.

Simon Peter now follows Christ in a whole new way, which is why it is only now, so late in the Gospel, that Jesus says to Simon, “Follow me” (Jn 21:19). After uniting his own inner dying to the death and resurrection of Christ, Peter’s discipleship begins in a whole new way. And so does our priestly ministry.

In any paschal resurrection, we cannot cling to the old ways of encountering Christ that defined our lives before our paschal death. We cannot cling to all of our old patterns of thinking, praying, pondering, ministering or even living as priests. The Risen Christ draws us out of our paschal death not to return to what once was, but to what now could be in our relationship with him. In a paschal resurrection, we hear Jesus say to us in a new way, “Follow me.” We hear these words when we “breakfast” with Jesus in prayer in a way that draws out from us more fully our own ability to respond: “Lord, you know that I love you. Despite the death that I have undergone, I love you even more.”

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This Mortlake tapestry from a cartoon by Raphael depicts Christ’s charge to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” Bridgeman Images

During breakfast with Jesus, he will say, “Follow me,” not in order to return us to a stage in the priesthood or a place in our spiritual, emotional or psychological well-being that we had before a paschal death; he wants to take us to someplace new. “Follow me,” Jesus says, who then missions us to be priest-shepherds in a new way: feeding and tending the people in our pastoral assignment because they are Christ’s flock, never simply ours; nourishing God’s people with the abundance with which Christ feeds, and not with tepidness or a lackluster spirit; tending to people’s brokenness with the mercy and compassion with which Christ tends to our own.

“Follow me,” Jesus will insist to us so that the Spirit can lead us where we may not want to go; to witness to Christ in a way we could not before; to follow Christ in ways we were reluctant to at one time; to surrender those parts of ourselves and our lives that we have still been holding back from Christ. “Follow me,” Jesus will plead with us so that the power of the paschal resurrection can prepare us to be noble and courageous priests who will die again and again and again.

FATHER SCOTT DETISCH, Ph.D., a priest for the Diocese of Erie, is the administrator of St. John the Evangelist Church in Girard, Pennsylvania, and is an adjunct professor of systematic and sacramental theology at St. Mary Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.

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We Are Not Alone

Faced with painful experiences, all of us need to be comforted and encouraged. The mission to which we are called does not exempt us from suffering, pain and even misunderstanding. Rather, it requires us to face them squarely and to accept them, so that the Lord can transform them and conform us more closely to himself. “Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world. …” Far from making us compassionate, this ends up holding us back from confronting our own wounds, the wounds of others and consequently the wounds of Jesus himself. …

Let me repeat: in times of difficulty, we all need God’s consolation and strength, as well as that of our brothers and sisters. All of us can benefit from the touching words that St. Paul addressed to his communities: “I pray that you may not lose heart over [my] sufferings” (Eph 3:13), and “I want [your] hearts to be encouraged” (Col 2:22). In this way, we can carry out the mission that the Lord gives us anew each day: to proclaim “good news of great joy for all the people” (Lk 2:10). …

We know that it is not easy to stand before the Lord and let his gaze examine our lives, heal our wounded hearts and cleanse our feet of the worldliness accumulated along the way, which now keeps us from moving forward. In prayer, we experience the blessed “insecurity” which reminds us that we are disciples in need of the Lord’s help….

Dear brothers, Jesus, more than anyone, is aware of our efforts and our accomplishments, our failures and our mistakes. He is the first to tell us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28-29).

In this prayer, we know that we are never alone.

From Letter of Pope Francis to Priests on the 160th Anniversary of the Death of the Holy Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney

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‘FROM HERO TO SERVANT TO MYSTIC’

From Hero to Servant to Mystic: Navigating the Deeper Waters of Priestly Spirituality” (Liturgical Press, $19.95) is the latest book by Father Scott P. Detisch. The book offers seminarians, priests, spiritual directors and clergy personnel directors a way of understanding spiritual growth and development in priests. The book focuses on three clusters of energy within men: the hero; the servant; the mystic.

 

 

 
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