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Empty promises


The cross is empty now. May it always be so. Death is sometimes an act of gratitude, Eucharist in another form. There is no Eucharist without death, no broken bread without a broken heart, no wine of deliverance until the last breath of life is the first gift of the Spirit.

How can such opposites be reconciled? Death is the other side of life and yet its necessary center. Even the God of life is an abstraction until God dies. And, then, God is inescapable, buried in the deepest levels of human history, like seed not yet wheat.

Death makes Advent vigils of our lives, compelling us to await its arrival.

We want so much to keep life as we have known it. We would permit no loved one to go. The agony in such a loss has no name. It can only be felt as it tears up all the securities and leaves us in shreds. We would permit no loved one to go.

And we ourselves are not eager to depart. The first savior we seek is the one who can rescue us from the death we cannot abide. We should be grateful our search is in vain. Such a savior would bring safety by confining us to a life of limitations. All securities eventually imprison us, lock out the future, incarcerate us in the present. Prisoners of despair. Sooner or later total security in the present would unsettle us with fear about a different future and with those who might propose it. Eventually we would be frightened of our own capacity to generate new dreams, fresh visions.

Had we been given the choice, we would have kept Jesus as we once knew him. Death is not a choice but a necessity, like birth. Strange that our lives of choice begin and end with necessities.

The disciples plead with Jesus to stay. He was able, they believed, to do signs and wonders. Why would he not do this?

Is not death somehow a betrayal of friendship, the ultimate act of infidelity in a marriage? Is not the death of a parent the cruelest form of child abuse? Does not death make all love provisional and somehow unbelievable? If you leave me when I need you most, if you leave me when I cannot find my way without you and I can never know where you have gone, how is that love?

Without death, we would not easily believe life had any other possibilities beyond its present form. The ultimate act of faith is to see possibilities in emptiness. Absence makes apostates of us all. At least in the first experience of it. Presence makes us believers, especially when it is in the void that we affirm the presence.

The empty cross is such an ambiguous symbol. We have learned little in this century if we have not understood that ambiguity is the way certitude manifests itself to sensitive and loving people.

The empty cross creates gratitude. We are grateful that the agony and the pain have stopped. We never know how much torment the human heart could bear before all the life is shaken out of it. We are grateful that the crucified is, at long last, taken down, that the hopeless search for comfort on the cross is finished. We are, nonetheless, grateful with regrets. Death raises questions about whether it was avoidable.

There is no Eucharist until the cross is empty. The Last Supper is only a ritual without an empty cross. Life is play-acting without death, a scene that goes on endlessly even when its purpose is no longer apparent. Love is theater if we are not willing to die for the other. True love exhausts life and takes all we have, a candle struggling to give light until its substance disappears.

Death is love's first journey into the future. Those who precede us until death bring us into a new future, first by our grief, then by our faith, finally in gratitude. The death of someone we love makes us want to die, too, not in hopelessness but in anticipation of new possibilities.

The cross is empty now. They tell us the tomb was empty also. Easter finds possibilities, presence in emptiness. Easter is a form emptiness takes when it is time for the present to pass. Until we lose everything, we cling to the present. We cannot give ourselves fully to the future while clutching the present. Emptiness first, then Easter.

There is no birth without an empty womb. There is no Eucharist without an empty cross. There is no Easter until our hearts are so desperately empty that only the Spirit can fill them.

Then there are Alleluias everywhere, shouts of joy only the future creates. Christ walks on all the Emmaus roads of our lives and calls us from the shore of every sea. Easter, then, descends upon us in the winds and flame of Pentecost and we find communion with Christ in the endless Eucharist of a life that now has nothing to fear.

We know we have met the Easter Christ not because we can touch and hold and cling to what was or is, as in a certitude. We know the Easter Christ because the fears are gone and the future is alive with transparency, presence and life. The present becomes provisional. Easter empties all the tombs, rolls back all impossibilities, eludes the burial cloths of the present and fills the earth with angels of hope.

Anthony T. Padovano is a Catholic theologian.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 1997