One of the understandable occupational hazard that can greatly increase the stress of a Catholic priest is Easter. Amid the culmination of Lent, the spiritual and emotional power of Holy Week, the joy of Easter Sunday, First Communion, Confirmation, and St. Olaf's parish festival, my time has been rather crunched, but in a good, fruitful way!
Many approach Easter as a day and for understandable reasons. Between Easter sales in stores, Easter Egg Hunts, and grown adults who dress up in a bunny costume (kindof odd when you think about it), Easter is a feast that the broader culture has turned into a day of chocolate, chocolate... and a lot more chocolate!
For Christians who observe a liturgical calendar, Easter is not only a day of celebration but a season. The lead-up to Easter is the 40 day period (give or take a couple days) of Lent. The symbolic understanding of this time is multilayered, symbolizing the 40 days Jesus was tempted in the desert, the 40 years the Children of Israel wondered in the desert, and other calls for a time of penance and purification like the 40 days of sackcloth and ashes called for by Jonah to the town of Nineveh. The purpose of this time is to detach our hearts from those things that lead us away from God so that we can allow for a deeper indwelling of God's love and grace in our lives.
This then moves to a very intentional time called Holy Week, punctuated by the three day period called the Triduum, (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil). What is unique about the Triduum is that it does not represent three, separate celebrations. Rather, they are one, continual liturgical rite that spans a three day period. An interesting way to signify this unity is through the use of bells.
On Holy Thursday, a communal hymn called the Gloria is sung toward the beginning of Mass. During the song, servers ring hand bells that are typically used during the consecration of bread and wine. After the song is done, the bells are not rung again until the Gloria is sung again at the Easter Vigil. At one of my previous assignments, the bell tower that tolled every hour was turned off during this period of time as well, signaling to the entire community that time was "standing still."
After the celebration of Easter Sunday, the celebration continues through what is called the Octave of Easter - an eight day period in which our liturgical celebration is seen as one, constant Easter Sunday. This Octave beings the 50 day season of Easter. The reason it is 50 days is to remember the time after Jesus' resurrection when he appeared to many, entered into eternal glory, and then sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to guide the Church, which we celebrated last weekend.
As you can see, these celebrations contain a very fluid sense of time. Days are elongated, such as the Triduum, seeking to evoke a timelessness of the heart to embrace the mystery of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Periods of time such as 40 days and 50 days are used to draw our minds and hearts into reflection on some of the greatest events and mysteries of the Christian faith. It would not be a stretch to say that, for Catholics, our liturgical time is most definitely relative!
As odd as this may sound, these reflections on time came up while I was doing some post-Easter Sunday decompression watching Avengers - End Game. Since the movie has been out for some time, I presume that a few spoilers are tolerable. For example, the film contains an interesting question with scientific, philosophical, and theological dimensions: Could Quantum Physics be a pathway to finding a way to go back in time?
The first thoughts I had while watching End Game was, "That would presume that time actually exists." As I shared with you in the past, Bob Berman from Slooh and Astronomy Magazine once shared with me in an interview that the best science of the day points to time being a type of illusion, more rightly understood as an observation of change through decay.
From the Catholic intellectual tradition, St. Augustine speculated that time might not be what we perceive it to be, but might be more of an observation of change as we become the people God calls us to be. Though these are obviously two different ways of approaching the question of time, one material and the other spiritual/moral/emotional, it does beg the question, "Do we really understand time as well as we think we do?"
These reflections on time awoke every time the characters in End Game discussed how they could undo the devastation that the main villain, Thanos, brought upon the universe by killing half of all living things. The ultimate solution was to "go back in time" and find the magical stones called "infinity stones" that Thanos used to bring about such destruction, trying to keep him from possessing the stones in the first place.
As the characters tried to grasp this "Quantum Theory" about time travel, they argued about what it meant to go back in time. The cyclical argument that emerged was when you travel back in time, the past becomes our future and our previous future from that moment becomes our past. It was a bit funny when some of them were horrified that some of the classic science fiction "ethics of time travel" were shown in that moment not to be true - rules like not talking with anyone from the past, not visiting yourself in the past, and being careful to not change too much in the historical timeline. As one of the characters asserted, so much for the movie Back to the Future! (Major disclaimer: Though I am not a scientist and can't speak to the complexity of Quantum Theory, my gut tells me that I should deeply question how true End Game was to the science of Quantum Theory - I'll leave that to our professionals to comment on below.)
I do find it interesting in this year of epic science fiction movies that trying to incorporate modern scientific understandings of time and existence seem to be at the forefront of many plot lines. One only needs to look at the recent release of the Star Wars -The Rise of Skywalker teaser-trailer to see how one laugh has spawned a social media firestorm of speculation on how Emperor Palpatine will return after his death in Return of the Jedi.
The cyber theories are wide and wild from thoughts that The Rise of Skywalker might revert back to George Lucas' original idea of the Emperor creating clones that his spirit would enter, a "ghost Emperor" that has possessed the old Darth Vader helmet that Kylo Ren has in his possession, or simply a holographic message found on the destroyed remains of the old Death Star (first or second). Might there be another trip into Quantum Theory in The Rise of Skywalker where the new characters will need to go back in time to confront the Emperor in some way? Might "the Force" make it possible to transfer one's essence to another time in history, similar to how Luke transferred his younger self to the battle of Crait to dupe his nephew in The Last Jedi? As a fan of these movies from my youth, I sure hope not! Then again, I'm not the one writing the movies - just enjoying the journey these brilliant directors have taken us on!
Whether it be the Catholic liturgical calendar, the Easter Triduum, Avengers, or Star Wars, time has been a constant theme that humanity still struggles to understand. One thing I feel fairly certain of is that the advancements of science will further change our understanding of time. As the concept of time deepens, so will theological reflection on how we live our lives in chronos (the daily passing of time) and kairos (timeless moments of great significance). And as science, philosophy, and theology wrestle with time, so, too, will the modern cinema of the future seek to incorporate these understandings of time into meaningful plot lines that are both engaging to the audience and at least in the ballpark of modern scholarship. (Most of the time, it needs to be a very big ballpark!)
Something I find interesting is that, whether it be ancient Greek Theatre or End Game, there always is room for one of the most timeless themes of human history: An ultimate sacrifice to set the world aright. Welcome to the intersection I see between Easter and End Game: Regardless of how our understanding of time and reality changes, there is at the heart of the most meaningful stories of life a true narrative of giving one's self for the good of all.
This theme of a sacred sacrifice emerges throughout human history. In the Jewish tradition, we encounter grain, birds, lambs, and bulls as burnt offerings to God for the forgiveness of sin, restoring us to right relationship with God. In many ancient cultures, human sacrifice was often used as an offering the appease the gods. In End Game, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), the one character that did not lose any of his family when Thanos destroyed half of all living things, offered his life so that all who were destroyed would be restored. At the end of the movie, it was a powerful moment when Stark, having used the same method of destroying all the bad guys in the movie as Thanos used to destroy half of all living things, lay dying from the physical aftermath of using the infinity stones. Stark, knowing what would happen to him if he were to use the infinity stones, had to step out in faith that his self-sacrifice would establish peace - even though that sacrifice meant his death and separation form those he loved.
Some have argued that this timeless take of sacrifice to keep the gods happy is no different from what Jesus did on the cross on Good Friday. If Jesus were merely a human being, there would be merit for this argument. However, Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity meaning that Jesus is God. Therefore, what subverts the classic, timeless narrative of sacrifice by humans to appease the gods is that God offered God's-self as the sacrifice. In Jesus Christ, God takes our place and embraces our death, breaking the cycle of sin and offers us the opportunity for salvation. To put it in movie terms, it was the greatest "plot twist" in human history.
The ever-changing understanding of the physical world and the timeless themes that have endured the test of time have been at the heart of modern cinema, literature, and faith. It is a beautiful narrative of how two intuitive truths drive the best narratives of human history: We have a natural desire to understand how our world works that is ever changing and peace in this world comes when we give of ourselves in an act of radical selflessness in imitation of the radical, timeless gift Jesus made of himself.
Spiritual Exercise: How do you see this timeless narrative present in your life? How does the changing nature of science and the timeless themes of human experience influence you on a daily basis? Whether it be the father who begs God to allow him to take on his child's cancer, the mother who rejoices that modern science has given her daughter hope in the face of a life threatening disease, or the avid movie goer trying to find an $8, two hour experience that makes them feel as though their life is better for having watching a movie, let us embrace this tension of an evolving understanding of how our world operates and the timeless narratives of how to set that world aright spiritually.
Below is an interview with the late Catholic philosopher Rene Girad discussing "Scapegoat Theory." It is one of his greatest contributions to the intellectual tradition and at the heart of my reflection on sacrifice in this post. Enjoy!