By Matthew Kemp
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Will those who have died stand up and give you thanks?
Will your loving-kindness be declared in the grave?
Your faithfulness in the land of destruction?
Will your wonders be known in the dark?
Or your righteousness in the country where all is forgotten?
This series of six rhetorical questions comprises Psalm 88:11-13. If we were to read it in its historical context, the implied answer to each question would be No. The psalmist laments what seems like abandonment by God, and calls on him for salvation, lest the author be “lost among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand” (88:5-6).
Yet there are other contexts in which we might read this psalm, including liturgical contexts. In particular, Psalm 88 was appointed for Morning Prayer on Holy Saturday. After commemorating Jesus’ passion and death the day before — with all of the sorrow, pain, and grief that Good Friday evokes — we heard these words, as we contemplated our Lord’s crucified body lying in the tomb. If we confined ourselves to recollecting that moment in salvation history, the six questions would not seem so rhetorical. We would find ourselves genuinely wondering if the grave — whether Jesus’ or ours — is the end, or if God can still be at work.
But now as we look back, from this side of Jesus’ resurrection, these questions become rhetorical once again. Only this time, the implied answer is a resounding Yes. The tortured, crucified, and dead body of Jesus has become his resurrected and glorified body. The very body that once lay in utter defeat is transformed to a state far above and beyond what it ever was before the crucifixion.
If we take seriously St. Paul’s use of the body of Christ as an image for the Church, it is easy to be disheartened by the Church’s current state. What we experience all too often, far from being one body under Christ, consists of theological disputes, self-serving leaders, petty squabbles, and a deficient awareness of what the Church is. How sincerely can we profess belief in “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” when the churches we see around us appear divided, corrupt, sectarian, misguided, and otherwise lacking in the attributes that we claim the Church should have? The body of which we are members seems more like a monstrosity or a severed corpse than the glorious body of Christ.
Yet if we look back to Holy Saturday, reading the words of Psalm 88 and considering Jesus’ body in the tomb, something begins to make sense. For at that time we did not see Jesus’ body in its resurrected glory; we did not even see it in its normal, healthy existence before the Passion. Instead we saw the body of Christ abused, defeated, and lifeless. But we know that this is not how the story ends, that God will raise up even this body to a glory yet unseen.
If this is the case with the literal, historical body of Christ, might it be so with his body the Church as well? We cannot deny the cognitive dissonance between the claims that the New Testament and the Creeds make about the Church and the actual experience of the Church’s brokenness. But what if this dissonance arises, at least in part, because we misunderstand where we are in the story?
To be sure, we would like to be at the end: we want the Church to be the risen and glorified body of Christ. Indeed, some ecclesiologies assume that this is so, but it comes at a cost. Unity and catholicity are either confined to one’s ecclesial body or reinterpreted in a way that is unchallenged by visible disunity. Holiness either becomes completely abstract or requires turning a blind eye to the Church’s sins. Apostolicity is reduced to either institutional continuity or something like a missional outlook, with each element denying its need for the other.
But what if we are not there yet? What if, figuratively speaking, it is still Holy Saturday? What if the Body of Christ we see before us is not yet the risen and glorified Body, but the Body that has been beaten, killed, and buried? What if the Church is not as we know it should be because only God can raise it up?
If the Church lives in a sort of persisting Holy Saturday, then our response should be one of humility and repentance. Our efforts at renewing, reforming, and even reuniting the Church will and must fail if they do not come from the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit. What is required of us, ultimately, is to follow Christ to the cross and the tomb. As Michael Ramsey once put it:
Both division and unity reminds us of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Division severs His body: but unity means the one Body, in which every member and every local community dies to self in its utter dependence upon the whole, the structure of the Body thereby setting forth the dying and rising with Christ. And if the problems of schism and reunion mean dying and rising with Christ, they will not be solved through easy humanistic ideas of fellowship and brotherhood, but by the hard road of the Cross. (The Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 7.)
But if the Church before us is the crucified Body of Christ, this should also give us hope. Precisely in the failure of our ecclesial efforts we discover anew that only God can raise the dead. Our hopes for the Church do not rest on human perfection but on divine grace.
Will God work wonders for a dead Church? Will his loving-kindness be declared to Christ’s body in the grave? Will God’s wonders be known in the darkness of a broken Church?
We wrestle with these questions now. But if we look to the Resurrection, we already know their answer.
The Rev. Matthew Kemp is curate at St. Paul’s by-the-Lake and is working toward a PhD in theology at Loyola University Chicago.