What a surprise it was, just a week and a half ago, when the lost “gospel of Judas” was discovered. Imagine finding out, just at the outset of Holy Week, that everything we believed about the one who betrayed the Son of God was incorrect! Judas, apparently, was no enemy of Jesus, but His closest friend. His handing-over Jesus turns out to be the greatest favor of all. As Jesus tells him in that “gospel”:
“You will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
In other words, You will set me free, Judas my friend.
Of course, the timing of this “new” gospel is no big surprise if we simply look at the ghosts of Easter past. For the past couple of years we have been “surprised” by all the stories of a supposed marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, hidden through the centuries and now revealed by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.
But my favorite Easter surprise comes from Holy Week of 1996, when reporters from the BBC revealed that they discovered a box that had contained the bones of a certain “Jesus, Son of Joseph,” found in a grave in Palestine. They wanted to know if this would affect the faith of the followers of Christ.
Of course, they failed to mention that they actually found many bone boxes labeled “Jesus, Son of Joseph,” since those two names were among the most popular of Jesus’ time!
So what do these three “discoveries” or surprises have in common (besides trying to spoil Easter for a whole lot of people)? All of them have to do with a very different vision of Christ and the human person than the Christian faith we profess each week. They belong to the tradition and worldview called Gnosticism.
You’ve probably seen that word, Gnosticism, in some of the articles about the “gospel of Judas.” The “gospel of Judas” is a Gnostic gospel. Details about the life of Christ in The Da Vinci Code, according to Dan Brown himself, are based upon the Gnostic gospels, namely the “gospel of Thomas” and the “gospel of Mary.”
The Gnostics—a philosophical-religious group from the 2nd and 3rd centuries—are a hard group to pin down. Their views and beliefs are a bit diverse, but there is a common vision they all seem to hold onto. In her book, De-Coding Da Vinci, Amy Welborn describes some basic themes of the Gnostics:
The source of goodness in life is spiritual, and the material world (our bodies, and the world we see around us) is evil.
We, as humans, are imprisoned within our bodies. We need to be set free (again, think of the “gospel of Judas,” when Jesus says to him: “You will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”).
Salvation comes from having a secret knowledge, but only a select few are worthy to receive it. You better know your stuff if you want to go to heaven as a Gnostic.
It is for good reason that the Church has rejected these Gnostic gospels from the beginning. The problem with the entire Gnostic vision of the human person is the insistence that this world and this life are not really all that important. If the material world and the body are evil, then we should be eager to get rid of them. Better for the body of Jesus to rot there in that grave in Palestine. The only thing that matters to the Gnostic is the life after this one. Nothing in this world matters.
How different is the vision we are given as followers of Christ! The real St. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb this morning to anoint the body of Jesus, and what she finds instead is an empty grave. There is no body! It is the greatest Easter surprise of all: He is risen!
The radical message of the Christian faith is that Christ breaks into our world and takes on human nature entirely. The material world, and our humanity most of all, is something that is good, not evil. God takes it to Himself—soul and body—and He redeems it. He raises it up again.
The true message of the real Gospel is that this world—our bodies, our relationships, our care for the poor, our words and actions, our very lives—these things matter. We are not just spiritual beings waiting to be set free from this world. We are made of soul and body, and God wants us to live fully right here in this world, with our hearts set on the world to come. That truth should change us, and change the way we live our lives.
There is a very moving short story by English author D. H. Lawrence, called “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” It is considered to be a classic of English literature (it's also one of the only D.H. Lawrence stories you can read without having to go to confession afterward!).
The main character is a woman named Lizzie, and she is married to a coal miner who often comes home drunk or sometimes not at all. She despises him in her heart because he has become nothing more to her than a stranger.
As the story begins and her husband doesn’t show up after work, she begins to say to herself: He won’t be home tonight until they carry him in. And sadly she is right. She soon discovers that her husband has died accidentally in the coal mine. They indeed carry him home and she has the difficult job of cleaning him up, wiping all the dust and dirt from his body.
But in the midst of that awful task she discovers something alarming about this man as she clears away the coal and the soot. She begins to see things in him that she had never seen before. And then suddenly she begins to look more deeply at her own life, and she asks herself:
Who am I? What have I been doing? I have been fighting a husband who did not exist. He existed all the time. What wrong have I done? What was it that I have been living with? There lies the reality, this man.
The narrator goes on to say:
Her soul died in her for fear: she knew she had never seen him, he had never seen her, they had met in the dark and had fought in the dark, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought. And now she saw, and turned silent in seeing. For she had been wrong. She had said he was something he was not.
On this Easter morning, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ—soul and body—and reflect upon how He has taken on our humanity in all its weakness and all its brokenness . . . and redeemed it, what is our response as we look around us at the world we live in?
Like Lizzie in that story, we too are called to see something more than brokenness, weakness and sin. We are called to see each other as children of God, redeemed by Christ, and called to share in His resurrection. Might that Gospel and that vision of eternal life truly change the way we live in this world as we wait in hope for the life of the world to come.