Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Blueprints for a Resurrection
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April 4th, 2021: Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34a, 37-43
Reflection by L.F. Ranner
How do you raise the dead?
It’s a presumptuous question to ask on Easter Sunday. After all, we are not the resurrectionists here, and as long as it happened, who are we to ask how? Who cares? It’s time for the breaking of fasts, not the asking of questions: bring on the roast lamb and chocolate eggs and all the things we’ve given up and will now repay ourselves with interest. Does it matter in the end, the mystical details of Christ’s triumph over death? It’s a case of “one and done,” most would agree: the first Resurrection is more than merely a prototype. By its very nature, Easter Sunday has unchained the rest of us, and so from that perspective, its blueprints are somewhat beside the point.
To be human means to be a collector of deaths: first grandparents perhaps, or beloved teachers, then later friends taken too early, colleagues, a spouse. Like stones, all deaths are hard and cold; some will never grow warm no matter how long we hold them. Each has its own texture; each presses a different weight on our hearts – some so heavy that it becomes almost impossible to carry on with the work of living. All of our deaths elicit the same dark, unanswerable questions, including the one we fear the most: When will it be me? Death is the most brutally intimate of theological truths. We have witnessed it, tasted it, and felt its power over life on this planet; it will come to us all, and so we know death; we understand it as we can never understand transubstantiation, for instance, or the Immaculate Conception.
A whole winter stretches between All Souls’ Day and Easter; there are months and months of new life slumbering in the earth between the day for remembering our dead and the moment when the fire is lit, the bells ring out, and night becomes morning - when we celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection, and by extension, that of every soul who longs to be with God.
In Southeast Louisiana where I live, actual, physical winter is a theory that once or twice a year becomes real. We are not people with a winter state of mind, and no matter how many times we’ve seen it before, winter seems to always catch us unawares: the pipes freezing, the wholesale slaughter of green things that we count on greeting us from our windows three hundred sixty-five days a year; everyone insulating their tender, unprepared selves as best they can as the northern transplants chuckle at our weakness.
And yet, we are not a people unacquainted with harshness, and indeed with seasons of dying. We have different hardships here than snow and ice: the more obvious ones like hurricanes, but also the ravaged centuries called chattel slavery and their aftermath of racial injustice that continues to this day. We are a people familiar with plagues: yellow fever, cholera, typhoid, and more recently, the plague of unregulated industry that poisons the rivers and the soil and adds its own names to the list of our dead.
In the 1980s and early 90s, while I was an oblivious high schooler hanging out in French Quarter bookstores and filling notebooks with bad poetry, there was another plague, of a sort not yet seen and which many compare to the current pandemic - but which to me seems more akin to the great wars of our time: also global in scale and just as hungry for the lives of young men. Utterly clueless, I remember cycling through the Quarter at fourteen, seeing SILENCE = DEATH stickers on all the stop signs and wondering idly, What kind of silence? What kind of death? It wasn’t until much later that I understood the insularity of my Catholic-schoolgirl life, and how all those blithe Saturdays in the Quarter, I and my equally clueless friends had been amidst a community fighting for its life.
Recently, I had a conversation with perhaps the only surviving member of the original chapter of Dignity New Orleans. Some local people, including myself, have long felt the need of a community for LGBTQ+ Catholics to call home, and we had been making tentative steps toward the renewal of what had once been by all accounts a fantastically vibrant presence here. I was interested in gaining some perspective on the history of the New Orleans chapter, and perhaps learning some organizational best practices from the experiences of someone who had done it all before. Instead, I was gifted with a conversation that brought me to tears, that haunted me - that still haunts me, and that I hope never stops haunting me, because the day that happens is the day I forget what it means to be moved by the outrageous valor of the human spirit. What I learned was a story so poignant and powerful that the only appropriate response is humility, and a self-challenge: what have I done, what am I doing, how do I measure up?
It is a story that begs to be filmed. As they were told to me, its annals read like a roll call of the Corporal Works of Mercy – where needs of the weakest, the loneliest, and the poorest are given precedence. But it is also true that this story happened to unfold in New Orleans, a city where the flaunting of acceptable norms is woven into our DNA, where even the grimmest, saddest aspects of existence bear the mark of beauty and laughter and enjoyment of the sheer good fortune to be alive one more day, together. After all, the defiance of death is a local specialty, and as proclaimed by a recent ad campaign to promote anti-Coronavirus measures: we fight with flair. In this story, when members of the Dignity community are ordered to leave a church in the middle of celebrating Mass, what else could happen but that the celebration simply relocates to the sidewalk and picks up right where it left off? Because New Orleanians know better than anybody that there is no inch of this universe that isn’t consecrated to celebration – of the Eucharist, or of anything else.
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles starts with a quote from Peter, addressing his audience directly: You know what has happened. Indeed, we know; for this story, by contrast, is one we’ve heard and lived so many times that it can’t be unseen or forgotten – and now the burden of that knowledge rests upon our shoulders. For Mary Magdalen, knowing Jesus was the catalyst that called her to the tomb before anyone – just one woman, alone and in the dark.
What this story consists of – the story of God acting in and through and with this world – Peter boils down to a few hard facts: after Jesus was anointed by God, and went about doing good and healing the oppressed, “for God was with” Jesus. We are the witnesses, Peter tells us, and because of that witness, we are commissioned – “co-sent” – to testify with our lives, to carry on this work of love in the first person, Jesus’ work that is stronger than death. It is precisely in this way that the story of Jesus becomes our own. To say that we are the Body of the Christ is not to speak in metaphor; like death, this statement is one of those theological truths that is as close to us as our own skins; it is a truth that longs to be lived. Overwhelmed by the dimensions and demands of this mission, it is comforting to remember that God chose as instruments not the angels but humanity, in all our infuriating imperfections: love is nothing but us, acting as God’s Body in the world. Just as the souls of our dead rest in God’s embrace, so too does the Body of Christ lives on through our acts, through the manner in which we carry on the celebration. As Gerard Manley Hopkins tells us,
Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
Consider these thoughts as homage to those who have gone before us, who have loved, stumbled, worked, wept, and celebrated together, and whose stories show us the meaning – and provide us with the blueprint – of a Resurrection. To those who have shown us how to raise the dead by the way they have lived, especially the members of Dignity New Orleans who have passed on, this reflection is respectfully dedicated.
L.F. Ranner is a New Orleans native. She holds a double B.A. in History and Classics from Loyola University New Orleans and an M.Phil. in Byzantine Studies from the University of Oxford (Keble, 1996), with a concentration in Ecclesiastical History.
Her area of academic specialization is Latin and Greek ecumenical relations in the period following the Fourth Crusade. Between 1999-2014, she held the post of lecturer at Loyola New Orleans in the Departments of History and Classics. She currently teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, and World Religions at Ursuline Academy.
She is married and mother to three children. In her random bits of free time, she is writing one novel, editing a second, and turning a third into a podcast.