Posted April 04, 2008 in Lent and Easter, and in Word Made Flesh:
Algebra and Easter: A Symphony in D Minus?

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

Sister Clare Marie was trying to be gentle as she explained my D minus grade in Algebra, the only unacceptable grade I had ever gotten in high school. "My advice, Patrick, is that you avoid higher mathematics and stay with simple arithmetic. It will do you fine.

As I heard her words, I had a strange sense that something was closing down in me and that I would not be the same again for a long time, perhaps ever. Because what I heard her say was more like, "Don’t get into the world of profound thinking where you stretch your mind, but stay in the world of the obvious, the simple arithmetic-world of 2 + 2 = 4."

Even later on in university when I took entrance exams trying to date one of the giddy sisters of higher mathematics, like Calculus, Geometry and Physics, the advice was pretty much the same: "You just stay with the simple courses like ‘Underwater Basket Weaving’ and ‘Garbage Can Lock Picking’ and leave the serious stuff to us university nerds."

I felt like I was locked into my own symphony in D minus, and there I stayed until age 25, when I was in the seminary. That’s when I met and started dating Philosophy.

Whatever had closed down in me through my D-minus in Algebra opened up again in Metaphysics in a symphony of A plus.

Literally overnight, I came alive again. Metaphysics awakened me to the "algebra" of fantasy and mysticism, to the "calculus" of thought and theatre, to the "chemistry" of art and love. It allowed me, in a profound and disciplined way, to finally look beyond and behind things, to look for what is not visible, for what needs exciting symbol and exceptional language in order to be discovered.

Philosophy told me, in clear, simple words, "2 + 2 is not enough," and then went on to re-awaken in me, faith, reminding me that at the moment of my baptism, I had already begun to learn things far more profound than y = ax + b—whatever that really means—things that I could never know in any other way even if I were to become another Socrates or Albert Einstein. My symphony in D minus was over!

But every now and then I hear an isolated chord from that symphony and my alert light begins to flash again. One of those moments is whenever we Christians have public celebrations of our great feasts, like Christmas and Easter.

Besides feeding our own inner life of faith, public celebrations are exceptional evangelical gifts as well. They are meant to take people beyond what at first seems so obvious and practical—"Happy Easter,"—and into the world of God’s own mystery—"Christ is risen!"

So, we Christians have to be very careful that we do not settle for a mere practical public faith as we celebrate our great holy feasts. For example, it may at first seem sufficient for the world to simply hear us say, "Happy Easter," at Easter time. and yet, like certain greetings at Christmas time, it might suggest that many Christians are locked into a secular symphony in D minus, and don’t even know it.

I certainly was. For years I never consciously alluded to the deeper mystery behind "Happy Easter," even though I had had a wonderful exposure to Easter in my monastic years so that later in my life I could get into the Alleluia as a cry of Easter joy, especially if it was from Handel’s Messiah, or the powerful Exsultet at the Easter Vigil. But both of these were reserved for special liturgical times and places.

Until I came to Madonna House and was exposed to a very different greeting between Christian people at Easter, all I had was the street-greeting for this astounding feast: "Happy Easter."

The first time I heard everyone here greet each other with "Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!" I felt like I was back in Algebra among a bunch of nerds. Hey! In the "real" world where I lived, Easter was very simple: 2 + 2 = 4!

"Happy Easter!" Period! What’s the big deal? Just give me a normal Easter burger with ordinary seasonal catsup and skip the theological onions! OK!

Not surprisingly, while I was in my D minus Easter mood, I also met a lot of other Christian people for whom "Christ is risen!" was just a bit too much. 2 + 2 = 4 was fine. "Happy Easter!"

Well, let me suggest a powerful exercise in Easter 101 if any of you kind of feel that way, too, anyone who would just like to do a quick, "Happy Easter" and get on with it.

During the season of Easter, while you are alone brushing your teeth (or applying the Polydent), stop for a moment, look into the mirror and ever so quietly whisper, "Christ is risen!" OK? Now do it again just a little louder: "Christ is risen!" Once more with a little gusto: "CHRIST IS RISEN!"

(If you don’t want anyone to know what you are doing just act like you are clearing your throat!)

Now, with your Easter eyes open and locked on that mirror, just quietly say, "Happy Easter." If you don’t hear a little voice from somewhere on the other side of that mirror shout back to you, "No! That’s not enough! "Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!"—if you don’t hear that little voice, give me a call. You’re locked into Easter in D minus and you need help!

We Christians are supposed to "apply theology" for the world in which we live: to take people from 2 + 2 = 4 to y = ax = b, from "Happy Easter" to "Christ is Risen! Truly he is risen!" And even if nobody knows the response—"Truly he is risen!"—at least the world around us is going to hear the Easter Proclamation in all its fullness.

We can whet their Algebra appetite to hunger for what their mind cannot know but is actually desperately reaching for; we can give their wounded souls a new stimulus for the awesome world of the supra-natural. I had no idea of the hidden power behind y = ax + b in the world of Algebra, but the sheer excitement of the math nerds who did know made me wish I did!

People have no idea of the power behind the words, "Happy Easter" until they hear it in all its fullness, "Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!"

And if we Christians would get a little more excited about it again in public perhaps many people would wish they did know what we meant.

Why, they might even ask us, "What have you Christian nerds got that we ain’t got?"

"Christ is risen. Truly he is risen!"

I can’t hear you!

"Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!"

Now, that beats 2 + 2 = 4 doesn’t it, Albert?


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