Easter is, perhaps, the most complicated of all holy days. It is the pinnacle of Christian faith, proclaiming the good news of resurrection. And yet it’s been co-opted and white-washed. I read somewhere that “popular Christianity does not know what to do with Easter Sunday. For while the average churchgoer may believe that God did indeed raise Jesus from the dead, it really does not have any significance for them except perhaps to provide consolation beyond death.” Others, of the more evangelical persuasion, use Easter morning as an opportunity to present what they see as historical proof that Jesus’ body was resuscitated, an act achieved by a vengeful God who can only seem to set the balance right with humanity by destroying his only son with his wrath.
Madeline L’Engle says, “I don’t envy those who have never known any pain, physical or spiritual, because I strongly suspect that the capacity for pain and the capacity for joy are equal. Only those who have suffered great pain are able to know equally great joy.” This is the paradox of Easter. If you avoid the suffering of Good Friday, Easter Sunday has very little to offer to you. Likewise, if you avoid pain or grief or despair in your own life; if your life is stunted within the glass bottle of your ego or you’ve become trapped like a squirrel turning in the cage of the ordinary, if you’ve tuned out or numbed up, then the resurrection curls up like burnt paper turning to ash. It transforms into nothingness.
The Bible offers four perspectives on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Each of the gospels tells it differently so that we can hear the stories of Jesus in the round. Each one peers through a unique lens, with some forgotten detail punctuating a familiar plot line. It’s as if the witness of Jesus carries such richness that it cannot be fully unpacked by any one testimony. And so, from the very beginning, making meaning of the tortured death and mysterious resurrection of Jesus is not merely a personal endeavor, but the alchemy of community. Like the gospel writers, we each bring our own perspective and context to this story. We come with wounded places, in need of healing. We come with broken hearts and dysfunctional lives. We come with thorns in our sides; the claw marks of despair trying to gain a foothold. We come just as we are; for how else can we come into the presence of God? And yet, we also come with anticipation that resurrection will be made real in our lives, like the new life that emerges from the cracked shell of a sprouting seed. We come, longing to encounter the risen one, hoping that death doesn’t have the last word.
Make no mistake: the notion that death does not have the last word might be the most radical commitment in today’s world. We live, in my lifetime anyway, in a time of unprecedented mean-spiritedness, in which building a wall is the primary metaphor by which our nation talks about our relationship to people of other nations. We live in a time when immigrants are being rounded up and deported, while refugees fleeing war experience the door to safety being slammed in their face. We live in a time when the poor are blamed for systemic injustice, when people of color fear for their lives at a traffic stop. We live in a time when the prospect of war looms large, when our leaders tell us we must rebuild the nuclear stockpile. We live in a time when the disparity between women and men in leadership positions and with regard to pay continues to grow, even as President Trump occupies the highest office in the land after the most disparaging and derogatory acts against women have been revealed. We live in a time when transgender students cannot find a safe bathroom to use at school and trans adults are banned from military service. We live in troubling times, where the grit of grief clings closely. What can the ancient mystery of the resurrection possibly proclaim in our time?
The pure scandal of Jesus’ resurrection has been diminished by our focus on fact. Most of us want to know, did it happen or didn’t it? Could it have happened, and if so, how? Many a preacher has used fear to force belief upon the doubter. We are preoccupied by the question of fact, and therefore miss the experience of resurrection itself.
Peter Rollins, the Irish author of the emergent church movement, tells the story of speaking at my alma mater, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a five hour panel conversation, somewhat of a debate. And near the end, someone asked, “You know Pete, all this theology…you don’t say much about the resurrection. Do you deny the resurrection?” And Peter Rollins responded, “Okay, time to confess: Yes, I do. Of course, I do. Everyone who knows me knows that I deny the resurrection. I deny the resurrection every time I do not serve my neighbor. Every time I walk away from people who are poor. I deny the resurrection every time I participate in an unjust system. And I affirm the resurrection every now and again. When I stand up for those on their knees, I affirm the resurrection when I cry out for those people who have” been tortured, “when I weep for those people who have no more tears to shed.”
Perhaps Easter has less to do with intellectual assent to a doctrine of beliefs, and more to do with the ancient mystery of God coming to us, calling us home to Love, in a thousand ways. In the words of Gordon T. Smith, “It is not that God is in heaven and waiting for us to believe before granting salvation.” Instead, God takes the initiative. God is already present in our lives and the new life of the divine love, radical and unrelenting—seeking out those on the margins—is already in our midst. The question is not whether we will believe it with our minds, but whether we will “belove it” with our lives—give ourselves over to this truth, by an act of sheer (some might say foolish) faith. When we stare down the demons of death, the crushing pain of grief, the belligerent arrogance of oppression—will we still choose to live out of the love that proclaims new life is possible? Not just in some pie in the sky by-and-by, but here in this present moment?
Poet Wendell Berry ends his Manifesto this way:
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
To this, I say: Amen.