Ascension Day “Charade”? – The Puzzling Exit of Jesus

Ascension Day at the Episcopal Theological School, May 4, 1967 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

I first fell in love with Ascension Day in the seventh grade, when my Episcopal school in Los Angeles kept the day holy by giving us the afternoon off. When solemn high mass ended at noon, 350 boys raced out of chapel to make the most of a sunny spring day. I may not have had a keen grasp of the Ascension’s theological significance, but if it meant a half-day vacation, I was all for it. So how did I spend that free time? I went to see the Crucifixion.

My father, James K. Friedrich, priest and film producer, was shooting the last episode of a 6-hour miniseries on the life of Christ. I met my friend Ricky McGarry, whose Catholic school also observed a half-day, and we took a bus to Hollywood’s Goldwyn Studio to visit the set. The irony of going to “Golgotha” on Ascension Day escaped me at the time. Although it could be said that the Fourth Gospel sees as much glorification on Mt. Calvary as Luke sees on the Mount of Olives, this was not an argument a seventh-grader was prepared to make.

The Rev. James K. Friedrich on the set of “Crucifixion and Resurrection” (1956)

My most memorable––and notorious––Ascension Day came a decade later, reported under the title “Ascension Day Charade “ in The Christian Century magazine.

On Ascension Day, May 4, approximately 40 men and a few women and children gathered at a conspicuous place at noon and conducted a premeditated, burlesque celebration of the day of Christ’s “Glorification.” To one end of a long cord they had fastened several gas-filled balloons; to the other, a crude effigy of the Christ made of tissue paper and cardboard. As high noon approached, the crowd began a hilarious countdown beginning at 100. The volume of the shouting and the air of boisterous jollity heightened until with a mighty shout of “Zero” and “Blast-off” from the crowd the cord holding the balloons and the effigy was released. A naïve bystander did not realize what the raucous crowd was mocking until, as the balloons ascended dragging behind them the paper Christ, he heard one of the men quote Scripture: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

 

Who were these people? Were they Russian atheists or members of the Chinese Red Guard taunting Christians with their gibes? Were they “hippies” taking a trip on LSD or Black Muslims reviling Christianity? Where did this parody of the Ascension occur? It occurred on the campus of a highly respected seminary, and the men who contrived and conducted it were seminarians, studying for the office of pastor, prophet and priest in the high calling of Jesus Christ.

The unsigned editorial went on to shake its finger at such “profanations,” expressing “revulsion and pity,” and “a heavy sense of abiding sadness” over the “absurd and despicable” actions of those naughty seminarians.

On the day designated by the church and by generations of Christian people as a reminder of the exaltation of Christ, these people debased the Christ… What will they try next for thrills? The Black Mass?[i]

But another mainline publication, the Methodist Christian Advocate, jumped into the fray on the students’ behalf. It couldn’t resist needling the low church Century for fussing over a liturgical calendar item to which their liberal mainline constituency in fact paid scant attention. And it worried that the establishment’s “disturbing defensiveness about surface material” may signal that its symbols are already on the decline. In contrast, said the Advocate,

the seminarians who are able to deal so lightly with symbols of a previous day… are indicating a certain freedom toward their faith. Be reminded that they are seminary students, who presumably have some desire to serve their world through their church. Their lightness toward tradition may well reflect a desire to shake loose from dead forms in order to better serve the God who has called them.[ii]

Dear reader, it may not surprise you to learn that this controversial liturgical observance was cooked up in my seminary dorm room. A youthful Religious Imagineer, joined by two other first-year students at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was seeking a dramatic finish to a series of spontaneous “art actions” during a four-day gathering of major church leaders. The conference agenda was certainly serious and daunting––the reunification of ten American denominations. But the addition of news media and right-wing Christian protestors to the mix was too tempting to resist. It seemed a good time for some religious guerilla theater.

Our helium-powered ascension was not mockery but play, with precedents going back to the medieval practice of tying a rope to an effigy of Christ and pulling it up through a hole in the church ceiling on the Feast of the Ascension. But in the late twentieth century, the explicitness of a material ‘figure’ rising into an empty sky prompted some discomfort among the Christian modernists in the crowd. How much were they being asked to believe about the Ascension? What was really at stake in our ‘Ascension Day Charade?’

The four gospels describe the earthly life of Jesus, his death, and various appearances to his followers after the resurrection. But only Luke describes the moment the appearances ended. Matthew provides a farewell scene on a mountain, but we never see Jesus actually leave. Instead, he promises to be with us always, to the end of time. Mark concludes his account with three women being told by a mysterious figure that the risen Christ is “not here.” But if they go back to Galilee, they will see him there. It’s like the teaser in a season finale: To be continued. John, who devotes several chapters to a long and moving farewell speech at the Last Supper, ends his gospel with a another conversation over food––a picnic breakfast at the beach––but now the talk seems less urgent, as though Jesus and his friends have all the time in the world together.

Only Luke delivers the emotional image of seeing the Incarnate One go for good, like Shane riding off into the sunset. As I wrote in my 2014 post on the Ascension, “Where Did Jesus Go?”:

Luke might have had Jesus disappear around a corner, or over a hill.
Or the disciples might have looked away for a moment, or blinked,
missing the exact moment of vanishing.
But the cloud is a nice touch. Artists have always loved it.
In any event, Jesus is suddenly gone.

Christians ever since have been left with a number of questions? Where did he go? Is he still locatable in space and time, or is he only in a transcendent, placeless realm? What form did he take in order to be in a ‘place’ beyond embodied existence? What does it mean to say Christ is still present and in relationship with us? Does the Ascension tell us anything about our own future?

If Jesus exchanged the spatially locatable body of a first century Jew for the omnipresence we attribute to the divine, can we still say he is fully human, or did the Word “unbecome” flesh in the Ascension? Did it somehow reverse or cancel the Incarnation?

Martin Luther, insisting that the ascended Christ was not “a stork in a nest in a treetop,”[iii] argued for his ubiquitious presence in the here and now, but that still leaves the particularity of Jesus in question. As one contemporaray theologian has framed the dilemma, “Christ everywhere really means Jesus of Nazareth nowhere.”[iv]

One ancient solution was to understand the Church as the continuation in space-time of Christ’s incarnate presence. Jesus’ individual body was succeeded by the community of the faithful, the visible ‘Body of Christ’ in the world. As Ephesians says, “The Church is Christ’s body, the completion of him who himself completes all things everywhere” (Eph.1:23). But where is the church which has truly fulfilled this high calling, except in momentary flashes of grace? We may be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, but we are still not all that good at it, despite centuries of practice. The perfection of Christ is not contained within the ecclesia, though we may hope to meet it there.

It was easier to take Luke’s ascension imagery seriously when the cosmos was vertically arranged into earth below, heaven above. The heavenly realm might be invisible, yet it could seem nonetheless near enough to shed its influence on the world below. Indeed, many paintings of the Ascension show heaven to be, as the Celts say, only about a foot and a half above our heads.

Pietro Perugino, The Ascension of Christ (1495-98)

Recent centuries have abandoned such a dualistic cosmos. Heaven as a separate place in the old sense has receded into infinity––and beyond!––distant and remote, unengaged with the mechanisms, causalities and presences of this world. But a God who has nowhere to ‘be’ in space-time is a God without ‘existence.’ In modernity’s cosmology, it isn’t just Jesus who has ascended out of sight, but the entire Godhead. The question became not just ‘where is Jesus?’ but ‘where is God?’

Theologians have puzzled over the seeming ‘unthinkability’ or absence of God within the social imaginary of modernity. I won’t go too far into the weeds to catalog the rich variety of their responses here, but they include thinking of God not as a noun (an object among others) but as a verb (known through actions, situations or relations), or expanding the notion of transcendence to mean not only ‘beyond’ but ‘within’––the hidden inner source of every possibility which Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘the dearest freshness deep down things.’ But whatever the approach to the mystery of divine presence and absence, language fumbles when it reaches beyond the senses. In the matter of the divine who, what, where, when and how, words fail.

The true God is the unknown mystery of the world whose holiness is violated as soon as God acquires a name. God is beyond being and nonbeing, belief and unbelief, theism and atheism. God is hidden, holy, mysterious, the ineffable source of revelation and grace.[v]

The Ascension epitomizes the dilemma of locating and describing ‘the unknown mystery of the world.’ We may catch a glimpse the disappearing feet, but if Jesus has indeed returned to God, where exactly is that? And how do we ourselves get there?

The Ascension of Christ, Limoges (Late 16th century)

A nineteenth-century Danish theologian proposed a temporal approach to the question of ‘where.’ Instead of looking for the ascended Christ in space, might we discern him within the unfolding of time, replenishing and perfecting the world ‘with the energies of the future’?

The presence of Christ in the universe must be looked upon, not so much as actual being, but rather as an essential becoming; it must be treated as a progressive advent, a continual coming, in virtue of which, by the growing development of his fullness, he makes himself the center of the whole creation; and the creation itself is thus being prepared and created anew as a living, organic, and growing temple of Christ.[vi]

To contemplate the mystery of the ascended Christ as a process, shaping the interrelated destiny of everything that is, may prove a way to collapse the infinite distance between earth and heaven into a nearness, a presence, which can be known and experienced even if not understood. Wherever Christ went, it was to prepare a ‘place’––or situation––where we all may become our truest selves, completed at last in Christ’s glorified and expanded body. Like Dante at the end of Purgatorio, through the mystery of ascent we become ‘rifatto … puro e disposto a salire a le stelle’ (‘remade . . . pure and ready for the stars’).[vii]

So the ultimate question for Ascension Day may not be ‘where is Jesus?’, but ‘where are we?’ And where do we need to go from here to be with Christ and in Christ? An old shape note hymn says it perfectly:

Then he arose, ascended high
To show our feet the way…

 

 

 

 

Related post: Where Did Jesus Go?

 

[i] “Ascension Day Charade” (unsigned editorial), The Christian Century, vol. LXXXIV, No. 21 (May 24, 1967), 675-76.

[ii] “Jesus in the Clouds,” Christian Advocate, vol. XI, No. 12 (June 15, 1967)

[iii] Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Edinburgh, Grand Rapids: T & T Clark, 1999), 269.

[iv] Ibid., 12.

[v] Gary Dorrien, The Word as True Myth: Interpreting Modern Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 238

[vi] Hans Martensen, in Farrow, 192.

[vii] Purgatorio xxxiii.141-143.

End photo by Marilyn Robertson.

A Voice to Raise the Dead

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain (detail, 1569)

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain (detail, 1569)

I’m writing from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where I’ve been among some amazing people to reflect together on the deep connections between art and spirituality. The fruit of those conversations will find their way into future posts, but meanwhile here is what I’m preaching this morning from the pulpit of Hattiesburg’s Trinity Episcopal Church, based on the gospel text from Luke 7:11-17. 

Watch out! There’s going to be a collision.

Here comes a funeral parade, with a dead young man, his grieving mother, and a whole crowd of mourners, weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth.

And from the opposite direction, pretty as you please, here comes the Jesus parade: the holy man everybody’s talking about, along with his passel of disciples and a whole bunch of folks who’ve just seen Jesus cure the centurion’s slave in the blink of an eye and who want to see what in heaven’s name he’s going to do next.

The Jesus people are all laughing and talking and telling stories, but suddenly Jesus raises his hand and they all stop, because he’s seen the widow, he’s heard her crying—they can all hear her crying—and Jesus is so moved by her tears, his heart just fills up and overflows with compassion. and whatever he was on his way to do no longer seems all that important.

He knows that moments like this are why he came into the world. So he heads straight across the town square to meet that funeral procession, with all his folks trailing after him, wondering what’s going to happen.

What is going to happen, in the middle of that dusty little country town, is a great cosmic showdown: the parade of death running smack into the parade of life. And here’s how it goes.

Jesus reaches out to touch the coffin, and the pallbearers come to a dead stop. Everybody gets real quiet. Maybe the widow recognizes Jesus. Maybe she’s heard stories about his miracles. But she’s not asking for any help. Her son is dead. She knows his story is over. Nothing Jesus can do about that, she thinks. She’s long since resigned to her grief.

And the only thing Jesus has to say to her is, “Do not weep,” because it’s her son that he wants to talk to. Then Jesus speaks the words he has been given the power to say:

Young man, arise!

And the dead man sits up, opens his mouth, takes a breath, and words start to spill out, words of wonder and joy, and he is alive again. Then Jesus gives him back to his mother. And all the people standing round don’t know whether to be scared or whether to start shouting “Glory to God! Glory to God!”

And as for all of us who listen to this story today,what do we do with the strangeness of it in a world where too many young men and women die and parents weep and there is no resurrection parade that shows up to make everything all right again?

Can we still take hope from this story, or is being snatched from the jaws of death only for the lucky few, like winning the lottery, while the rest of us can only dream of such a happy fate?

This would be a cruel story if it were about a blessing which most of us will never know. But what Jesus did that day in the village of Nain wasn’t a promise that we all now get a free pass to escape the human condition. Jesus didn’t really go around raising up everybody who died. It only happens three times in the gospels. Jesus didn’t come to give everyone a few extra decades of earthly existence. That’s not why he was here.

He was here to show us God, and to show us how humanity is made to become like God—not by grasping power and glory, but by embodying compassion, which is one of the dearest of God’s names.

It wasn’t God’s plan that Jesus spend all his time putting funeral directors out of business. But on that particular day in Nain, Jesus couldn’t help himself. He felt compassion for the widow, and as the incarnate Author of Life, he returned the widow’s son to the sensory world of dust and sunshine just so death wouldn’t get too uppity. Sometimes death needs to be reminded that it never gets the last word.

But Jesus didn’t mean for us to place our own hope in such temporary reprieves. The resurrection of the dead is a mystery more ultimate and profound than what happened to the widow’s son. Dying and rising are inseparable partners in the same transformative dance. It’s the way the story goes, and we just have to live with it. That is why, even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

So what does this gospel story want to tell us today, wherever you and I happen to find ourselves on life’s journey in the year of grace 2016? I’ll tell you what I hear.

The first thing is, our God is compassionate. Our God is moved by our tears. And in the end, as poet Jane Kenyon said before her own untimely death, God will prove to be “mercy clothed in light.”

Secondly, I am struck by the power of the voice of the Divine Beloved, the voice of Jesus, speaking to us the word of life: Arise. And I don’t think we have to wait for the Last Day to hear it, either.

We are being called back to life every day, every moment, if we only have ears to hear. On her wonderful website, The Painted Bird, Jan Richardson has posted her poem inspired by this gospel. “Blessing for the Raising of the Dead.” tells us that ‘while this blessing / does not have the power / to raise you, /  it knows how to reach you. / It will come to you, / sit down / beside you, / look you / in the eye / and ask / if you want / to live.’ You can read the whole poem here.

Finally, I hear this gospel telling me one more thing. It is not enough simply to hear the voice that blesses and revives. I believe, now that the tongues of Pentecostal fire have settled on our own heads, that you and I are called to speak that voice as well, to be ourselves the voice that blesses, the voice that calls the dead back to life—dead hopes, dead neighborhoods, dead dreams, dead souls.

The word of life is not something we ourselves possess, but God has empowered us to speak it nonetheless: to be Christ’s voice for those in need, to be Christ’s voice to a broken and longing world—

the voice which speaks the word
uttered for all eternity
in the heart of God:

Arise, it says. Arise.

 

 

The Faithful Centurion: A Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Pentecost

Jesus raises the dead with a wand (Roman catacomb, 3rd century)

Jesus raises the dead with a wand (Roman catacomb, 3rd century)

The gospel story for the Second Sunday of Pentecost[i] describes a world in which things don’t happen the way they’re supposed to.

A Roman centurion treats his slave more like a friend than a piece of property. When the slave gets sick and is close to death, the centurion implores the Jewish community to help him find a healer.

Normally, Jews and Romans were not on the best of terms. Occupying armies just don’t get much love, and besides, doesn’t everybody know that foreigners are just “not our kind?” If only we could build a wall high enough to keep them out!

But this Roman centurion has somehow made friends with the local Jewish elders. He has even built a synagogue for them. So they are happy to help.

The Roman has heard some stories about Jesus and his healing gifts, so he asks the elders to go beg Jesus, that he might come and heal his slave.

Now we’ve heard a lot of stories about Jesus getting the local clergy mad at him, so we may be surprised to learn that there were also some of them who admired Jesus, and maintained good relations with him. That is clearly the case here. And what the elders say to Jesus is this: “The centurion is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people.”

So far, not much is going the way we would expect. A centurion treats his slave like a friend. A Roman loves the Jews, and the Jews love him back. And as for Jesus and the local clergy, they are getting along swimmingly.

But there are more surprises to come.

Jesus goes with the elders to find the centurion’s house, but just before they arrive, the centurion sends some friends out to say, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; that is why I did not presume to come to you myself. But only speak the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I know something about authority, since I have soldiers serving under me. I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes, and to another, `Come,’ and he comes, and I say to my slave, `Do this,’ and the slave does it.”

How strange to see a Roman officer humbling himself before a wandering Jewish rabbi. “I am not worthy that you should come under my roof,” he says.

And Jesus is “amazed.” That word in the gospel is usually applied to people who are amazed at Jesus. But here it is Jesus’ turn to be amazed. And why? Because the centurion has total faith in the power of Jesus to heal his slave, even at a distance.

“Just as I command my slaves to come and go as I wish, I believe that you have the power to command sickness and death to depart from my house. Only say the word.”

It may seem a little odd that this exchange doesn’t take place directly between Jesus and the centurion. The centurion communicates through intermediaries. This is, he says, because he is not worthy to have Jesus even enter his house. It’s a pretty extraordinary bit of deference on behalf of the powerful Roman.

In any case, Jesus turns to the crowd which has been tagging along because this was clearly the most interesting thing happening in Capernaum that day, and says, “You know what? I haven’t found this kind of faith among any of you folks who go to church. You all could learn something from this centurion fellow. You may call him an unbeliever, but he’s just given you some of the best spiritual teaching you’re ever going to get.”

And then, because this wants to be an odd story from beginning to end, the servant is suddenly well without Jesus ever saying a prayer or speaking a healing word. This miracle happens offstage, and we only hear about it later.

Notice that Jesus never actually meets the centurion or the slave. Everything happens at a distance, through intermediaries, rather the way that prayer works. We may not meet Jesus directly, in the flesh, but his effect on us is still palpable and powerful. And as the centurion believed, it is faith that makes that connection happen.

This strange little story is about a world which is repeatedly and radically disrupted: social and cultural barriers are crossed, enemies act like friends, the master/slave hierarchy is upended, earthly power humbles itself, the religious experts are schooled by a pagan outsider and oh, by the way, a healing miracle happens without any fanfare or even the slightest tangible demonstration of cause and effect. Just another day in the life of the God of surprises.

We could take a number of things from this story, but today my question is this: Who outside our own faith communities has something essential to teach us? And are we capable of appreciative amazement? Are we capable of receiving that teaching with gratitude and humility?

Where are the ones, beyond our institutional and theological boundaries, who are practicing social imagination and nurturing a better future? Where are the ones who are already doing holy work without even knowing God’s name?

Who are the ones
living a practical faith
serving a need
working for change
refusing injustice
breaking boundaries
loving enemies
making peace
showing mercy
finding the lost
tending the sick
visiting the prisoner
binding wounds
soothing the suffering
comforting the afflicted
nourishing wonder
fostering delight
shielding the joyous
organizing the powerless
repairing the world
welcoming the Kingdom . . .

Who are they and how can we learn from them?
How can we support them?
How can we join them?

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Luke 7:1-10 (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Cinematic Resurrections (Part 2)

image

And is not the language of the cinema of its very nature a way of telling stories that carry a reasoned argument, as it were, reasoning by way of stories? Here one can see how the narrative dimension – constitutive of the cinema – complements the icon’s symbolic dimension: and it is by dint of this bringing together of icon and story that the cinema can be a language uniquely capable of mediating transcendence.[i]

— Bruno Forte

The danger, however, that in our attempt to conceive and understand [the Resurrection] we in fact suppress the very revolution that the story embodies, naturalize the alienness of its ideas, tame the violence it does to our logic, and anesthetize its wounding of our pride.[ii]

— Alan E. Lewis

 

In Part 1 of Cinematic Resurrections, we looked at how Jesus films have represented the event of Jesus’ rising as well as the stories of his empty tomb. But the sensory appearances of the risen Christ present an even greater challenge for the filmmaker, involving a tension between visual plausibility and underlying truth. What really happened in the appearances, and what might that have looked like?

In the gospel texts, these appearances are not presented as private, interior experiences, subjective and dreamlike. They always convey a sense of concreteness and physicality, experienced as something outside the observer. Jesus has a bodily presence which occupies the spaces of encounter.

There is of course an inherent strangeness to meeting someone whose death you just witnessed. And the appearances stories do have a certain inexplicable “now you see me, now you don’t” quality. Jesus comes and goes at will. He is not barred by locked doors, nor does he ever linger for a proper goodbye, since “I am with you always.”

But the strangest aspect of the appearance stories, given their transcendent and astonishing subject, is their plainness. Jesus does not glow with supernal light, as in the mystical Transfiguration story, nor does he radiate the sublime and fearsome grandeur with which he appears in the Book of Revelation. The risen Christ is so down-to-earth that he is mistaken for a gardener. Later we find him barbecuing fish on the beach,

He still has human form, but something about him has changed. Catching sight of him is not enough to make the connection between the crucified teacher and this man from God knows where. Recognition is triggered not by his appearance, but by something he says or does, such as “Peace be with you,” or the breaking of bread at Emmaus (beautifully shown in The Miracle Maker). But even after the disciples discern the Risen One’s identity (“It’s Jesus!”), they still sense that something is different, something which begins to make them fall to their knees.

Both identity and difference are essential components of the Resurrection. The risen Christ is not a different person from the one who was crucified. At the same time, his body has undergone an incomprehensible transformation. As Wolfhart Pannenberg puts it, “Resurrection has to be understood in terms of transformation of the old life into the new one rather than in terms of replacing the perishable body by a new one.”[iii]

It is hard to convey this sense of “same but different” on film when a single actor plays Jesus both before and after the resurrection. In King of Kings (1961), for example, it is still clearly the boyish Jeffrey Hunter, apparently unaffected by the harrowing passage through death into divine futurity, who meets Mary Magdalene outside the tomb. In Jesus (1999), the risen Christ has lost nothing of the California cool which Jeremy Sisto brought to his pre-Easter Jesus. Such scenes are all familiarity without the slightest trace of difference— it’s the same actor, the same affect, the same voice.

Many of the films convey a sense of difference in the way the disciples respond to the appearances. When Jesus comes into their midst, they do not resume their accustomed rapport with their old companion of the road. They don’t rush to embrace him as you would a long-lost friend. They are respectfully hesitant to approach. Is this fear of the uncanny, or is it the beginning of worship? Then they move from astonishment and wonder to a place of prayerful receptivity. They bow their heads or close their eyes as Jesus speaks to them, touches them, or breathes the Holy Spirit upon them (as in The Gospel of John). The risen Christ soothes the anxious heart. Peace be with you.

How far can a film go in representing a resurrection appearance? Whar are the rules of engagement for the visual artist? Son of God (2014) attempts to communicate the strangeness of the Resurrection in two interesting scenes. In the first, we follow Magdalene from the glare of the Middle Eastern sun into the darkness of the tomb. As she puzzles over the grave cloths, the camera shifts to reveal the tomb entrance, and there is Jesus, just outside in the bright light of day.

Since the lens aperture is open wide to compensate for the dimness of the cave, the figure standing in the sunlight is extremely overexposed. The details of his face and body are burned out, erased by intense luminosity. This is not a special effect added to the image in post-production. It is simply how a camera sees under those conditions. With the cinematic eye calibrated to the darkness of death’s realm, we are literally blinded by the light.

So Mary sees, but does not recognize, until Jesus speaks her name. “Teacher?” she answers, hesitant but hopeful. Then her face tells us— she knows him. But the distance between them remains: she in the tomb, Jesus in the light. “Go and tell the others,” he says. “I am here.” Then he turns to walk away, and after a few steps his figure vanishes into the white light.

The encounter feels both plausible and strange at the same time. In this world but not of it. It has the naturalness of story, something which might have happened that way, but also the transcendent otherness of an icon. It’s only a movie— the artifice of representation using actors, camera and music, but it has the capacity to draw the viewer into effective proximity to what is being represented.

Then, the same film gives us an upper room appearance scene unique to the genre— an audacious attempt to bridge the ineffable transition from physical presence to sacramental presence. Once the sensory appearances of Jesus ceased not long after the Resurrection, the eucharist became the tangible and revelatory sign that Christ is now present in all times and places. This scene creatively depicts a single presence behind both experiences.

Peter and John, doubting Magdalene’s news, go back to the tomb with her. Peter enters alone, finds the burial shroud, and takes it outside to John and Mary. “Now do you believe me?” she says. But John shakes his head: “He’s gone.” Suddenly a strong gust of wind whirls a cloud of dust through the frame. It’s like a little Pentecost, the Spirit blowing Peter’s mind with the truth. “Gone?” he says. “No! He’s back.”

They run into town, pick up bread from a street seller and take it to the other disciples, waiting in the upper room. “I need a cup,” Peter cries. “And some wine.” Thomas, bewildered by Peter’s excitement, asks what happened. Peter doesn’t reply. There’s no time to waste.

He joins the others at table, breaking the bread and pouring the wine. “His body … his blood,” he says fervently, as if these things were Jesus himself. Offering the cup to the dubious Thomas, he begins to repeat their teacher’s words: “I am the way, the truth . . . ” but the final line, “and the life,” is spoken by a different voice, off camera. At first we see only a close shot of Thomas, glancing up in surprise. Then we see what he sees: Jesus, coming into focus as he enters the open door. Thomas looks down at the table. “No,” he says. “No, this isn’t real.”

Jesus just smiles, and begins to walk around the table, pausing to lay a hand of blessing on each disciple. In the gospel stories of the upper room, Jesus speaks the words, “Peace be with you,” but here his wordless gesture says it all. When he reaches Thomas, he sits down to face him. Jesus shows him his wounded hand, and then gently caresses the doubter’s cheek with it. Love becomes the evidence Thomas has been longing for.

Like Luke’s Emmaus story, this film scene blends narrative and symbol. Is it describing an original and unique appearance of the risen Christ, or is it representing the common experience of every believer who shares the bread of life and the cup of salvation? I would say both.

What happened then, happens now. What happened there, happens here. And whatever the nature of the first resurrection appearances, those stories are deeply flavored by eucharistic practice. When the lector, deacon or presider says the words, Jesus speaks. When the bread is shared and the wine poured out for many, “he’s back.” And whenever two or three gather in Christ’s name, the peace which passes all understanding is bestowed all over again. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.

…. I looked
at him, not with the eye
only, but with the whole
of my being, overflowing with
him as a chalice would
with the sea…[iv]

 

Related Posts

Cinematic Resurrections (Part 1)

Are we too late for the Resurrection?

 

 

[i] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Towards a Theology of Aesthetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 108

[ii] Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 27

[iii] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “History and the Reality of the Resurrection,” in Resurrection Reconsidered, ed. Gavin D’Costa (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1996), 70

[iv] R.S. Thomas, “Suddenly”, in Collected Poems: 1945-1990 (London: Phoenix Giant, 1993), 283

Cinematic Resurrections (Part 1)

Rossana Di Rocco as the Angel in "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

Rossana Di Rocco as the Angel in “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

Very little can be verified historically above and beyond the disciples’ faith: something, a mysterious something, happened to them, but further than that we cannot penetrate.[i]

— A. J. M. Wedderburn

The delayed recognition of Jesus has nothing to do with a lesser visibility of his resurrected body due to the lesser reality of the shadowy afterlife to which he would now belong. The opposite is true. This resurrection is too real for a perception dimmed by the false transfigurations of mimetic idolatry.[ii]

— Rene Girard

The revolution will not be televised.

— Gil Scott- Heron

 

As a mortal being, Jesus shared the human condition. He lived and died as one of us. In this way, his story is universal. But it is also unique, for it does not end with his death. In the Gospels, the presence of Jesus persists beyond the cross. The violence of the world is not able to consume him. His story is completed not with death but resurrection. But by definition, resurrection is beyond the range of common experience. It doesn’t take place within ordinary history, where just anyone can see it.

The Resurrection is not the restoration of the past, a returning of Jesus’ old body to this life, but the translation of Jesus into a new reality which cannot be neutrally observed, but is only revealed to the faithful. “Things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imagining”[iii] remain discretely offstage in the gospel narratives. The resurrection will not be televised.

 But some things were seen, as attested to in the gospel texts. There was an empty tomb, one or two mysterious messengers who tell them Jesus is not “here,” and a series of encounters with the risen Christ. The reports are fragmentary, and sometimes contradictory, befitting something so strange experienced by different subjects, each of them groping for language to express the inexpressible.

The cinematic accounts of the Jesus story provide an interesting way to consider what can be shown or seen of the Easter event. There is an inherent literalness to whatever the camera shows us: real objects under the light. Music, editing, and other cinematic devices can add layers of interpretation, but we are still seeing actual material things, visible to anyone in their presence.[iv] How, then, can a film show us something that so radically eludes and exceeds the visible, the resurrection that is, in Rene Girard’s delicious phrase, “too real for a perception dimmed by the false transfigurations of mimetic idolatry”?

In this two-part survey of resurrection stories in Jesus films from 1927 to 2014, we will look at three elements: the Resurrection itself, the empty tomb, and the appearances.

The Resurrection

Of the nearly twenty lives of Jesus produced as commercial features or television miniseries since the early twentieth century, few have attempted to represent the actual moment of resurrection. Cecil B. DeMille, always the showman, couldn’t resist giving us Jesus actually walking out of the tomb in The King of Kings (1927). The stone covering the entrance begins to glow, then falls away, and a Jesus bathed in radiance stands tall before our eyes. He looks a bit lonely, perhaps unsure of what to do next as he takes a few tentative steps back into the world of space and time.

DeMille’s camera remains respectfully outside the tomb. We don’t actually see whatever happened inside. Mel Gibson, in The Passion of the Christ (2004), is bolder, placing the viewer within the sacred epicenter. As the camera pans around the tomb, we see the sunlight penetrate the darkness as the stone is rolled away, and then we see the slab where the Savior was laid. But instead of a body, we see only the shroud collapsing into flatness as the form which gave it shape apparently vanishes. If we are witnessing the moment when a a corpse is translated into something else, the facts of the matter remain discretely veiled from sight.

It is a stunning and poetic moment. Not quite seeing the mystery itself, we glimpse its trace — white fabric, suddenly emptied of its content, falling gently onto a stone slab. We see what can be seen, and no more. And yet so much is implied. However, when the camera pulls back to show the naked Christ, sitting quietly on the edge of the slab as he opens his eyes, the delicate balance of the visible and invisible is broken. The image is too literal, too crudely specific for an event which shatters all language.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) presents the Resurrection with the naïve simplicity of a medieval mystery play. Soldiers doze before the sealed tomb. The mother of Jesus arrives with a few disciples, male and female. They kneel, clutching bouquets of wildflowers. Suddenly, an earthquake. The stone door falls. The tomb is empty. The camera zooms in on the abandoned shroud. We hear an exuberant African Gloria. We see a young “angel” in close-up, announcing the resurrection and sending the disciples forth to evangelize the world. Mary smiles and gives a courteous bow to the angel. Cut to the disciples, on fire with the good news, running, running, running, their faces full of joy. With the movements of their bodies compressed and blended tightly by a telephoto lens, the screen explodes with their collective energy, which becomes the perfect icon of the risen life — empowered, unconstrained, joyous and overflowing.

Pasolini doesn’t worry about plausibility. He represents the Resurrection with a kind of magic realism, where the camera, in a matter-of-fact manner, gives equal weight to the natural and the supernatural. This is more like the poetry of an Easter hymn than a documentary. Instead of explanation, here is proclamation.

Son of Man (2006), the South African retelling of the Jesus story in a fictional 21st-century African country, brings Jesus out of the grave twice. Instead of being crucified, Jesus is abducted and “disappeared” — beaten to death and buried in a secret grave the way so many activists were killed in South Africa under apartheid. But Jesus’ mother manages to find the grave, and a few disciples help her dig up the body and display it on a hilltop cross in a gesture of defiance, as if to say, We will not let crimes against the people be hidden. This shockingly literal crucifix inspires the disciples to risk their own lives in protest against the murderous oppressors.

The empowered disciples, singing and dancing in front of armed soldiers at the foot of the cross, made me think of what Oscar Romero said just before his own martyrdom, “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never die.”[v]

But then the film gives us a second resurrection, proclaiming the Easter faith that the resurrection did not only happen to the community Jesus created. It also happened to Jesus. The time is early morning. The camera puts us a few feet below the rim of the dirt grave where Jesus’ body had lain before the disciples took it away. The sun is behind us. We see the wall of the grave and the blue sky above it. The shadow of a man begins to rise up the wall from below, and a tenor’s voice breaks the silence with a South African song:

The sun in Spring will rise over the mountain.
Today we are united.
We are one people.

The voices of a choir begin to add their soaring harmonies. The man’s tall shadow is joined by shadows of the angels who have watched over Jesus since his birth, played by small boys adorned with ostrich feathers. These elongated sunrise shadows of Jesus and the angels stretch beyond the grave into an open field. It is a haunting image, hovering between the spectral and the substantial.

We cut to close-ups of the boys’ angelic faces, beautiful and smiling as they look into the distance. Then we see what they see: Jesus, dressed in his familiar denim work clothes, ascending a hill. The boys, suddenly a great multitude, follow after him. This powerful final image evokes not only the host of heaven welcoming Jesus home, but also the departed souls he drew into his risen life when he descended to the dead.

The Empty Tomb

In contrast to the affirmative mood of the resurrection scenes, the empty tomb creates uncertainty and bewilderment. What has happened to the body? In The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb at dawn, only to find the stone rolled away from the entrance. A young man is standing just inside the shadowy cave. “He is gone,” he says. “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is risen.” There is nothing particularly uncanny about the man’s appearance. Played by Pat Boone, he is disappointingly prosaic.

Magdalene departs the tomb just as some male disciples arrive. When the men enter the tomb, the figure in white doesn’t even speak to them. He simply takes a seat at the rear of the cave like a museum guard, thinking his thoughts while the tourists have a look around. It is awkward staging, without the slightest aura of transcendence. Only the soundtrack’s “Hallelujah Chorus” tells you something religious is happening.

In The Gospel of John (2003), Magdalene is so disturbed to find the stone rolled away, she doesn’t linger to look inside. She goes immediately to tell the other disciples. Peter and John come on the run to check it out for themselves. They appear puzzled by the missing body, though John, the narrator tells us, “saw and believed.” But neither of the men actually looks convinced of anything. According to the narrator, “They still did not understand the scripture, which said that he must rise from death.”

The CBS miniseries Jesus (2000) also follows the Johannine account (John 20: 1-10), but when John joins Peter in the tomb, he has no problem grasping the situation. “He is risen!” he declares. This is faithful to the absence of any psychological processing in John 20:8 (“he saw and believed”), but on film such instant belief seems unconvincing. We need to see John thinking, as the truth sinks in. We want to experience the drama of recognition played out over time, reflecting our own wrestling with doubt as the horizon of the possible is radically expanded before us. Peter offers some token resistance (“Risen? No! The body’s stolen.”), but he soon joins John in embracing resurrection faith as though it were something easy.

The problem with such scenes lies in the inherent ambiguity of the empty tomb. It does not prove resurrection. Christian claims about the meaning of the empty tomb were countered very early on by alternative explanations: the body was stolen; Jesus, not really dead, woke up and walked away; the women went to the wrong tomb; or — my personal favorite — the gardener moved the body so that the disciples wouldn’t trample the vegetables while venerating their master’s grave. The most that the empty tomb can do is prompt questions. The Resurrection is about presence, and the tomb is only absence. He is not here. Why seek the living among the dead?

Still, there is something decidedly uncanny about the messenger(s) at the tomb. In Mark’s early account, the “young man in a white robe” was not yet Matthew’s dramatically embellished angel, with a face like lightning and a dazzling snow-white robe. Even so, the women who saw him were “struck with amazement.” Luke’s later text has them bow to the ground, a clear act of worship. There is something here that does not want to be explained away. The strange quality of this encounter preserves an essential trace of the divine at work. Reducing the story to whatever we call plausibility would only evacuate its power to convey a deeper truth.

How, then, can the filmmaker strike us with amazement? Pat Boone won’t suffice, nor could computer wizardry, riffing on Matthew’s special effects, ever be anything more than distracting artifice. But in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), there is a compelling balance between cinema’s inherent naturalism and the gospel story’s overflowing transcendence. We see three women walking toward the tomb, escorted by a Roman guard. When the soldiers move on ahead, only the disciples are left within the frame. It is then that they hear a voice meant only for the faithful: “Where are you going? Why seek the living among the dead? Jesus is not there.” The women look up to see two gardeners on the hillside. The eerie electronic notes of a Theremin over a low percussive rumble underscore the sense of the uncanny. The women hurry on to the tomb, only to find it empty. They run back, full of questions, to where they saw the gardeners, but now the hillside is empty. Only a couple of hoes remain as tangible signs that this was more than a vision.

Other than the music, everything in this scene is natural: women walking, a gardener speaking, an empty tomb, two abandoned hoes. No faces like lightning, no dazzling raiment, no echo effects on the vocal. And yet, we feel that the women, and we as well, have been touched by something wondrous, just beyond the grasp of our senses.

 

In Part 2 (coming soon to a computer near you!), we will examine how Jesus movies have handled the most critical element of the resurrection stories: the appearances of the risen Christ to his disciples.

Related Posts

The Ten Best Jesus Movies

My Ten Favorite Jesus Movie Moments

 

 

 

 

 

[i] A. J. M. Wedderburn, Beyond Resurrection (London: SCM Press, 1999), 89

[ii] Rene Girard, A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 341-2

[iii] I Cor 2:9

[iv] Of course, computer-generated imagery can show us things which do not exist in the empirical universe, but while we may be amused or awed by such effects, we are fully aware of their artificiality. It is quite a different thing to gaze at a real object, or a human face, and wonder whether there might be something there beyond the visible.

[v] Quoted in the Paulist Productions film, Romero (1989) directed by John Duigan

Are we too late for the Resurrection?

Guercino, "The Incredulity of Thomas" (1621)

Guercino, “The Incredulity of Thomas” (1621)

What we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked at and touched with our hands—
the Word of life— this is our theme . . .
We declare to you what we have seen and heard,
so that you too may share our life.    (I John 1:1,3)

The Easter Vigil is a night of wonders. Beginning after dark on Holy Saturday, God’s friends gather around a fire under the stars, as poets and singers, accompanied by the sounds of loon, whale and wolf, take us back to the beginning of time, when all things came to be. Then we follow the Paschal Candle, symbol of the risen Christ, into the Story Space to experience creative retellings of our sacred narratives, recalling God’s unfailing covenant with us throughout history. Theater, storytelling, music and multimedia immerse us in the rich play of Scriptural meanings. After that we process into the church, to the font of new birth, renewing our baptismal vows by candlelight. Suddenly, the contemplative quiet is broken by a great tumult of drums, bells, chimes (and sometimes fireworks!) as we welcome the first eucharist of Easter, sharing the feast of heaven with bread and champagne,and dancing our praises around God’s table.[i]

The Easter Vigil is the Christian dreamtime, the molten core of our worship life, but for those who missed it, who didn’t arrive at church until Easter morning, it exists only as a rumor of something quite out of the ordinary, hard to imagine after the fact. I could describe what happened in great detail, but a considerable amount of the joy and the wonder would be lost in the telling. Hearing about it is not the same as actually experiencing it.

Just ask Thomas the Doubter. He had missed out when the risen Christ first appeared to the other disciples.[ii] Oh Thomas, it was so amazing, so incredible! If only you had been there. “No way,” he says. “I just can’t see it. You must have been dreaming.” And so Thomas became known as the Doubter, and the Church made him patron saint of the blind. And yet, we always honor Thomas by telling this story on the Second Sunday of Easter, as if to say,

We welcome those who take questions seriously;
we believe that faith and doubt must dance together;
we are in fact a community of those
who wrestle with God’s absences
as well as God’s presences.

Another Thomas, the 20th century Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, wrote a poem about this gospel story:

His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm.[iii]

The sense of belatedness, of arriving too late, haunts every religious tradition whose foundations lie in definitive past events. Even Jesus’ closest friends, who had shared a last supper with him just days before, felt the warmth of his presence quickly cooling into memory.

But then they discovered that Christ does not come to us out of the past, locked within well-worn expectations. The risen One comes out of the future, often in a form we don’t expect: the stranger, the other, the outcast, even the enemy. If we only look for Jesus in the vacated tombs of past experience, we will get the admonishing angel: “He is not here. He’s already waiting for you somewhere else. Go and see.”

For a while after the resurrection of Jesus, there were sensory appearances in a form the disciples could recognize and relate to in the old familiar ways. They spoke with him. They ate with him. They experienced his peace. And their primal witness remains vital. A positive identification of the risen One as the same person who died on the cross was essential to the core Easter message: Jesus lives! Not a memory, substitute, or simulacrum, but a continuing presence which not even death could kill.

These appearances eventually ceased, but before they did, Thomas finally got his moment with the Jesus he had known. It blew away his doubts and drove him to his knees. But then Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” And later he said, “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”

In other words, Christ’s resurrection is not limited to the personal experiences of a few first century people. If that were the case, then it would be something we could only hear about later but never experience for ourselves. Like Thomas before his late encounter, we would have only Christ’s absence.

But the Easter faith affirms the continuing presence of the living Christ among us, now and always. That presence is not always clear or obvious. Even the saints wrestle with doubt and absence. Sometimes divinity seems to withdraw for a time. Sometimes it is we who are absent— distracted, inattentive, looking in the wrong place, using the wrong language. Divine presence can’t be switched on, or grasped possessively. It is elusive. It is fond of surprise.

But we are not left without clues. Jesus tells us, “If you want to keep experiencing me, love one another. Forgive one another.”[iv] Thus we meet the risen Christ in the life of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, justice, love. Where love and charity abound, there God is, there Christ is. It’s not enough to proclaim resurrection. We need to embody it.

As Rowan Williams explains: “the believer’s life is a testimony to the risen-ness of Jesus: he or she demonstrates that Jesus is not dead by living a life in which Jesus is the never-failing source of affirmation, challenge, enrichment and enlargement.”[v]

The Book of Acts tells us the first believers made their common life a “laboratory of the resurrection”[vi]— not just a theological mystery but a daily practice, rejecting the economics of selfishness and scarcity for radical acts of generosity and compassion. Their belief was a practice of entrusting themselves to the renewing force of divine love that is never exhausted by the sufferings of the world. In other words, resurrections have consequences.

These are large claims, of course, and not universally embraced. But for me resurrection’s greatest challenge is not that I am being asked to believe something difficult; it is that I am being asked to do something difficult:

to be utterly transformed by immersion into the dying-and-rising of Christ,
to become my baptismal self,
to cast off the rags of ego and fear
and be clothed in “garments of indescribable light.”[vii]

It’s not intellectual or empirical doubt that makes me hesitate at the threshold of the risen life. It’s not that I think such transformation to be impossible. No, for countless saints have already demonstrated its possibility. My doubt concerns myself. Am I up to it?

Have you ever stood on a rock
twenty feet above the surface
of an icy mountain lake?
The summer day is hot;
you know the water will refresh you.
You are caked with grime and sweat from hours of hiking.
It will feel so good to wash it all away.

You imagine the explosive energy of the splash,
the exhilarating shock of glacial waters.
And you anticipate the joy of swimming,
the bliss of weightlessness
setting you free from the gravity of things.

But you hesitate.
You doubt.
The water is dark.
Are there rocks beneath the surface?
Will the sudden cold take your breath away?
The very act of stepping out into nothing
is resisted by an inner voice of self-preservation.

There’s no way to stop the mind’s questions or the body’s fears.
They persist for as long as you stand there.
The lake doesn’t get any warmer.
The boulder doesn’t get any lower.

Then you just lean out into space
and let yourself go.

 

 

Related Posts

Just a dream? Reflection on the Easter Vigil

Christ is risen!

 

[i] Although most Easter Vigils don’t happen quite this way, they can, and (IMHO) should. I have been curating them this way for several decades in various worship communities, and I believe that such a rich interplay of ritual and the arts, engaging all the senses in a multigenerational, visionary happening, at once contemplative, playful, and ecstatic, does true justice to our celebration of the Paschal Mystery – the passage from darkness and death into the risen life..

[ii] John 20:24-29

[iii] R.S. Thomas, “Via Negativa,” Collected Poems: 1945-1990 (London: Phoenix Giant, 1995), 220

[iv] My gloss on the Farewell Discourse in the Fourth Gospel (John 14-17)

[v] Rowan Williams, Resurrection (New York: The Pilgrim Press NY, 1984), 62-3

[vi] Dumitru Staniloae, q. in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 82

[vii] Pseudo-Macarius (desert father, c. 400, Mesopotamia/Asia Minor) First Homily

Keeping the faith in a time of terror

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.

— Staretz Silouan[i]

Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life!

— Fyodor Dostoevsky[ii]

How do we sing the Lord’s song in the shadow of terror? In solidarity with all the victims of Brussels and the whole human family this week, I protest, I rage, I grieve, I pray. But I must also try to think.

Indiscriminate terror has long been a scourge on this earth, but its globalization through television and social media has now made it emotionally inescapable. Were I to dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, I could not flee from its presence.[iii]

So as we try to absorb the terrible news from Brussels, how do we “despair not” even in the face of monstrous evil? No simple task, and easy answers seem disrespectful in the time of weeping. But I do believe the antidote to despair is to keep the faith. We must never forget the sacred story we belong to. Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.[iv]

The terrorist, on the other hand, belongs to a story which for most of us in inconceivable. Terror is “the language of being noticed,”[v] a kind of performative rhetoric designed to bring a neglected or disregarded worldview into the open by subjecting others to the violent norms of its alternate reality. They see themselves as global victims, in search of a global audience for their cruel narrative. Mark Juergensmeyer, in his study of religious violence, explains this terrorist rationale:

If the world is perceived as peaceful, violent acts appear as terrorism. If the world is thought to be at war, violent acts may be regarded as legitimate. They may be seen as preemptive strikes, as defensive tactics in an ongoing battle, or as symbols indicating to the world that it is indeed in a state of grave and ultimate conflict.[vi]

In the minds of many terrorists, the war they are so eager to wage is apocalyptic, a cosmic conflict of good and evil in which there is no compromise or bridging of differences. They are, in Don DeLillo’s term, “lethal believers.” And the very worst thing we could do in response would be to play the part they have written for us: satanic enemies in a cosmic struggle. The proposals of certain American presidential candidates to “bomb the hell out of them,” or bring back the good old days of torture, would play perfectly into the terrorists’ hands, conceding the primacy of their deadly story.

However, I choose to belong to a better story, the one enacted and embodied in the powerful liturgies of Christ’s Passion. Step by step on the Way of the Cross this Holy Week, Christians will bring to mind and heart the saving journey which Jesus made, without weapons, into the abyss of suffering and death.

Renouncing all violence and hatred, Jesus remained faithful to the end. After pouring his whole life into a ministry of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, he continued to show us the face of love even as he was tortured on the cross. “Father, forgive,” he said with his dying breath. To the last moment, in his most bitter hour, he remained the human who shows us God by doing what God does.

Which story do we choose to live in? The story of terror and violence, or the story of self-diffusive love? Both are costly in the end, but only one leads to new and unconquerable life. Even after Brussels, the word remains: Be not afraid! Love makes the abyss into a Way.

The cross shows us how it is possible to absorb evil and neutralize its effects, rather than pass on the anger and live in bitterness. Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving away your coat to the robber who steals your shirt, loving enemies, doing good to those who hate, blessing those who curse us – all this turns out to be an intelligent and intelligible Christian way of living.[vii]

When medieval women mystics contemplated the cross in prayer and vision, they saw not death’s triumph but a kind of birth. The crucified Jesus was like a woman in labor, enduring pain and travail in order to bring us all to birth: Ah! Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw a mother suffer such a birth! For when the hour of your delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross and … in one day you gave birth to the whole world.[viii]

To see such a death and call it birth is the central act of Christian imagination. It is why we declare victory at the cross. We don’t wait for Easter Sunday. We declare victory at the cross, because the Passion isn’t just a story about violent powers that always trample the weak and kill the prophets. It’s also a story about the Realm of God, where dry bones breathe and lost hopes dance, where the prodigal is welcomed home and the tears are wiped from every eye. The Love that makes such a realm was nailed to a cross, but was not consumed by it. Death did what death does, and God did what God does.

And on the outcome of that story, I stake everything.

 

 

Related posts

We are the singers of life, not of death

After Paris and Beirut, what story shall we tell?

Beyond Punch and Judy: The art of nonviolent resistance

 

 

[i] Staretz Silouan (1866-1938) was a Russian monk on Mt. Athos in Greece. Appearing as an epigraph to Gillian Rose’s book, Love’s Work, I found this provocative saying in Andrew Shanks’ Against Innocence: Gillian Rose’s Reception and Gift of Faith (London: SCM Press, 2008), 9. Rose herself added this typically intense comment: “What Staretz Silouan is talking about is the subjective experience of God-forsakenness,” and even there finding God. “I want to sob and sob and sob,” she says, “until the prolonged shrieking becomes a shout of joy.”

[ii] From Alyosha Karamazov’s final speech in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 776

[iii] cf. Psalm 139:6, 8

[iv] Burial of the Dead, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 499

[v] Don DeLillo, quoted in Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000 ), 139

[vi] Juergensmeyer, 10

[vii] David Wood, in Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, eds. Simon Barrow & Jonathan Bartley (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007), 118

[viii] Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310)