My body shall rest in hope: A Holy Saturday reflection

F. Holland Day, It is Finished (1898)

Over the next three days, Christians will undergo a ritual immersion into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The liturgies of the Triduum – the Great Three Days – are where we do our best theology and our most heartfelt common prayer. Richly layered, multi-sensory, dramatic and moving, the Triduum is a three-act liturgy like no other. By the time it’s over you may be someone else. You can read more about the Triduum in my 2015 post, “The Journey is How We Know.”

The Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection all find expansive liturgical expression in the rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, but the interval of Holy Saturday, when Jesus’ body lay in the tomb, has received relatively little ritual attention. It is a time to “wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought” (T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”). A time for the silent suspension of ritual. Still, I can’t help but wonder how to read the profound quiet of Holy Saturday.

So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb which he had hewn in the rock. (Matthew 27: 59-60a)

After the anguished drama of the Crucifixion, the shouting mob, the screaming victims, the weeping witnesses, the coolly descriptive neutrality of this verse delivers the shock of finality. Jesus is dead and gone. The presence who had shaken the world like an earthquake is suddenly no longer. All that remains is “the body”––and the profound silence of an irreversible absence.

Enguerrand Quarten, Avignon Pieta (1456)

Everyone who has seen a loved one die knows this silence, knows the numbing realization that a voice so familiar will never be heard again on this earth. As W. H. Auden imagines the first hours after the cross, “we are not prepared / For silence so sudden and so soon; / The day is too hot, too bright, too still, / Too ever, the dead remains too nothing. / What shall we do until nightfall?”

And a 6th-century hymn for Holy Saturday laments:

Great silence reigns on earth this day!
Great loneliness embraces all!
For death has had its ruthless way,
And caught the Lord and Love of all.

Although theology likes to declare victory over death and sin on Good Friday, and Christian imagination has envisioned Holy Saturday as a triumphant storming of the gates of hell by Christus Victor, we must not deny Jesus’ full humanity by exempting him from the fate of every mortal: the complete and absolute draining away of life. “He descended into hell,” the condition of non-being, non-relation, and non-communication which are the opposites of God.

Hans Holbein the Younger,
The Dead Christ (1521)

Whatever “the Father” was doing on Holy Saturday, the Son was lying in the tomb, enduring the same lifeless solitude and silence which are every mortal’s fate. As Hans Urs von Balthasar astutely notes, this was the final form of the Redeemer’s solidarity with the rest of us. Among the dead, “solidarity means: being solitary like, and with, the others.” Stripped of all life and power, Jesus still found a way to keep us company. As we all shall one day be, he was dead and gone, passively awaiting the next move by the Creator who always makes something out of nothing.

In this final and utter surrender to death, the Incarnate One made even the dire extremities of the human condition part of divine experience. He took the nothingness and silence of nonexistence into the heart of the Creator, where it was finally and decisively overcome. As Irenaeus said, “only what has been endured can be healed and saved.” No matter how lost we get, no matter how deep we fall into the abyss, Christ has already gone there before us, making that abyss into a road––the unexpected path to life eternal.

And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad;
even my body shall rest in hope.
For you will not abandon me to the grave,
nor let your beloved know decay.  (Psalm 16: 9-10)

Matthias Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516)

 

Related post: Are we too late for the Resurrection?

 

 

 

Running on Fast Forward

Martha, Jim and Marilyn Friedrich, after the great Los Angeles snowfall (January 1949)

They were so young then, the four of them
sitting on a log in the sand, a row of apartments
in the background, each window facing the sea.

We must have been ten, in matching swimsuits,
riding the long rollers toward shore, dreaming
of soldiers handsome in their uniforms.

They look happy, our parents, as if they had
given away all their secrets and could relax,
not one of them thinking of tomorrow

or yesterday, or any peril that might befall
their children, tumbling about in inner tubes
over the thrilling ocean.

A breeze ruffles the hem of my mother’s skirt.
My father has taken off his shoes.

– Marilyn Robertson, “The Photograph”[i]

My oldest sister Marilyn wrote this poem about an old photo from the 1940s. She and a friend were off-camera, playing in the surf, while their parents kept watch from the shore. “The Photograph” is in a new collection of her poems she presented to her siblings, Martha and me, last weekend, on the occasion of her 80th birthday. I found some of my own childhood inside, like the time I fell out of a moving car at two years old.

In return, I gave her my DVD compilation edit of scenes from our childhood and youth, captured with the clarity of 16mm film by our father. I had added an interpretive music track ranging from “My Blue Heaven” to “Magical Mystery Tour.”

A retrospective mood is common enough on significant birthdays, but the documentary evidence of those home movies gave a vivid immediacy to our memories. Both still and moving pictures preserve long-vanished light. They become the past the instant they are shot. To look at them brings the joy of remembered presence, but also the melancholy of realized absence. Our parents are gone; so is our own past. Who are those bewildered little siblings in the old films, inventing their place in this world, improvising as they go? Did they really grow up to be us?

Eight members of the family––by coincidence, one for each of Marilyn’s decades––gathered for her birthday weekend in one of architect Julia Morgan’s rustic wood and stone houses at Asilomar (“refuge by the sea”) on the tip of California’s Monterey Peninsula. My sisters and I, along with various spouses and children, savored the chance to share memories, plans and dreams, as well as games, walks, and very un-Lenten feasts.

Present and future were as much on our minds as the past. But still, the theme of passing time was inescapable. We grow old, we lose loved ones, we know the meter is running. “Last Times,” another of Marilyn’s poems, considers the divided consciousness of mortal beings. Though “now” is all we ever really have, we can’t help but wonder how long we’ve got.

Halfway through December, a day comes when
I wonder how many more turkeys I’ll bake, worrying
over the gravy, the pan always hard to clean.

Or how many more times I’ll unwrap the crèche
from its colored tissue, lifting out the holy family,
the shepherds and their docile sheep.

I am running on fast forward.
If only I could change direction, like movies
my father ran backward in the projector:

smashed bricks gathering themselves
into a wall again, a smashed truck suddenly
good as new, rolling backward down the road,
clouds of dust sucked in by the tires.

The last time I saw that film I was a girl.
We’d beg him to run it again
and finally he’d agree: But this is the last time.

I make out the grocery list,
slip on my jacket, plan the week
as if the days will follow one another
through this house forever.[ii]

Marilyn Robertson, Jim Friedrich, and Martha Stevens at their father’s childhood home (Summer 1980)

On our last evening together we lingered well past bedtime, happy to postpone the inevitable scattering of the clan. We wandered out to the coastal dunes beyond the lights, where Orion hovered brightly beside the Paschal Moon. To the music of breaking waves, we recited Greek myths about the heavens. When we returned to the house, Martha, a brilliant storyteller, gave us an epic tale about a red-headed woman, Maud Applegate, who tracks Death across the wide world to beg for the life of her cowboy love, grievously wounded in a gunfight. When Maud finally spots her quarry climbing the steep trail to his mountain home, she shouts, “Hey, Mr. Death, wait up!”

She not only finds Mr. Death, she also meets his mother, who proves very sympathetic, and the three of them form a surprising bond. Death eventually grants Maud the boon of sparing her man, but the cowboy turns out to be a cad, and in the end the red-headed woman goes back to Death’s place, to help out as best she can and ease the burden of his loneliness. It was a story both funny and strange, deftly told. We all listened intently, like children with upturned faces. Somehow a tale about befriending Mr. Death was just the thing for our little group of aging mortals.

My wife lost her father in January. Four other people dear to me have also departed in the last six months. Our family has loved ones struggling with cancer and Parkinson’s. The losses are mounting up.

“Oh the separations we endure!” laments my poet sister.

A young man arrives at the station,
two black stones in his pocket.
His beautiful face breaks into a hundred pieces,

then reassembles itself
as he boards the train, waving
goodbye, goodbye to the life that loved him,

watching it fall backward into the wind,
the bamboo gate, the garden
with its wooden bridge over the pond.[iii]

Goodbye, goodbye to the ones we love. And then it’s goodbye to the life that loved us. And yet, as Rilke insists, “there is Someone, whose hands, infinitely calm, holds up all this falling.”[iv] While it’s no use to deny our mortality, there remains a mysterious surplus to human life for which death has no accounting.

On Sunday morning we celebrated eucharist together (it helps to have two priests in the family!), and the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent seemed especially apt. First came Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, contradicting the human sense of loss with the divine promise that our story is never quite over. I am going to open your graves, O my people, and raise you up. I will put my Spirit in you and you shall live.

The gospel for the day was the raising of Lazarus, the Fourth Gospel’s overture to resurrection on the brink of Holy Week. Perfect. Two sisters and a brother. Death doing what it does. Then Jesus doing what God does.

On the way to the post office this morning
I thought about the odd things we believe.

Things we swear by, pray for, put our trust in,
or wear printed on the back of a T-shirt.

Tarot cards. Crystal balls.
Runes and rattlesnakes.

First stars, second sight––
not to mention elves and Armageddon.

Just look at me, believing that someone
might have written me a letter,

that the world is in good hands,
that a man once walked out of a stone cold tomb

into the light of day, leaving
poor old Death completely in the dark.[v]

 

 

Related posts:

Tick-Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve

Are we too late for the Resurrection?

You say goodbye, I say hello: A Requiem sermon

 

 

[i] When a Color Calls Your Name: Poems by Marilyn Robertson (Santa Cruz, California, Limited Edition, 2017), 28

[ii] “Last Times,” ibid., 82

[iii] from “Separations,” ibid., 51

[iv] Rainer Maria Rilke, “Fall”

[v] “Belief,” Robertson, 53

“You say goodbye, I say hello”: A Requiem Sermon

Joe and Phyllis Golowka (1940s)

I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near.

– Jefferson Hascall, “Angel Band” (1860)

This winter, my dear friends Joe and Phyllis Golowka died five weeks apart in their 71st year of marriage. I was privileged to preach the sermon today for their Requiem Eucharist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cambria, California.

In his younger days, Joe Golowka led teen backpacking trips in California’s Sierra as part of the camping program for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. I had the joy of being the chaplain on those hikes. At some point time caught up with Joe, and he decided to let a younger generation take over, but not before taking one last big trek. We made it a good one: a 10-day traverse of the Sierra Nevada, ascending the western slope along the Middle Fork of the Kings River, crossing two high passes at the crest of the range, and descending the steep eastern escarpment to the Owens Valley. It was one of those revelatory walks which, as John Muir once put it, open a thousand windows to show us God.

On our sixth day, we stopped around noon to make camp along a stream, Palisades Creek, so we wouldn’t have to make a steep climb to our next lake in the heat of day. Instead, we would get up at 4 the next morning, walk by the light of the full moon and a rosy dawn, and reach the lake at sunrise.

With the rest of the day suddenly free, Joe went fishing. He wandered down the stream until he found a pretty good spot, but after a while he got restless, and went looking for some place better. But the second place also failed to satisfy his longing for that holy grail of fishermen: the perfect fishing hole.

As the fairy tales teach us, the magic is always found in the third place––in this case, a slope of smooth granite where the stream rushed down into a quiet, shaded pool. As Joe approached, he saw golden trout leaping out of the pool into the cascade, only to be swept backward by the swift volume of water. Over and over again, the fish threw themselves against the stream’s powerful flow. But none of them could breach the crest of the cascading whitewater.

As Joe watched this spectacle of fierce desire, so thwarted yet so relentless, he felt the call to intervene on life’s behalf. He cast his barbless hook into the deep blue pool, and almost immediately, a trout tugged on his line. He pulled it out, slipped it unharmed off the hook, and tossed it upstream, beyond the cascade, where it could continue its hero’s journey. Again, Joe cast his line, and the same thing happened. Over and over, a trout would bite almost immediately, surrendering to Joe’s saving presence. It was as if the fish somehow understood that the fatal hook would prove to be the instrument of life, not death.

In the space of forty minutes, Joe caught and released thirty-four golden trout. Overcome by the sheer wonder of it, he finally had to stop. Miracles send a lot of voltage through your body. You need to step away and recover. He returned to camp shaking. When he finally shared his story at the evening campfire, it struck me that he had been privileged, for a moment, to share the work of our Creator and Redeemer–– rescuing the hopeless from the depths, casting living seeds into the future, turning a dead end into a gate of life.

And now, forty years later, Joe himself has gone through that gate, with his beloved Phyllis right behind him. They are in glory now, but what about us? Who will wipe the tears from our eyes?

Joe and Phyllis walked this earth for nearly a century. A presence we always took for granted has suddenly been withdrawn. The empty chair, the empty room, startle us with absence, and trouble us with longing.

There Is a time to be born and a time to die––this is the inescapable human condition––but acknowledging our mortal nature does not lessen our grief. Indeed, grief is the price of love, whenever that time comes when we must take the parting hand.

How we wish it were otherwise. Couldn’t we have had them just a little longer?

There’s an Irish song called “The Parting Glass.” They sing it in pubs at closing time. Its minor key and wistful words express the sorrow of ending the evening’s camaraderie as people go their separate ways into the night––a sorrow which feels like a rehearsal for the end of life itself:

Oh, all the comrades that e’er I had,
Are sorry for my going away.
And all the loved ones that e’er I had
Would wish me one more day to stay.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and softly call,
“Goodnight, and joy be with you all.”

I love that last line. The singer doesn’t just say farewell and disappear. He pronounces a blessing upon those who remain: “Joy be with you all.” Yes, we honor our dead by the tears we shed. We honor them even more by embracing the joy they wish for us.

The Bible describes the company of heaven as a great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on from above. The novelist George Eliot called the departed “the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.”[i]

Give your sadness all the time it needs, but remember to hold a space in your heart for the ways the departed will return to you––the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.

For the absence of a loved one in a bodily and temporal form
is succeeded by new forms of presence.

I once asked a group of high school students to write their own epitaph, and this is what one seventeen-year-old girl proposed for her imaginary tombstone:

You say goodbye,
I say hello.

The people who matter have a way of sticking around. Although death changes the relationship, it doesn’t end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Our beloved Joe and Phyllis are no longer in one particular place. They are in every place we remember them. They are present when their voices echo in our ears, or in those places where we shared special times together. They are present whenever we think of them, or speak of them, or tell the stories that were their lives.

When C.S. Lewis wrote about the grief process after the death of his wife, he said that as the acute sense of loss began to fade, he wondered whether he was starting to forget her by being happy again, or whether he might betray the rich complexity of her being by reducing her to a fixed set of memories.

But once he just stopped worrying about it, he found that, as he put it, he “began to meet her everywhere.” It wasn’t a voice or an apparition, or even a big emotional experience. It was, he said, “a sort of unobstrusive but massive sense that she is, just as much as ever, a fact to be taken into account.”[ii]

Michael Smith, a folksinger from Chicago, described a similar sense of presence in a song about his late father.

I brought my father with me
I hope that you don’t mind
I couldn’t find it in me
To make him stay behind…

There are some ways I’m just like him
Some ways he was just like me
And sometimes when the mirror’s dim
His face is clear to see
Tonight the winds of heaven
Blow the stars across the sky
I brought my father with me
I couldn’t say goodbye [iii]

We have all  brought Joe and Phyllis with us this morning. And they will remain with each of us in countless ways. I can’t go on a hike without hearing Joe’s voice, telling me to pay attention, to take in the beauty offering itself in every moment. Don’t just stare down at the trail! Look around!

We carry Joe and Phyllis with us. But we also grieve their absence. They’ve been a presence in our lives for so long, It’s hard to believe they are gone. Our hearts go out to their family, especially to their children. Losing one’s parents is one of the hardest things we ever do, no matter how old they were or how old we are. There is great sorrow in that. It is a time to weep.

But it is also a time to dance.
We lament today, but we also praise.

Thank God we had Joe and Phyllis in our lives for so long.
Thank God that Joe was what only Joe could be,
that Phyllis was what only Phyllis could be.
Thank God for what Joe and Phyllis could only be together.
Thank God for what they gave us.
Thank God for the ways they loved and mentored and befriended us.
Thank God for the ways they blessed us.

Joe and Phyllis will live on in memory and story, and we take great comfort and pleasure in that. But we also make a deeper claim here. Joe’s life, and Phyllis’ life, are not just something we remember––because their journey is not over and done. They still have a future––with Christ and in Christ in the company of heaven. God loses no one.

Death is not the last word, the final chapter. It is, rather, the passage into the unimaginable fullness of unending life in God.

Death, be not proud. though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow 
Die not . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more . . .[iv]

So said John Donne, 17th century Anglican poet and priest, because he knew how the story goes: Love wins and death dies.

This is the story that God’s friends stake their lives on:
God has loved us into existence.
God sustains us every step of our life’s journey.
And even after our bodies give out,
God loves us too much to let us go.

This Requiem eucharist is above all a celebration of resurrection. In our hymns and our prayers we proclaim the God of life who has made death into the gate of heaven.

Everything we sing and pray today comes down to this: We are here to celebrate the entrance of Joe and Phyllis into the land of light and joy.

Some of you know how I love American shape note hymns. They were written at a time when people with shorter life expectancies had to look death in the face every day, and they still managed to proclaim the victory of life. Even at the grave, they made their song:

Why do we mourn departing friends,
Or shake at death’s alarms?
‘Tis but the voice that Jesus sends
to call them to his arms.[v]

Filled with delight, my raptured soul
Would here no longer stay,
Though Jordan’s wave around me roll,
Fearless, I’d launch away.
I am bound for the Promised Land,
I am bound for the Promised Land![vi]

Farewell, my friends, adieu, adieu,
I can no longer stay with you;
My glitt’ring crown appears in view,
All is well, all is well.[vii]

About the same time those hymns were written, Henry David Thoreau was on his deathbed in Concord, Massachusetts. A few days before he died, a family friend said to him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.”

And Thoreau, who had spent his life carefully observing and describing what he saw in the fields and woods around Walden Pond, replied simply, “One world at a time.”[viii]

However curious we may be about what it’s like across that dark river between the worlds, we can’t see it from here. But I would venture to say that heaven is not so much a place as it is a relationship. We live in God and God lives in us. And that is true on both sides of the river. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.

If you want more details, the Scriptures provide so many vivid images of what it means to be in God’s presence:

Isaiah says that wherever the oppressed begin to hear good news, and the prisons go out of business, and the tears of the brokenhearted are replaced by the oil of gladness, heaven is already happening. (Isaiah 61:1-3)

St. Paul assures us that nothing––neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor presidents, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Not now, or ever. (Romans 8:38-9)

Today’s Epistle declares: “God will dwell with mortals, and they will be God’s family… Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

And Jesus our Brother tells us, “It is the will of the One who sent me that I shall lose nothing of all those entrusted to me. . . and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:39-40)

By the way, when I think of the Last Day, I imagine it’s something like the shock of your first morning on a backpack with Joe. You’re in a peaceful sleep, snug in your down bag, content to postpone the shock of the cold mountain air.

Then, as sudden as the angel’s resurrection trumpet, a hand shakes you awake, and a voice shouts, “Rise and shine! Come out of that fluffy cocoon. This is the day which God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Those may not have been Joe’s exact words, but some of you were there on those mornings. You know what I’m talking about. The Day of Resurrection!

In a few minutes, we will collectively perform our central image for life in God:
We will gather around a table where Love bids us welcome,
to be richly nourished by the food of heaven.

There’s a place for everyone at God’s feast.
No one is excluded or banned or forgotten.
As they say at heaven’s gate, “Weary pilgrim, welcome home.”

One last thing.

Joe and Phyllis were both blessed to die at home, in hospice care, with family keeping vigil. My father-in-law, Arthur, did the same at the end of January, and I found a strangely beautiful grace in those last days. The soul’s departure is an awesome and holy thing to witness. It is life’s profoundest mystery.

When the time comes, people seem to know exactly what to do: their body gradually letting go as their attention shifts from this world to the next.

And as they depart from us, this is how we pray for them:
Receive them into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.[ix]

The contemplative monk Thomas Merton said that death is not something that just happens to us as passive recipients. It is, rather, something we do, an act of self-offering, what Merton called “the last free perfect act of love which is at once surrender and acceptance.”[x]

In other words, in the act of dying, we let everything go
and give ourselves over completely into the hands of God.
That is what Joe has done; that is what Phyllis has done.
And one day, you and I will do the same.

And God, as promised, will prove to be “mercy clothed in light.”[xi]

O glorious day! O blessed hope!
My soul leaps forward at the thought:
When, on that happy, happy land,
We’ll no more take the parting hand.
But with our blessed holy Lord
We’ll shout and sing with one accord.[xii]

 

Related post: Fathers, we must part

 

 

 

[i] From her poem, “O May I Join the Choir Invisible,” q. in All in the End is HarvestL An Anthology for Those Who Grieve, ed. Agnes Whitaker (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1984, 1995), 83

[ii] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, q. in All in the End, 105

[iii] Michael Smith, “I Brought My Father With Me,” on his album Time, 1994

[iv] John Donne, Holy Sonnets X in John Donne, The Complete English Poems, ed, C.A Patrides (London: Everyman’s Library, 1991), 440-1

[v] “China” in The Sacred Harp 163b (Bremen, GA: The Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991)

[vi] “The Promised Land” in ibid., 128

[vii] “All Is Well” in ibid., 122

[viii] Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 8

[ix] Ministration at the Time of Death in The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 465

[x] From posthumous publication, Love and Living (1979, p. 103), q. in The Thomas Merton Encylopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 107

[xi] Jane Kenyon’s sublime image is from her poem, “Notes from the Other Side,” in Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

[xii] “Parting Hand” in The Sacred Harp, 62

Changemaking Churches and the Transformation of Neighborhoods

From "This is not a gentle poem" by Arne Pihl, part of "All Rise," a Seattle art happening about neighborhood change and social struggle, 2014-15 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

From “This is not a gentle poem” by Arne Pihl, part of “All Rise,” a Seattle art happening about neighborhood change and social struggle, 2014-15 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

It is not so much the gift of tongues that we now need as the gift of ears, not so much the proclamation of our beliefs as the willingness to listen to the ways in which we ourselves are being addressed, not so much the assertion of our knowledge but the silent admission that we are ready to learn. — Alan Ecclestone[i]

 

Does institutional Christianity have a future? We have certainly heard the dismal narratives of decline. Churches and seminaries are closing, congregations are aging, and budgets are shrinking, while the unaffiliated— “Nones” and “Dones”— are on the rise. There are still many pockets of vitality— thriving, growing, committed churches— but their long-term sustainability remains a serious question in the unsupportive habitat of postmodernity.

How many Christian bodies, at either the local or the denominational level, have resigned themselves to a diminished role as complacent and compliant chaplains to the dominant culture, or as harmless historical societies dedicated to the preservation of endangered practices and memories? An English priest of the last century, Alan Ecclestone, warned that such abdication of its changemaking mission would produce a “miserly and unexpectant” church.

Thankfully, we have antidotes for such a fate: resurrection and the Holy Spirit. Resurrection transforms death into rebirth; the Holy Spirit makes all things new. The Book of Common Prayer describes this potency with elegant brevity: “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.”

Enough with the narratives of decline! It is time to tell Easter stories. And at the recent Inhabit Conference in Seattle, I was blessed to hear many encouraging accounts of new life and abundant Spirit. For two days, Christian changemakers shared stories about doing and being “church” in new ways and new places. Even though many of the speakers do ministry in the lusterless environs of makeshift buildings and impoverished neighborhoods, their stories glowed with resurrection light.

Strangers sharing nothing but a zip code become friends over soup suppers. A trashy vacant lot is transformed into a beautiful park or neighborhood garden. Economic wastelands bloom as social entrepreneurs are raised up locally. The hungry and homeless become neighbors-in-need rather than faceless problems. The powerless organize to make their voices heard in civic planning and development. Police and residents defuse tensions and break stereotypes by socializing together. “Low-status neighborhoods” are redeemed by the work of many hands, becoming places of human flourishing. Such things don’t always happen, but when they do, the Kingdom of God draws near, and the church of God rises from the dead.

The Inhabit conference presenters, many in their twenties and thirties, have committed themselves to simplified and generous lifestyles as residents of the struggling communities they serve. Their “churches” tend to be improvisational— living rooms, storefronts, neighborhood centers, local watering holes, and street corners. If any of their ministries employ a traditional church space, it is usually where the old congregation has been on the verge of extinction.

These youthful pastors understand “parish” in its original sense— designating a whole neighborhood rather than simply the church situated within it. Their ministry is dedicated not to their faith community alone, but to the flourishing of their whole geographical parish. Don’t just feed the hungry; get to know them by breaking bread together. Don’t just serve the poor; help them get the skills and opportunities they need. Don’t just care about people, but work with them to challenge and change the forces which impact their lives. Organize for parks and housing. Educate. Demand justice. Reclaim the commons. Foster hope. Develop local economies. Lift up social entrepreneurs. Build equity. Break barriers. Nurture relationships. Network solutions. Innovate. Improvise. Advocate, organize, include, connect, encourage and empower. Be Jesus for others. Imagine.[ii]

The mission statement of Parish Collective, one of the Inhabit conference sponsors, summarizes the vital work of fostering communities of belonging in the forgotten corners of an alienating and divisive society: “We seek to reconcile fractured relationships and celebrate differences by collaborating across cultural barriers and learning to live in solidarity with those in need.” Or put more simply, “Living local together” for “street-level renewal.”[iii]

All of the speakers were passionate about making a difference in the neighborhoods they inhabit. But they are careful to act “with” rather than act “for” the local community. They don’t arrive as colonists imposing their vision, or saviors with the big idea for everyone else to follow. They come as relentless listeners, with the gifts of ears and respectful attention. As one speaker said, “Love listens.” Another added, “Let the neighborhood speak to us, rebuke us, teach us.”

This is not easy work, nor is it quickly done. As one pastor told the conference, “Our church is in the oven, not the microwave. It starts slow and takes longer, but it tastes better.” Sometimes faith is a lot like patience. The Tree of Life doesn’t grow overnight. But still we believe in the promised fruit, as Shane Claiborne, a young Christian changemaker, reminds us:

“Faith is believing despite the evidence—
and then watching that evidence start to change.”

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Alan Ecclestone, q. in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (London: SPCK 2008), 472

[ii] Good recent resources on these themes are The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community (Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, Dwight J. Friesen; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014) and Live Like You Give a Damn: Join the Changemaking Celebration (Tom Sine; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016)

[iii] http://parishcollective.org

 

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