What Shall We Preach on Easter Sunday?

Harrowing of Hell, Barberini Exultet Scroll (Italy, c. 1087)

The original disciples were shocked into bliss by the Resurrection––
and they never recovered.

–– Dom Sebastian Moore O.S.B.

 

At the entrance to the Jerusalem’s Church of All Nations, next to the Garden of Gethsemane, there is a sign warning every visitor:

NO EXPLANATIONS INSIDE THE CHURCH

This was intended to discourage talkative tour guides from disturbing the church’s prayerful ambience with shouted lectures, but it has always struck me as very good advice for preachers on Easter Sunday. Confronted by a room full of people who spend most of their time in the secular social imaginary where the dead stay dead and God––if there is one––does not intervene in the natural order, preachers are tempted to mount a defense of the Resurrection within the plausibility structures of the modern mindset. In doing so, they not only tame a dangerous mystery into a manageable––and rather harmless––assumption, but they also waste a valuable opportunity to bring the assembly into confrontation with the transformative presence of the living Christ.

There is nothing wrong with addressing people’s doubts, or wondering what facts might lie behind the “painfully untidy stories”[i] of the Easter narratives. But that is work for another day. Easter Sunday is for proclamation, not explanation. It is a time to meet the One who changes everything.

The central question of Easter is not, “What happened to Jesus way back then?” but rather, “Where is Jesus now––for us?” Or even more strikingly, “When is Jesus­­? When is Jesus for us?”[ii] So Easter becomes not a matter of our questioning the Resurrection, but of allowing the Resurrection to question us. Who are we now, and what must we become, in the light of the risen Christ?

If I were preaching on Easter Sunday, I wouldn’t want to convince so much as to invite–– to invite the mixed crowd of believers, seekers and doubters to embrace the Easter experience and consent to its transformative effects. In order to connect the risenness of Jesus with the risenness of us and all creation, I would pursue two fundamental themes: Easter is now! And, Resurrection has consequences!

Easter is now!

Since it only occurs once a year, Easter Sunday is sometimes mistaken for a commemorative anniversary of a past event. In fact, the earliest churches treated the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection as the timeless (or time-full) subject of every eucharistic liturgy. The establishment of an annual observance of “Easter Day” was a later development.

The Resurrection, although breaking into history on a specific temporal occasion, is not the property of the past. As God’s future showing itself in our present, it belongs to all times and seasons. Jesus is alive, still showing up as a transfiguring presence in a world fraught with absences. Jesus is not over, and his story is not over. It will only be completed in the divinization of the cosmos, when God is in all and all are in God.

Easter isn’t something we remember. It’s something we live and breathe.

Resurrection has consequences

The Resurrection is more than an idea we talk about or believe propositionally. It’s something we become, something we “prove” in the living of our stories. Rowan Williams describes it this way:

“[T]he 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––a pattern, a dance, intelligible as a pattern only when its pivot and heart become manifest. The believer shows Jesus as the center of his or her life.”[iii]

In the Orthodox icon of the Resurrection, Jesus is never by himself. He is always depicted taking the dead by the hand and pulling them out of their own tombs. Christ’s hand snatching us from death is a vivid image (as in the Exultet scroll above), and George Herbert, the seventeenth-century poet-priest, employs it artfully in ‘Easter’:

Sing his praise
Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand,
that thou likewise
Mayst rise . . .

But the things that are killing us exert a powerful gravity. We sag under the weight of our despair, we resist the hand that pulls us upward. Nevertheless, Christ persists. “Arise, sad heart,” says Herbert in ‘The Dawning’:

if thou dost not withstand,
Christ’s resurrection thine may be;
Do not by hanging down break from the hand
Which, as it riseth, raiseth thee.

Do not by hanging down break from Christ’s hand. Christ came to save us from our least selves. That’s the gift––and the challenge––of the Resurrection, and it applies to our common life as well as to our private selves. The first disciples, so scattered and shamed by the events of the Passion, made this perfectly clear when their broken and bewildered community was restored to life. And so it is for all of us who follow.

Resurrection is about the healing and restoration of wounded and severed relationships: relationships between God and humanity, between human persons and, ultimately, among all the elements of creation. An Orthodox theologian puts the case in the widest possible terms: “The Resurrection is not the resuscitation of a body; it is the beginning of the transfiguration of the world.”[iv]

That’s what I would preach on Sunday. Of course we don’t control what people take away from the Easter celebration. But we can hope that the faithful will be inspired and empowered, and that “outsiders” may be intrigued–– and even fed–– by spending time with a resurrection community alive with the Spirit.

The primary task of preachers and evangelists on Easter Sunday is not to recite or argue the evidence for the Resurrection, but to help their communities become that evidence. May the whole world one day see and know a church which has been shocked into bliss––and has never recovered!

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Holy Week posts

Dear reader, as we enter the Triduum, the Great Three Days of Holy Week, I pray that your own experience of dying and rising, whether ritually embodied in the traditional rites or undergone in the particularity of your own spiritual path, may bring you to the place of new life and true peace. Easter graces be upon you.

I have written a number of posts about aspects of Holy Week, and I link them below as seeds for your own reflection. As always, I am blessed by your reading.

The Journey is How We Know (The Triduum)

Temporary Resurrection Zones (Maundy Thursday)

We Are Not Alone (Good Friday)

Good Friday

My Body Shall Rest in Hope – A Holy Saturday Reflection

Just a Dream? – Reflections on the Easter Vigil

Are We Too Late for the Resurrection?

 

[i] Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1982 & 2002), 100.

[ii] Gareth Jones, “The Resurrection in Contemporary Systematic Theology,” in Resurrection Reconsidered, ed. Gavin D’Costa (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1996), 42.

[iii] Williams, 55-56.

[iv] Patriarch Athenagoras, q. in Michel Quenot, Resurrection and the Icon, trans. Michael Breck (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 232.

March For Our Lives: When Hope and History Rhyme

 

Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

–– Seamus Heaney, “Doubletake”

 

Heaney’s powerful words seem the perfect epigraph for this amazing day, when hundreds of thousands of people In over 800 communities took to the streets to say “enough is enough.” Enough shootings!  Enough victims! It’s time to heal our national gun-sickness. It’s time to choose life.

Have we finally reached a turning point? We’ve seen countless turning points come to naught. We have become well accustomed not to “hope on this side of the grave.” But this new movement, led by highly committed young people not yet practiced in the art of resignation, does feel different. Could this in fact be one of those rare moments, like the end of apartheid or the fall of the Berlin wall, when “hope and history rhyme”?

Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In “Summoning the Sanity to Scream,” posted in the wake of Orlando, I wrote:

Gun worship seems the most powerful religion in America. From presidents to schoolchildren, the blood of countless victims stains its altars. And however much we rage and moan we feel powerless to stay the hand of sacrifice.

 After the joy of marching with thousands of beautiful fellow citizens in the streets of Seattle, and later viewing media excerpts of the utterly compelling young voices at the demonstration in Washington, D.C., I felt myself being awakened from the deadly illusion of inevitability. I began to let myself hope again. The kids are leading the way out of the Slough of Despond. How can we not follow?

Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

I was especially moved by Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Already well known for her prophetic cry against the NRA and its political puppets (“We call BS!”), she began with a brief, heartbreaking roll call of her seventeen dead friends. Then, remaining at the podium, she stood in solemn silence for a very long six minutes––ritually enacting the excruciating duration of the mass shooting.

Ms. Gonzalez had not explained her silence in advance, nor had she invited the crowd to observe it with her. Many in the crowd of 800,000 were undoubtedly bewildered by such an exercise, periodically filling the uncomfortable silence with shouts of “We love you, Emma,” or chants of “Never again.” But the camera also showed many faces mute and tearful. It was a risky liturgical move to immerse that vast multitude in such a long silence (almost unendurable for talkative Americans!) without any advance consensus on its intention or meaning. Those weren’t a million Trappists out there. As far as I could tell from the video, she more or less pulled it off, never quite losing them. I suspect that many will be haunted by the experience for a long time to come. You can watch it here.

Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

It is late, I am tired from a lot of walking, and I hesitate to reduce what happened today into a few concluding paragraphs. Something great happened out there, and let’s leave it at that for now. But I am prompted  to make a brief digression before signing off.

As a priest on the eve of Holy Week, I could not help making connections between today’s events and what Christians will be doing over the next eight days. How could I not carry echoes of today’s joyful urban processions into tomorrow’s commemoration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem? Both processions involved cheering crowds envisioning a better world; both posited fundamental challenges to the established powers. As for the fate of today’s crowds compared to the one in first-century Jerusalem, I suspect there are crucial differences as well. While every human dream must endure repeated crucibles of resistance and setback, I suspect that the kids on the streets today will not replicate the failures of the Palm Sunday crowd. In that sense, they may prove to be more like Jesus––enduring faithfully with their eyes on the prize––than like the fickle crowd whose “hosannas” turned so quickly to “crucify.”

The other connection I’m thinking about tonight is Emma Gonzalez’s six-minute silence. Founded on an original experience of unimaginable pain and loss, it created a space where suffering might be both remembered and transcended. Like the rites of Holy Week, it engaged the past as something never to be forgotten, something that is intrinsic to the story, but in the context of a future which can contain and redeem whatever has been lost. We all dwell in the provisional space between memory and hope, where we neither forget nor give up. There is always more to our story than we can ever know. Even in the darkest night, God continues to imagine the dawn.

Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

At the Easter Vigil next Saturday night, one of the stories we will tell is the deliverance of the biblical Israelites from the powers that enslave them. Instead of an adult reading the story from the Bible, children will act out the Exodus from Egypt. When they reach the Red Sea (adults blocking their way with waves of blue fabric), the congregation will shout “No way! No way!”–– like Congress telling the kids to give up and go home. But Moses will raise his staff, a way will open through the sea, and the Israelites will cross over. One will be carrying a “Never again” sign; another will wear a “March for our lives” T-shirt.

Once they are safely across the sea, Miriam, Moses’ sister, will reflect on what has happened, concluding with a declaration of faith:

“The world says NO.
The power of God is YES!”

 

 

Related posts

The Murderous Hypocrisy of Thoughts and Prayers

Summoning the Sanity to Scream

God Isn’t Fixing This

 

 

 

 

Christ is risen!

Holy Saturday began, like the previous two days of the Triduum, starting in the dark to walk by the light of Paschal moon and breaking dawn. Those early hours, the matins and lauds of newborn day, will surely remain among the sweetest of the Camino. After woods of oak and pine, sleeping villages in peaceful valleys, and the World Heritage site of the oldest discovered human remains (900,000 years ago), I pressed on into the urban sprawl of Burgos, determined to make the Easter Vigil at the great cathedral.

I knew it would not resemble the creative Vigils I have curated in the States. There would be no storytelling, theater, dance or musical eclecticism. But I was not prepared for the total absence of either mystery or joy. The solemn darkness at the beginning was shattered by the constant flashing of cameras, and the house lights were turned up full before the Exultet was sung, thus negating the holy glow of our candles. Fourteen scowling men in chasubles up front was a poor icon of Easter joy. And if your eye wandered upward to the spectacular golden retablo behind them, you were treated to St. James the Moor Slayer on his horse trampling a couple of Muslims (dressed in colorful costumes like dancers in “The Nutcracker,” so the effect was rather cheerful). Perhaps worst of all, never once did we get to shout “Christ is risen!”

I returned despondent to my tiny, cold, windowless hotel room after midnight. In the first hour of Easter morning, it felt like returning to the tomb. I didn’t go out again until noon. It was raining. The streets of the old city seemed dead. I sang “Welcome, Happy Morning” under my breath, more out of habit than conviction.

I happened to pass by the church of San Nicolas, whose splendid stone retablo was on my must-see list. So I ducked in out of the rain. And there, to my utter surprise, was the risen Christ, returning to the doubting and the sad just as he promised.

It was the end of mass. The priest pronounced the blessing, and then began the most extraordinary outpouring of Easter joy. For the next 45 minutes, children and youth in traditional costumes did festive folk dances to the sound of reeds and drum, Easter songs, and the continuous ringing of small hand bells. Sometimes they danced near the altar, sometimes they danced in procession around the aisles with priest and choir. Here was resurrection indeed:
“I am the dance and I still go on!” All the rest of us joined in hearty singing of the hymns and Alleluias, punctuated by loud shouts of “Viva!” Tears streamed down my face. O beauty so ancient and so new!

And so, as Scripture says, “Surely God’s mercies are not over; God’s kindnesses are never exhausted. They are renewed every morning.” When the celebration concluded, the priest walked among the people with a basket of sweet cookies. As he offered one to me, I received it with recognition:

“Take and eat – I am with you always.”

Jesus’ Bakery

Yesterday I was in Santa Domingo de la Calzada, whose cathedral keeps a couple of live roosters in the south transept in tribute to a local miracle involving a cooked chicken coming back to life, thus stirring the sheriff to leave his dinner in time to rescue a hanged man from death. It’s a long story.

This morning I slipped out of the sleeping town before dawn, by the light of the Paschal moon. By the time I reached a large wayside cross, the dawn was blazing behind me. It was a dramatic beginning for the great three days of the Paschal Triduum, the ritual mimesis of Christ’s passage through death into resurrection.

I have been wondering what Holy Week, and especially the Triduum, would feel like on the Camino, so far from my accustomed ways of keeping these days. Each day I walk to a new place , hoping there will be some kind of liturgy there, and that despite the language and cultural differences I can still be deeply engaged in the texts, prayers and singing. And there have been some memorable moments so far, especially the processions. But as the week enters its climax, how much will I miss the familiar words and powerful hymns of my own tradition that have always, for me, been essential to the experience? Will my ritual dislocation have its own unique gifts to offer?

I had my answer this morning, when I entered the village of Granon. After ninety minutes of walking, I was ready for some refreshment. Just past the church, I looked up and saw the sign: PANADERIA JESUS, On the very day we remember the Last Supper, where Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body,” I had found Jesus’ Bakery. It had just opened for the day, and I entered through a bead curtain to find the baker pulling fresh loaves from the oven. The one he handed me was still warm. I have never tasted better bread. As I continued my walk, loaf in hand, I consumed each bite with the reverence of the sacrament. As the Psalmist says,

So mortals ate the bread of angels;
God provided for them food enough.

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Semana Santa

I have the daily lectionary on my phone, allowing me to reflect on passages from the rich scriptures of Holy Week as I walk. I was particularly struck yesterday by the scene in John 12 where Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. One sentence provides the kind of sensory detail that is rare in the gospels: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” I’m sure John had his symbolic reasons for this verse, but it made me wonder about the last sensations taken in by the incarnate One in the last week of his life. With all that was on his mind and heart, did he still hear the birds of dawn, or notice the warm hues of late afternoon light? Did he gaze with wonder at the Paschal moon? Of course he hadn’t read the Romantics, but as Rebecca Solnit wrote about her experience of being arrested on Good Friday at a Nevada desert nuclear test site, “even when you’re in handcuffs, the sunset is still beautiful.”

That reflection in turn heightened my own attentiveness to the privileges of embodied being, and I tried to be present to the many sensations of an 8 hour walking day (perhaps excluding my aching shoulders and complaining feet).

I arrived in Logrono in time for one of their several Semana Santa (Holy Week) street processions. The “float” of prisoner Jesus was preceded by dozens of hooded drummers, pounding a deafening tattoo, the terrible sound of inescapable fate.