The Word Magazine, April 1981, Page 5-6
An Easter Meditation
By Religious News Service
“And the women came out and ran away from the tomb because they were frightened out of their wits; and they said nothing to a soul, for they were afraid
– .“ Mark 16:8
“When the women returned from the tomb they told all this to the Eleven and to all the others. . . but this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them.” Luke 24:10-11
These verses from the gospel accounts of the first Easter are not those that usually come to mind as the annual celebration of Jesus’ resurrection rolls around. But perhaps they should, given the reaction of many contemporaries to the event in human history which Christians are supposed to consider the most decisive of all.
The women, Mark says, were “frightened out of their wits.” Is anything frightening about Easter in 1981? Surely not the Easter bunny and the Fifth Avenue parade and the jelly beans. Not even the strains of “Christ is Risen,” or the other great hymns of the season.
But perhaps Easter should not frighten us out of our wits, since we come to it 2,000 years removed from when it was first experienced. Unfortunately, the absence of fright seems also to have erased its kin — awe. Whatever Easter is for us — however inspiring, uplifting, exciting, beautiful — it is rarely awe-full.
Likewise, the reaction of our conventional contemporary piety tends to be not nearly so scandalous as that of the Eleven, to whom, Luke says, the women’s story “seemed pure nonsense.” No doubts or second thoughts for us. We have learned to manage the mystery by making it either metaphor or magic.
As metaphor, the historical reality of the Easter event is separated from the principles or truths or affirmations which the resurrection account implies or suggests. It is the latter which are deemed important; the former is a matter of indifference.
But are the two separable? Will the “deeper” or spiritual” truths of the resurrection survive if their foundation in a unique historical event involving a unique historical human person is taken away? In his “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” poet John Updike suggests not:
“Make no mistake; if He rose at all it was as His body; if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle, the Church will fall.
“It was not as the flowers, each soft Spring recurrent; it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the eleven apostles; it was as His flesh; ours. . .
“Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping transcendence; making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages: let us walk through the door. The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache…
“And if we will have an angel at the tomb, make it a real angel, weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen spun on a definite loom.
“Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty, lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle, and crushed by remonstrance.”
But the metaphorical is not the only cop-out. The other — the magical — is perhaps the more insidious.
Easter becomes a kind of grand finale of a series of really quite impressive divine magic acts. Cosmic wonder worker, disguised as itinerant rabbi, comes back from the dead. Clever, yea, brilliant. Henning and Houdini pale by comparison.
But of course, goes this line of reasoning, God can do anything. And so the resurrection of Jesus becomes but another item — albeit the superlative of its kind — in that laundry list of things deities are good at but which we humans can’t pull off — like squaring circles and making suns stand still and changing water into wine.
Resurrection as metaphor and resurrection as magic mean well, and they suggest some truths. But the problem with both is that they allow us too easily to say of the mystery of Jesus’ passover from death to life, “why, of course,” or “but it really means.” Having neatly packaged the mystery, cut it down to size as it were, we can move on to something else, never having been frightened out of our wits by what is going on.
Easter, of course, is not an isolated event. It is the centerpiece of a drama which the preceding events of Holy Week, indeed of the church year back to Advent, have re-presented.
“0 Life Eternal, how is it that You are brought to the grave? Oh light how is it that You are quenched?” asks an Orthodox Christian hymn. Eastern Orthodox theologian and hierarch Anthony Bloom reflects:
“His death has a quality, a weight, which belongs to him alone. We are not saved by the death of Christ because it was particularly cruel. Countless men, women and children throughout the ages have suffered as cruelly. Many have burnt. in flames, many have frozen in the ice, many have died of long, excruciatingly painful illness, many have suffered torture and imprisonment in camps in the horrors of war. The death of Christ is unique because Jesus of Nazareth could not die. It is not His Resurrection which is the incredible miracle. It is His death. .. .
“He dies although He cannot die, He dies although He is immortal . . . The death of Christ is a tearing apart of an immortal body from an immortal soul — of a-body that could not die from a soul that is alive, remains alive forever. This makes the death of Christ a tragedy beyond our imagining, far beyond any suffering which we can humanly picture or experience. Christ’s death is an act of supreme love.. . .He gave His life, He accepted the impossible death to share with us all the tragedy of our human condition.”
Or, as the 17th-century hymn text by Sigismund von Birken is so bold to say, “for us, You died, 0 God.”
Then comes the great, transformation, about which the “exultet” — the traditional announcement of the resurrection sung at the Western Easter vigil service, speaks so extravagantly:
“This indeed is the Paschal Feast in which the true Lamb is slain, by whose blood the doorposts of the faithful are made holy. This is the night in which in ancient times, You delivered our forebears, the children of Israel, from the land of Egypt: and led them, dry-shod, through the Red Sea. This, indeed, is the night in which the darkness of sin has been purged away by the rising brightness.
“This is the night in which all who believe in Christ are rescued from evil and the gloom of sin and renewed in grace, and are restored to holiness. This is the night in which, breaking the chains of death, Christ arises from hell in triumph. . . 0 night truly blessed which alone was worthy to know the time and the hour wherein Christ arose again from hell. This is the night of which it is written: “ ‘And the night is as clear as the day;’ and, ‘then shall my night be turned into day.’ The holiness of this night puts to flight the deeds of wickedness, washes away sin; restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn; casts our hate; brings peace; and humbles earthly pride…..”
This developed understanding of what the resurrection means is probably not what frightened the women out of their wits and caused the apostles to dismiss their story as nonsense.
But if we take it seriously, it should push us in that direction. The claim of Easter is a cosmic claim, stupendous beyond measure, utterly beyond the possibility of managing or packaging, categorizing or explaining.
St. John Chrysostoin, fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, in an Easter sermon repeated in all Orthodox Christian congregations to this day, makes the similar outlandish point in other words:
“Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it, has annihilated it. By descending into hell, He made hell captive . – . It was angered, for it was abolished. It was angered, for it was mocked. lt was angered, for it was slain. It was angered, for it was overthrown. It was angered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God, face to face. It took earth, and encountered heaven….
“Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen and life reigns, Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave….”
If all that does not tend to frighten us, or sound somehow like nonsense, then we probably do not take it seriously. If we do not take it seriously, Easter as magic or mere metaphor is a wan counterfeit.
If we accept to enter into the mystery of Easter, the traditional liturgical exchange, “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!” says about all there is to say. It remains only for us to learn, bit by bit, year by year, some fraction of what it means.