The mail has arrived late today, probably because of the winter rain; the sky brooding, the footing treacherous, early darkness creeping even into the chatter of the church office.
I am opening a plain brown envelope that contains about 20 pages, stapled in the upper left corner. Attached is a sticky note, beige, announcing the name of a financial management business. Underneath in blue ballpoint is a cryptic message: "This may be of interest." Beneath that, a single initial.
Printed in bold type on the cover page are six words: "Crucified, Dead and Buried: the Resurrection." I have in my hand a transcript of the CBC Radio program, Ideas.
I take it to my desk and, with rain pecking at the window glass, I begin to read. Soon the path through the treatise is lost. Questions have sprouted between the lines.
I am not well-acquainted with the sender. He comes to the church, sometimes, and listens to the distant stories of ancient Palestine, stories once scratched painstakingly on a scroll and passed hand-to-hand as generations rose and subsided. How is it that he carries these old stories of death and rising as he enters the office towers and the business lunches and the talk of level-five leadership?
"This may be of interest." Presumably it will interest me because it is my work to contemplate such things. What the note says without words is that such things have been of interest to him.
Are there many like him, going to work in one world, touched by the wonders of another? Does the commuter train bear them away in the cold air of the early morning to warm their hands at fires in the courtyards of the new Jerusalem? Does that old world still breathe strangely in them?
Yes, even now there are tales that will not die; rumours of a peasant resurrected, too insistent and too compelling to be silenced by the centuries. Thus across the millennia something causes a hand to write, "This may be of interest."
. . .
Of interest and more. The resurrection is to spiritual life as waking up is to daily life. It is how you begin, in the opening of the eyes. But when will it be more than a wistful enigma in the back of the mind? How will the resurrection appear?
Don't answer that. Don't look directly at the resurrection any more than you would look directly at the sun. You know what will happen. Besides, if you were capable of explaining it you would have so diminished the resurrection that it would no longer explain you. And you know there's no explaining you.
So I am not explaining. I don't know enough to explain. But I see that resurrection, whatever we might mean when we say the word, stirs up life out of the dust; that to find oneself in the presence of resurrection is to find oneself alive for once, as never before. I see that although it is at first fearful, before long it sends you back alive into the complexity and danger and breathtaking beauty and broken dreams of the world.
And I believe that at the heart of all this is Jesus. Jesus is the one left to us after God leaps off the high tower of heaven and takes the ghastly and gorgeous plunge down into the world, deep into the flesh. It is death to a God, resurrection, a death that works a birth in us. I can't imagine how we'd have known, if it weren't for Jesus and his dying.
. . .
It is not given to us to look directly at the resurrection. Yet there must be a way to draw near to the fearful mystery, as Moses drew near to "the thick darkness where God was." (Ex. 20:21) Perhaps one might go round about it, stopping here and there to look: listening now and then for strange wonders voiced by different witnesses. In the going round it may emerge somewhere, as a recluse may emerge from the trees if one does not look too directly.
Do you ever wonder -- as a youth might wonder about love -- if God will raise you to life at the last? He'll raise me. He'll raise me not. Which will it be, when you pull the last white petal from the bold yellow centre? God only knows. Which will it be when you put hand on rail and foot on step to climb the dark stairs? God only knows.
But look, the future tense is not the only grammar of resurrection. For us the future is not even the best tense. So let it start, this going round the fearful mystery, with the grammar of the thing.
In general, use the present tense. What might happen in the future is an endless spring of speculation. But in the end, the last word is up to God. What we may speak of intimately is the now and here. This is another way of saying (and I wish I had said it before Frederick Beuchner) that "religion is not about religion, religion is about life." If it isn't about the affairs of the day and the lump in the throat and the devastation of life by primal powers and the terrible insoluble dilemma of why there is good in the world -- if it isn't about life -- then it's no religion at all. Resurrection is about life, and that's why it is best cast in the present tense, as disillusioning as that might be. Ultimate futures are in someone else's hands.
And here's another point of grammar. Where possible, replace a noun with a verb. This old rule will require an immediate change in our language. What we had called "the resurrection" is better called "rising." Why speak of the resurrection when what you are confronted with is a rising? Resurrection is a concept, a theological category and a creedal formula. Not that there is anything wrong with such things but this burdened old noun desperately wants replacing by a verb. When you think of the rising and speak of it and dream of the rising and live it, you are leaving the estate of theory and crossing over into the changing landscape of happening. From the resurrection to the rising: when in the presence of a stunning happening, only a verb will do.
. . .
And from the grammar to the personality of it. The rising is shy, but not always. She is like a stranger you see across a crowded room and, like the evening itself, she is enchanted. Two disciples are walking the road to Emmaus after the crucifying. (Lk 24:13) It is toward evening and the day is far spent. They find themselves talking with an enigmatic and circumspect stranger. He had not announced his coming nor does he introduce or explain himself. The rising does not appear according to any protocol or schedule. In this sense the rising can be said to be wild. That is, not domesticated. Wild does not mean irrational or chaotic. Wild will follow its own rhythms and its own voices but they are not known to us any more than the mind of the wolf or the butterfly is known. Wild things tend to be shy. So it is with the rising. Beware of any who claim to know her ways.
Nonetheless, some enchanted evening you may find yourself one of those huddled in an upstairs room, doors locked for fear, when across the crowded room you see a stranger. Uninvited. Alive. Impossible. This is to say that while she is mostly shy, there are times when the rising steps right into the upstairs room where the broken dreams are gathered. There she is! Life is on again. That's not shy, it's bold as brass. Thank God.
. . .
Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.
The rising is not a symbol of something else, some psychology or change theory. The rising is real. Just as death is real in every life. Just as life is real in every death. The rising is not a symbol, it is a crossing over into life; life for all it's worth; life forever. Flannery O'Connor said it about the Host in the Eucharist, but I'll say it again about the rising: "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." It may be a tonic to the liberal mind to understand the rising as "finding meaning in the struggle" and "the good living on after us" but we are in the presence of a power stronger, deeper and wilder than liberality. He'll think it no gift to be quoted by me, but Professor Michael Bourgeois at Emmanuel College said in a sermon to students, "the ultimately real love of God holds us in real risen life ultimately. Jesus Christ is risen indeed."
Nor will it do to confuse the rising with the splendours of the springtime. "It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, April/ Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers." (Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892-1950).
April, for all her charms, is not enough. Not enough when the issue is death and death's decadent attendant, decay. Still, Easter and springtime seem to be made for each other. The purple crocus poking its improbable little head up out of the corn snow, is that not a rising from the dead? And how can people who know Canadian winter not be gladdened by the coming of spring? Wouldn't it be odd not to delight in the power of God to awaken the cold, hard earth? Not to delight in the power of God to raise the dead?
But here's the thing: the women who first witnessed to the rising did not speak of delight. They spoke of being afraid.
Spring may come inevitably out of winter but the rising comes out of the crucifying unexpectedly and with a jolt of fear. Good Friday in all its manifestations has more power to destroy than even the longest Canadian winter. Almighty Death casts its inscrutable shadow over us, over the hospital room, over Palestine, over the reserve, over the boardroom; a shadow cast upon us as surely as sin is cast within us; darkness over the land from the sixth to the ninth hour; darkness upon the face of the deep.
If life is to emerge from this, it will not come forth inevitably as the spring emerges inevitably from the winter. There will be a mortal struggle. Almighty Death. Almighty God.
. . .
Talk of the rising is always susceptible to dangers, chief among them, sentimentality. A sentimentalist is someone who loves the good but refuses to acknowledge and to hate the evil.
Sentimentality is gentle and tender and deceptive and false. So, as Bob Dylan said, "Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late." To embrace the rising without knowing the dying is not only false but impossible. It is a danger to Christian truth to speak sentimentally of the rising because it disguises the terrible power of death. Disguise is the essential strategy of evil. Christians with eyes open will not celebrate Easter without having looked deeply into Good Friday.
. . .
We whom the Apostles Creed calls "the quick" have not yet seen what the rising means in all its fullness. That is because we have not yet seen what they have seen whom the Creed calls "the dead." This means that we may know the rising only in the depth and sense that we may know dying. We may know new life now only insofar as we are capable of knowing death now. In this sense Henri Nouwen wrote, "Maybe the death at the end of your life won't be so fearful if you can die well now. Yes, the real death -- the passage from time into eternity, from the transient beauty of this world to the lasting beauty of the next, from darkness into light - has to be made now. And you do not have to make it alone." (The Inner Voice of Love, 1997. Used by permission)
Nouwen wrote this journal passage in a terribly dispirited time, yet even then he knew it was a good time for his life to take up this word of Jesus: "The one who would save his life will lose it. The one who loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matt. 10:39)
It's true that since we know death only in part, we know the rising only in part. But the day promised by Paul will dawn when we shall know fully even as we have been fully known. (I Cor. 13:12)
. . .
I hate to bring it up here, the subject being such a downer and all, but there is also the matter of heresy. Heresy is something that might look like the real thing, but is definitely not. Resuscitation, or the bringing back to life of a dead person, is the heretical impersonator of the rising. Resuscitation is an impostor. It is, as historian Donald Akenson says, a literalizing and a corrupting of the rising (St. Saul , McGill-Queen's University Press). Tales of "shrouds and revivified corpses" were told, it is true. But if we take them to mean either resuscitation or resurrection, we have lost touch with the power of the rising.
It is not about getting back what once you were. It is about being transformed by the hand of God. That's why it costs everything. That's why it leads not to winning, which is the way to keep all you were and add on some extra glories. The rising leads to victory, which is the way to losing all you were and being transformed into something God alone can see.
. . .
Death ends a life, but not a relationship. The rising continues to happen. Here shy, there bold, always wild, the rising appears now and again because after all, God has taken the plunge. And the taking of it has riddled the earth with heaven. The taking of it has impregnated death with life. The last thing the church should do is to shut down that plunging presence by freezing it in the Scripture and worshipping it in the text and mistaking it for the imposter called resuscitation. The rising is not the stunning accomplishment of an individual but the rebirth of a relationship across a terrible divide. Jesus always appears to people, with people, for people - never as a solitary demonstration of personal aggrandizement.
The witness of the sacred texts do not speak of the risen Christ in isolation. So whatever this is, it cannot be all about you personally. It's not even all about Jesus. The rising is all about relationship. We look for its wild and shy presence not in the mirror of the mind but in the faces of others.
It seems to come with strangers, or at least with those not at first recognized as friends. It seems to come at table where food and drink are given. In the midst of such sharing of life's sustenance the living presence appears inexplicably.
It seems to come when the "I am who I will be," the inscrutable God of justice, is honoured, loved and obeyed in the ordinary things of the day. It is a humble thing, really; and in the midst of the day's great bombastic sounds it is the little song of grace that opens the heart to life in Jesus Christ.
If you want to see the rising, look into the face of the stranger who falls in beside you on the road. Listen to the voice telling you of God's stunning hope in spite of all the evidence. Invite the stranger in. Share what you have. Oh yes, and go to church to hear the text, the tradition and the community bear witness to this irrepressible life by the grace and strength of God.
When God comes down from the sky, coming as a bird would fly over a river, there is an awakening and a giving of one's life. Everything is more real. There is the hearing of a different voice. This is it. Life. Full. All of it. Now. So laugh, work, dance, love, share, enjoy, do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. Stare death in the face. Watch God die. Weep. But at the end of it all, don't close your eyes. The best is yet to be.
"You have been raised to life with Christ." Paul said this interesting thing about the rising. He said, "You have been raised." He didn't say that you might be raised if you're good, or lucky. He didn't say you will be raised someday when it's time to go to heaven. He speaks of your life now. "You have been raised to life with Christ."
Trouble is it makes a terrible difference if you don't know that you've been raised to life with Christ; if you are unaware of what God has given you; if it hasn't dawned on you that to hear the Easter news of the risen Christ is to hear Easter news about yourself; if you don't know that God who gives life to Christ gives life to you and that it's one life indivisible, to which you both belong. If you don't realize such things then you are likely to choose the sort of life that we have become all too familiar with over the years.
Really, God must look with bewilderment, when having so clearly and powerfully opened the door for us, we head directly for the same old prisons; the old familiar tombs; ignoring the fearful light of Easter to crawl into the safer gloom behind the stone. We choose this because this is the life we know. We've grown accustomed to its face. It is no surprise, after all, that the first emotion of the rising is fear. Fear of living. Fear of living without a net. Fear of life in a different world, God's world, where even the stones cry out. It is the choice of every life to hear in the words of Paul an invitation, or a sentence: "You have been raised to life with Christ."
She'll raise me, she'll raise me not: the delicate white petals are detached so easily from the bold yellow centre.
. . .
Don't look back. This injunction forbidding the retrospective has a certain wisdom at times, but it is not a universal law. In many places the Bible demands that we look back in order to remember the former things and to dig once more the ancient wells. But sometimes looking back turns you into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26). The salt episode is a good one to remember when in the presence of the rising. Looking back to capture the rising as if it were lodged in the past is as deadly to its truth as capturing a living creature in a sealed bottle. This is why the Gospel says, "You are looking for Jesus. He is not here. He has risen. He has gone ahead of you. Go, you will find him."
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