I don’t understand Easter. I think I stand on firm theological ground saying this. Mysteries are necessarily beyond comprehension, a scandal and embarrassment in a scientific age. It’s far more satisfying to make of mystery a problem to be solved. In “mystery” novels, for instance, a criminal death is explained, ending (generally) with the restoration of justice and order, or at least the order we’ve come to expect in this world, from the things we rely on. Mercy and transformation, which might throw everything off balance, must wait for another day.
Attempts to smooth over the mystery of the Three Days have intellectual and emotional appeal. Liberal Protestantism and the Jesus Seminar restore balance by spiritualizing Easter. “Jesus rose in the disciples’ hearts,” we’re reassured, though his corpse, like any other, rots in the tomb. Orderly minds reject a God who breaks the rules.
Gnosticism (in both paleo- and neo- forms) and Islam keep Jesus (Isa in the Quran) and death at a safe distance. Balance is restored by having him merely appear to die or by finding a lookalike to take the fall for him. Furthermore – and even more decisively – the messiness of Incarnation is done away with, leaving Divinity unstained by impermanent matter.
Many conventional Christians habitually stress one aspect of the passion, death and resurrection (usually the last) to the near exclusion of the remainder. “Yeah, he died,” we say, “but, being God, he knew he’d triumph in the end, which is what happened – and pretty quickly, too – so we can all get on with enjoying our normal lives.”
New Testament accounts, however, refuse such comforts. Jesus knows full well the cost of his revelatory and saving mission. He offends too many to live. With scientific precision, the Imperial authorities torture, humiliate and kill him, understandably taking the Galilean peasant for a petty insurrectionist, a threat to public order. It’s for law and order matters just like this that Pilate’s in town for the holidays.
While the four gospel passion accounts vary in detail and tone (Mark’s isolated and troubled Jesus contrasts with John’s serene king, for example), the physicality and horror of crucifixion is inescapably emphasized. Jesus is beaten, scourged, nailed, and pierced. He bleeds, stumbles, speaks, thirsts, and wails. If this Messiah is playacting, it’s one heck of a show, completely without Jewish precedent, and startlingly unlike pagan deicide myths.
And he dies. Like Marley’s death in “A Christmas Carol,” “There is no doubt whatever about that.” Mark’s Pilate confirms the rumor with the centurion while John’s Pilate reassures himself through more efficient means. There’s no need to break his legs so he suffocates on the cross from his own weight. Friends come, take down the dead body and lay the God of the Living’s corpse in a, specific, identifiable tomb.
There it lies on the Sabbath, the day God rested: “the Word,” in Alan Lewis’ phrase, “Incarnate and Interred.” Other accounts (1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6; Eph 4:8-10; and perhaps Acts 2:27, 31) tell of Christ preaching to the dead, the “harrowing of hell” (“harrow” means to pillage or plunder; it also names a tool used to turn up and smooth hard soil before planting). The Apostles’ Creed says, “he descended into hell,” and Orthodox Pascha icons typically portray Christ leading Adam, Eve and all the righteous to freedom through the trampled gates of hell. God Incarnate upsets the entire cosmos, assuming even the most alienated extremity of our humanity in order to redeem it.
On Sunday, the tomb is found empty (“He is not here.”), not a proof of the resurrection so much as a necessary gesture towards it (“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”), a push into an encounter with the truly risen Lord. If Mark’s gospel truly ends with 16:8, the rest really is left to us to discover. John and the others, however, manifest the tangible reality of resurrection. The Risen Jesus speaks, breathes, eats, and tells friends to touch his wounds, His resurrected body at once radiant and torn.
One thing’s painfully clear: none of the disciples expected or even imagined the resurrection. Nothing in their experience prepared them for a world so out of balance, so beyond the familiar. An encounter with the empty tomb and Risen Lord disrupts everything: one’s reading of Torah and the prophets, the way one lives under Imperial occupation, whom one eats and associates with, the way in which one worships and praises God, and so on. The gospels themselves narrate Jesus’ earthly life re-imaged through the lens of the Three Days. Absolutely everything is reassessed. Justice and mercy kiss, order dissolves into transformation, and mystery invites us to explore its bottomless depths.
This account of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord sets Christians apart, not by making them more special, more deserving or even, perhaps, closer to God than others. It does so by inviting us into this unique story, to pick up our own cross, follow Him, and be transformed through obedience to the Father and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
How will you consent to Easter’s unbalancing transformation of your life? Of our shared life in Christ?