We didn’t expect this. No matter how many times we’re told the story, we never do. Like Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, most of us shout to the world through our attitudes and actions – if not necessarily with words – that, “I’m a member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.”
Jesus, who some hoped to be Israel’s hope, lay dead, having been executed as a political criminal. Faithful women walked to the tomb after the Sabbath observance – as soon as the relative safety of daylight permitted – to tend to his body, finishing Friday afternoon’s rushed burial. The men trembled indoors, afraid the Empire’s brutal rage for order would not spare the dead rabbi’s now disillusioned followers.
Very different men, dressed in dazzling garments, surprise the women in the tomb, asking, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Mary Magdalene and her companions slowly grasp how much has changed, again proving themselves sharper than the men hiding in Jerusalem. Nothing of the past several days made sense to the disciples, especially those who knew “the ways of the world,” as the men probably understood themselves. The dead, by everyone’s experience, “stays that way,” and even those who’d witnessed Jairus’ daughter or Lazarus prove otherwise remembered that a living Jesus revived them. But Jesus was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.
And now, even with a missing body, the evidence still pointed toward total defeat: Rome had won, Israel remained captive, and no one’s life was better. Even direct experience of the risen Jesus wasn’t enough to rid the disciples of paralyzing fear, or Pentecost would have been superfluous. To live into this new reality, Jesus’ bewildered followers had much to learn, but much, much more to unlearn.
We imagine ourselves more insightful, benefitting from all those early mistakes, grasping the truth quickly and decisively. I, however, confess that I’m forever missing the point. Despite all I’ve heard, I still cling to the familiar “ways of the world,” where death still has dominion, the world’s evil will be fought on the world’s terms, and putting the right guys in power will fix all the mischief done by those too foolish or wicked to agree with me. Like the disciples, I consider the evidence of these past three days and struggle to believe that, despite this humiliating public defeat, God still reigns, Israel still lives, Christ defeats the grave, and I am invited to follow.
That last bit’s the most difficult. On Easter, I’m okay with reveling in Christ’s triumph, but if his death and resurrection have changed everything, then so, I fear, must I. All that talk about taking up my cross and following him puts a damper on the party, at least for those of us who are still unlearning. I either work out my idea of kenosis in my head – like Hazel Motes, the preacher – or I act it out on my own terms and get it wrong—like Hazel Motes near the novel’s end, who blinds himself, wraps his torso with barbed wire and lines his shoes with rocks and shards of glass. And, sooner or later, I meet someone like Mrs. Flood, Hazel’s landlady and admirer, who cringes at Hazel’s misguided discipleship. Like many critics of what passes for Christianity in contemporary North America, she gets it nearly right, saying, “‘Well, it’s not normal. It’s like one of them gory stories, it’s something that people have quit doing—like boiling in oil or being a saint or walling up cats…’”
But the point of the gospel’s “gory story” is that we are called to be saints, that the unexpected events of the past three days are God’s revelation that nothing, in fact, is more normal. We’ve had it all wrong: it’s the violent and madly self-reliant “ways of the world” that are and always have been abnormal. Like Hazel Motes and Mrs. Flood, like the men huddled indoors on Sunday in Jerusalem, I’m dreadfully slow in re-imagining the cross as a seat of triumph and the grave as a grace-filled womb.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting Christians mark Easter with anything less than jubilation. This is the festival of the victory of our Lord! This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad!
Nor am I suggesting that the Easter is a call to individual works righteousness or even “making the world a better place.” Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow him!
But to follow is work: often hard, sometimes painful, but always grace-filled. And don’t say it can’t be done: over the past three days, we’ve been shown how. As the Apostle’s Creed says (in not so many words), Christ went through hell to win us. There is, then, no need to earn God’s love. That’s not the point of our following Him. The point – and end – is the more-than-lifelong process of emptying ourselves to make room for Him. Only in following Him, our conquering Lamb, do we find Him.
Today, and for fifty days, we celebrate.
Christ is risen! He is truly risen!
And our work – the only work that matters – has just begun.