Mary turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:14-20)
Imagine trying to explain the significance of Easter to someone with no experience or preconception of the Christian faith. Now imagine trying to do so in a foreign language that you’re just learning. That was the dilemma facing David Sedaris, an American writer living in France, as he sat in a French class with immigrants from around the world.
It was Easter season and a Moroccan student, a Muslim, raised her hand and asked in French, “Excuse me, but what is an Easter?” The teacher called upon the rest of the class to help explain. The Polish students led the charge to the best of their ability. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who called his self Jesus. . .” she faltered and swore, and one of her countrymen came to her aid, “He call his self Jesus, and then he die one day on two. . . morsels of. . . lumber.” The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm. “He died one day and then he go above my head to live with your father.” “He weared of himself the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back to say hello to all the people.” “He nice, the Jesus.” “He make the good things and on Easter we be sad because somebody make him dead today.” (Sedaris)
Part of the problem, Sedaris realized in retrospect, was vocabulary. Nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond them, let alone the nuances of theology. “Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity,” he writes, “we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead. ‘Easter is a party to eat of the lamb,’ one Italian explained. ‘One may too eat of the chocolate.’” (Sedaris)
If we wonder how we might, if called upon, explain, much less understand, the resurrection, it’s for good reason. Resurrection transcends logic and defies common sense. We can’t understand it until we’ve lived it. And even after we’ve lived resurrection, the experience is hard to describe in words.
So before I plunge in with an imperfect description of my own, let me first say that there is more to Christianity than resurrection. There are, for starters, the amazing teachings of Jesus. His parables describe a God of unfathomable mercy and forgiveness, and his teachings are of our world the way God would have it be—a world in which there are no outcasts; in which the poor are lifted up, the hungry are given good things, and the merciful receive mercy in kind; a world in which there is no scarcity, no mean-spiritedness, and no war.
Did you know that yesterday was International Pillow fight Day? Hundreds of people gathered on the Capitol Mall, as did others around the world, armed with only their bedroom pillows, and at the appointed time, all started swinging indiscriminately at one another. (Out of concern for the potential mess, organizers cautioned against using feather pillows.) One participant told me that the fight was supposed to last fifteen minutes, but that he was exhausted after seven. What a perfect post-modern representation, I thought, of the biblical notion of beating our swords into plowshares. If we must have war, couldn’t we arm ourselves with the equivalent of pillows, swing away all our frustrations, anger, and grief until we’re exhausted, and then talk through all that violence cannot solve? In God’s dream for us, Jesus was quite clear, there is no war.
There is also in Christianity the power of communion and the gift of community, symbolized each week by a sacramental meal to which all are invited. There is in Christianity the promise of Emmanuel—God with us and for us. There is in Christianity the understanding that this world, for all its brokenness and pain, is fundamentally good, that we can know God best in and through the ordinary things of this life, and most especially, in and through one another.
All these things and more are part of the faith that this Cathedral and countless churches across a broad spectrum of race, tribe, life experience, and language strive, in our imperfect ways, to embody and profess. And when we fail, which we routinely do, we pick ourselves up, ask God and one another for forgiveness, and remind ourselves of what St. Paul wrote to one of the earliest Christian communities: “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus as Lord and ourselves as servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the same God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2 Cor. 4:5-7).
There is more to Christianity than the resurrection. Which raises an interesting question, posed to me more than once in my ministry, by thoughtful, professing (albeit with reservations) Christians: Is belief in resurrection necessary? Couldn’t we bypass the historical improbabilities and intellectual difficulties that resurrection evokes in our mind and focus instead on the teachings and good example of Jesus? Of course we can, but when we do, we miss the most important truth of this particular path to God.
Resurrection is the cornerstone, the foundation upon which all else is built. For starters, without our ancestors’ first experience of resurrection, we wouldn’t know a thing about Jesus. He would have passed into historical anonymity amidst the thousands similarly executed in his day. Without whatever it was that his disciples experienced on that first Easter morning, there would have been no community gathered in his name, no recording of his words and deeds, no one to remember and give meaning to his death. And there is nothing that we know about him that hasn’t been passed on to us through the prism of resurrection. (Marcus Borg & John Crossan)
Although the historical record of what our ancestor’s experienced is riddled with ambiguity and laden with symbolism, we know that it was enough to convince them that Jesus was alive, that the forces of this world that killed him did not have the final word. What they experienced convinced them that Jesus was like God, somehow, and with God, and a part of God. And they felt his presence with them.
That sense of Christ’s presence is what has defined Christian spirituality from the earliest days to our own. We, too, can know his presence with us and for us. We can know him as close to us as our own breath, a presence of unconditional love and mercy. You can be a Christian without a sense of his presence, but it’s such a loss. To know Jesus moves us from being, in the words of Archbishop Rowan Williams, more or less subscribers to a spiritual method, to those who have experienced, however fleeting, a love that will never let us go. (Burrows)
His presence can take many forms, some quite dramatic, others grounded in the ordinary things of life. These experiences are a mystery. We can’t evoke them on command; we can’t insist that others know Christ precisely as we have known him. Often Christ is hidden, what the theologian Carl Rahner called an anonymous presence, unnamed and unrecognized. But when we feel the personal connection—Christ with us—then we know first hand the experience that has sustained hope and made faith possible from Jesus’ day forward. I experience Christ most when life asks me to lean into pain, rather than run from it. He’s there with me in that. Similarly, when my heart is quickened by possibility beyond my imagining, and I have to take a risk. He’s there, too. Christ is also, in my experience, very gentle. He’s not a bully. If you’d like to know him, the way to begin is to invite him in.
St Patrick speaks of the presence of Christ this way: Christ be with me, within me, behind me and before me. Christ beside me, to win me, to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, above me, in quiet, and in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. (St. Patrick’s Breastplate)
That would be enough to celebrate on Easter morning: how Christ being raised from the dead enabled his first frightened disciples to experience his presence with them, and enables us to experience him in the same way. But there is a deeper truth here. For resurrection is not Jesus’ experience alone; it is ours as well.
It isn’t easy to talk about this dimension of resurrection, for to do so, we must first acknowledge its context, which is death. To know resurrection, you have to die. To know resurrection before your physical death, you have to live through the death of something else—a cherished hope, a way of life, a connection to someone or something you have loved. You have to face the loneliness of failure and grief, the humiliation of defeat, the soul-shattering reality of all you cannot control. To know resurrection, you have to let go of any illusion that life as you once knew it is possible. This isn’t something we would seek out or wish on anyone, because the initial cost is so high.
But on the other side of death, God is there with the promise and the path of another life. On this side of death, the promise of a different life is no consolation, certainly not worth the crossing over of suffering to attain. But once you’re there and there is no turning back, resurrection is what makes living possible again.
Here are some things to know about life after death. Its beginnings are tentative and ambiguous, and our first response to life rising out of the ashes is almost always ambivalent. It can even feel at first like betrayal. This is particularly true after a prolonged period of grief, because we’ve adjusted to the emptiness. When the feeling of being alive returns we aren’t sure if it’s all right to experience joy again.
The educator and author Parker Palmer writes with excruciating honesty of his descent into clinical depression in a small book entitled, Let Your Life Speak. As the depression at last began to lift and he could imagine embracing his life again, he realized that a part of him didn’t want to. “One the most painful discoveries I made in the midst of the dark woods of depression was that a part of me wanted to stay depressed. As long as I clung to this living death, life was easier; little was expected of me, certainly not serving others.” (Palmer) He had to choose to live again. Life after death is also something we must choose. Once the invitation is given, we must walk toward it, as Mary had to choose to leave the garden and walk, to go and tell the others what she had seen.
There is also an incremental nature to life after death. Life comes back one breath at a time, everything doesn’t change at once. Resurrection lives alongside the wounds of our past and all the things about us that haven’t changed. It asks us to let go of death, not to hold on, as Jesus told Mary, but to let him go on ahead and follow where he leads.
That’s way resurrection feels scary at first, because we are, in fact, tasking a risk, staking our life on hope when hope feels small. It draws us back into the world again, into the fabric of ordinary relationships and extraordinary possibilities when we’ve become accustomed to begin on the outside. Of course we hesitate. But as the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize, once wrote, “say to the down-keepers, the sun-slappers, the self-soilers, the harmony-hushers, ‘even if you are not ready for day, it cannot always be night.’” We may never feel ready for resurrection to reorient everything, but God will not be contained in the tomb of our sorrows.
This is it. This is the cornerstone of Christian faith: Jesus is alive and with us, a sure presence of love and mercy in the midst of everything, within, behind, before, beside beneath us all. This is it. This is the cornerstone of Christian faith: out of death rises new life.
We may never find the right words, in any language, to adequately describe what this experience means. But the experience itself is what makes joy and peace possible in an uncertain and anxious world. Christ is with us always. And on the other side of death, however death comes to us, there is life. If you are living with death now, I promise you, as God as my witness, there will be life on the others side for you, and for all of us—life to choose, to live, and to share.
Burrows, Ruth. Love Unknown: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2012. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.
Marcus Borg & John Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jersusalem. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.
Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little and Brown, 2000.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate. The Episcopal Hymnal. 1980.