Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Easter Meditation

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" 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 20:11-18
Every year I always feel Easter comes and goes in the blink of an eye. Christmas is always a big deal, of course. Since I've been a student pretty much my whole life, I'm used to the rhythm of school calendars, which always find it convenient to have a nice long break build around Christmas time. But judging from the pace of life these days, universities couldn't care less about Christianity's most important holiday.

That's okay, of course. I find it pretty silly to get on a soapbox about the increasing secularization of our culture or whatever. I only bring it up because as a matter of empirical fact the pace of our lives tends to be out of joint with the theological heart of Christianity. Easter really is the day for Christians.

And not just the day. Why would the Monday after Easter be just another Monday? Certainly the Monday after the first Easter could not have been a normal day. Luke records that Jesus met with the apostles for forty days after his resurrection. What must those forty days have been like?

Being raised Protestant, I've really only ever observed Church Calendar Lite, so unlike Catholics and Orthodox I'm only vaguely aware that the forty days after Easter have always been a special season for the Church. But I'm pretty sure I know why the forty days after Easter should be a special season. This marks the forty days during which everything changed.

As I understand it, the Christian faith is faith in Easter, that is, faith in what happened early in the morning on the first day of the week almost 2,000 years ago.

Oh, I know other stuff is important, too. The story of the resurrection has plenty of back story, and plenty of story that follows it. But for me, it's the story of Jesus rising from the dead that makes Christianity live. If Jesus lives, then Christianity lives. If Jesus is dead, then Christianity is dead.

I find that in religious discussions, too much emphasis tends to get placed on the other details. Not that other details aren't meaningful. But are you really going to find your life in an exact statement of theological truth?

"But Jameson," you'll ask me,"aren't you a mathematician? Don't you know that without getting the details right, you don't have truth?" Nonsense. Every mathematician knows that when you're looking for a new result, you have to ignore some details at the beginning to get to the core of what you're trying to solve. My advisor is always explaining to me how "morally" this or that result should be plausible. Of course the details matter; you can't write a paper without them. But if you don't get to the core of the truth first, you won't even know where to start.

I adore this resurrection narrative in John. Every time I get to the end of John and read the words of Jesus, "Mary!" I admit that tears come to my eyes. What a beautiful way John frames his whole gospel! Just as in the first chapter, Jesus asks the first disciples, "What are you looking for?" so now Jesus asks Mary, "Whom are you looking for?" Just as Andrew tells Simon, "We have found the Messiah," so Mary makes the inverse statement, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." Just as the disciples call him "Rabbi" (and there John also notes the translation, Teacher), so Mary calls him "Rabbouni." And just as Jesus says to those first disciples, "Come and see," he says to Mary, "Mary!" and she does see. Thus, finally, the resurrection is the fulfillment of Jesus' words to Nathanael, "You will see greater things than these."

So you see the whole gospel is really about seeing. It is not first about knowing, though Jesus speaks often about knowing the Father. Yet before one can know, one must see. Christianity is an empirical religion. It is not about philosophical first principles. It is not about presuppositions and logic and systematic proofs of God's existence. It's about seeing.

And yet, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." We have many reasons for believing in the resurrection (I recommend reading N. T. Wright on this issue; here's a nice video to start with). Yet there is inevitably a sense of risk, a sense that this really just might not be true. Jesus was gracious enough to appear to Thomas, but I certainly have not seen him in the body.

The resurrection is both the easiest and the hardest thing for me to put my faith in. The easiest because I know it is good news, the hardest because I know how disappointing it is when faith in good news fails. If only I could just see. I really don't think people give Thomas enough credit. "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." Why should he? I tell you, it's the oddest thing to me when modern people assume early Christians had no sense of scientific evidence.

"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." I do not take these words as a rejection of our empirical faculties, since Jesus did just at that moment show Thomas exactly what he had demanded as evidence. Rather, I take it that these words are meant as comfort to the rest of us, who have to take it on faith that this really happened. Sometimes it just seems downright cruel. We have to take it on the strength of a few disciples from Galilee that Jesus actually physically rose from the dead? And not even on that, but rather on the record of their testimony passed down for hundreds and hundreds of years. I should hope Jesus has compassion on us if our faith falters.

Yet believing in this resurrection is the greatest thing that we can do. Whatever else we believe, if we believe in the resurrection of Jesus, we have something quite remarkable. For the rest of the world operates under its sovereign ruler, Death. It may not at first appear so, but that's exactly what it is. We inspire ourselves with words like, "Imagine all the people living for today," but it is no more than a sedative to help us face the inevitability of everything we know being swallowed up in Death. All of our art, science, literature, and technology; all of our good deeds to one another, our loving relationships, our hopes and our dreams; all of the best meals we eat, the beautiful places we see, the stars we marvel at, the music we listen to, the creatures we wonder at, the mountains we climb, the oceans we explore, and all of our homes we build--all of these things will be swallowed up in Death.

It is no different if you want to talk about reincarnation, or souls floating off to heaven, or becoming immortal through the memory of others; no, in all of these things Death has the final word. Rarely do people choose to bow down and serve Death, yet most people have no choice but to go on in dim resignation to the fact that Death alone is god. Any attempt they make to find meaning in this world is nothing but a pathetic whimper which Death allows because he knows he will eventually be satisfied. Death's desire is to consume, and it does not appear that there is anything that can resist his will.

But we have the resurrection of Jesus. Our God is the God of Life. That is the point. That is the heart of it all. If you do not believe in resurrection, then what do you have? A tiny blip in a vast, empty universe. Oh, how people will comfort themselves by saying they are strong enough to accept this! There is no strength in accepting Death as god. If Death is god, then you accept him while I reject him, and he will laugh at us both. For in the end, he will consume us both. The king and the pawn end up in the same box. No one is stronger for knowing the difference.

As for me, I believe in the God of Life. I believe in the God who gives us all things: all of our art, science, literature, and technology; all of our good deeds to one another, our loving relationships, our hopes and our dreams; all of the best meals we eat, the beautiful places we see, the stars we marvel at, the music we listen to, the creatures we wonder at, the mountains we climb, the oceans we explore, and all of our homes we build--and I believe all of these things are meant to live on into a new world, where there will be no more death.

Death has been swallowed up in victory. That is the heart of it all. There is reason to believe that Death is not god. There is reason to explore this beautiful world, and to care for one another, and to love life and enjoy every minute of it. Death cannot claim it. Life is real, life is beautiful, and life will not go away. Our God is the God of Life.

And that's why the season of Easter really matters. We have a job to do. Life is too precious not to be celebrated. Seize the day? No, seize life! It is not the scarcity of life that makes it precious; it is the thing itself. We don't live in the moment on the principle that the moment is all we have; rather we live in the moment because our God will always be with us in the moment. Eternity will be manifest to us moment by moment, and each moment will be better than the one before it. There is no limit. We hopelessly stifle our imaginations because do not believe this.

So why are we going about business as usual? The world must be conquered with the message of Life. We have not even begun to show what it means that Jesus has conquered Death. Until we free our hearts from a tacit acceptance of Death, until we have enough faith to believe that Eternal Life is really possible, we will never begin to do the things we are capable of. We will never get to see life for what it really is.

My intention this season of Easter is to truly see. I have to keep my eyes open. It is easy to pretend that you see simply because you want so badly to see. It is also easy to stop looking because you are tired of not finding. But if there truly is life that conquers death, then it is worth looking for, every moment of every day. And I think we do see it every day, even if often we pass it by because we're not ready to see it. I pray that God will help us to see, so that we might believe in Life, and in the One who gives Life.

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