Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
The Church has made steadfast witness to the Resurrection of Jesus for nearly 2000 years. Empires have come and gone, civilizations have waxed and waned, generation after generation has made its way through the changes and chances of this world—and the Church still makes its primary proclamation, still proclaims the reason for its very existence: Jesus of Nazareth, teacher, prophet, wonder-worker, social revolutionary and many other things died, but rose again from the dead on the third day.
Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead, a unique event historically, demonstrates the ultimate power of life over death, God’s intention to restore us to life, even greater life beyond the gateway we call death. But resurrection (lower case “r”) is also a dynamic woven into the fabric of existence in this universe. Jesus, the Word made flesh, as John’s Gospel puts it, is the one through whom all things came to be [John 1: 3]. The cosmos, his creation, partakes of his essence. The one who said “I am the Resurrection” [John 11: 25] has woven resurrection into the woof and warp of all life. In proclaiming Resurrection, the Church also proclaims Life. In proclaiming Resurrection in the life to come, the Church awakens us to the possibilities for resurrection in the midst of this life.
Witness to Resurrection
Our belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ rests ultimately on the personal experience of men and women of the 1st century. They have left us witness of two kinds. First (second in chronological order) is the witness of the New Testament, texts written in the second half of the first century A.D. All four Gospels contain stories of mysterious appearances of Jesus following his Resurrection. The letters and other writings of the New Testament contain multiple references to this unique event. And yet, in spite of all this, it isn’t clear what actually happened. The texts—all written decades after the event—point back to some kind of galvanizing experience. An experience variously remembered and variously described.
No “scientific” evidence exists to prove the Resurrection of Jesus, of course. But what does exist is a world-wide movement of many millions of people down through the centuries, what we call the Church. The Church exploded onto the stage of history in a comparatively few years following the Resurrection. Something, presumably the Resurrection, galvanized the followers of Jesus into a movement with extraordinary energy. Some personal experience in the days following Jesus’ execution was so compelling as to inaugurate a new movement, to this day a very significant presence in the human enterprise. A movement with a dynamism so energetic as to actually increase exponentially as time went on. The Church, at first decidedly counter-cultural, grew so fast in the first three centuries that by the early 4th century it was deemed a useful unifying force for the Roman Empire, which had been pagan up to that point.
It is important to remember that the very earliest Christians had no New Testament. It was the energy of personal experience, of eye witness accounts that was the galvanizing force of the Church in its first decades—it was not because “the Bible tells me so”. If it weren’t for the communities of Christians drawn together in this way, there would be no New Testament. Had there been no communities to write to, Paul and the others would have had no occasion to write their letters. Had there been no communities with their oral transmission of personal accounts (with the inevitable inconsistencies), there would have been no Gospels written.
We need also to remember that the first Christians undertook tremendous risk being countercultural in a violent world, the risk of ostracism by their fellow Jews, and the risk of simply being deemed foolish for proclaiming the resurrection of a dead man—a dead man judged as criminal by the authorities.
I personally do not believe that a merely empty tomb could have generated the kind of energy needed to give birth to the Christian movement. People of the first century were just as capable of suspecting a hoax or conspiracy as we are today. The experience of some kind of truly extraordinary phenomena following the death of Jesus remains the best explanation for the existence of the Church. Anything less than Resurrection (more or less along the lines of first century attempts to describe it) cannot account for it. People do not risk ostracism, ridicule and their own lives unless something truly extraordinary has happened to them that compels a response. We’re left with the implausible event of Resurrection being the most plausible explanation for the Church’s existence. The Resurrection was the early Church’s raison d’etre, and it remains at the core of the Church’s proclamation 2000 years later.
The idea of immortality had emerged from the human imagination thousands of years before Jesus, of course, as ancient Egyptian and other Middle Eastern funerary customs attest. And, to be sure, one of the most attractive things about the Resurrection of Jesus is that it represents a promise to us of sharing his eternal life in our own Resurrection, beyond the frame of this earthly lifetime. In contemplating the Resurrection of Christ, we envision the glory of the greater life we are destined to share.
However, one thing that sets the Resurrection of Jesus apart from immortality as understood in other ancient religions is that it pertains not only to that greater life beyond death, but also to this earthly existence. Our perspective is enhanced, of course, to imagine life beyond the frame of this physical world. And it can be comforting to anticipate a more perfect existence, particularly in the midst of suffering or injustice. But Resurrection, upper case R, has multiple levels of manifestation in these lives of ours, from the sublime to the trivial.
God as Poet: Resurrection and resurrection
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” The Nicene Creed, dating from the 4th century, is an early attempt to summarize what Christians believe about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. One word I find fascinating in the original Greek is the word for “maker”: poietes [ποιητήσ]. Poietes also means “poet”, as you might guess–it is used this way in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s impossible to know exactly what the 4th century bishops had in mind—could the double meaning, the ambiguity have been intentional? Who knows?
But I love the sound of it: we believe in one God, the Poet of heaven and earth. God, who spoke in creation—“Let there be light!”—God, who through the Word who was with God in the beginning and who was God spoke all things into being—this God we believe in as Poet. God’s creation is the poem, what God has “spoken”.
And, as John puts it, “in him was life” [John 1: 4]. “I am the Resurrection and the Life” [John 11: 25]. This Poet, who is himself Life, imparts his essence to the creation, to the poem. And, it seems, at multiple levels, in many ways. His essence, his imprint, is everywhere in the creation: in the unique event of the Resurrection and in resurrection manifest in countless ways in the cosmos around us, in the broad strokes of our lives and in the minutiae of daily existence.
We should pause to consider the word “resurrection”. The English word comes by way of Latin from the Greek of the New Testament: anastasis, which simply means to “stand again”. Jesus rose from the dead, he stood up again, in a way seen neither before nor since. The word applied to Jesus, of course, is freighted with all kinds of religious meaning. But it also hints at a broader, even cosmic order: life itself “stands again”. Whatever exists does not cease to be—although it may be radically transformed.
At the natural level this is the conservation of matter and energy, a principle recognized from antiquity (the First Law of Thermodynamics is a more recent refinement). Things as they appear may undergo radical transformation, but the sum total of mass and energy do not change. A homely example of this is the compost pile: what was one thing becomes something else (and notice the heat generated by the chemical processes of decomposition). We live in a universe where matter and energy so interact as to constantly bring new things into being, “new life”. Nothing remains stable: everything is in process of a new manifestation of life. The natural world itself, the cosmos spoken into existence by the Poet, is a ceaseless proclamation of life’s victory over death, of existence over non-existence. It is fitting that, at least in the northern hemisphere, Resurrection is celebrated at the time of new birth in the natural world—the world coming to life again after the deaths of winter.
“Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.”
[Hymn 204 from Hymnal 1982; words by John Macleod Campbell Crum)
Standing Again–in the Broad and Bright Places of Life
The thing that struck me most in visiting the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem this past December was the tombs. Just off a side chapel near the great rotunda over what remains of Jesus’ tomb are two small “oven” tombs carved into the rock sometime in the 1st century. You need a flashlight to see inside them: small, dark, confined spaces meant to hold a corpse until the bones were ready to be placed in an ossuary and taken elsewhere. In reflecting on the dank confinement of these tombs, I realized how I was drawn rather to the broad and bright “Parvis”, the courtyard at the entrance of the Church of the Resurrection. The tombs were something best gotten out of.
An Excursion to the Church of the Resurrection, Jerusalem
The last thing I do on my way to “the place” is maneuver my way past Yousef, a particularly watchful and determined merchant of the souq. He recognizes me as a return visitor and, based on experience, an easy mark. I will have made my way through the crowds coming and going through the great Damascus Gate, past the falafel stand at the fork in the road, past the boy hawking vegetables: “Arba’a kilo bandoora ‘ashara!” (four kilos of tomatoes, ten shekels). Past the spice vendors and purveyors of household goods, meat and poultry, pastries and sweets. Coffee, jewelry, toys, textiles. And, of course, religious bric a brac for tourists and pilgrims. Slipping past Yousef as he leans over a box stamped “Made in China”, I rush past the last few shops, past Israeli police (occasionally needed to sort out an ecumenical dust up in the church) and step down into the “Parvis”, a broad and bright place that is the courtyard of the Church of the Resurrection, as it is called by eastern Christians—Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as it is usually called in the Western Churches.
The Church of the Resurrection is the place I return to most often in Jerusalem. A chaotic, cacophonic place, an architectural jumble reflecting its troubled history—it has a strange gravitational field of its own. Two 1st century tombs in the walls of an ancient quarry, remnants of Constantine’s great 4th century basilica, Crusader period attempts at restoration, recent renovations and the Living Church, present in all its fractious glory, contribute to the sheer complexity of the building. And, of course, the centerpiece: a 19th century reconstruction of the “edicule”, a kind of mausoleum built over what remains of Jesus’ tomb. A central focus often surrounded by throngs of people, long lines of the faithful from all over the world waiting to get as close as possible to the place where “it” happened.
Whatever happened, however it happened, “it” may well have happened here. The Church of the Resurrection has a strong claim to be the actual place. Many of the holy places in that part of the world are “where the Church remembers X to have happened”—the implication being that we’re not sure if it’s actually “the place”. Most of these places have very long histories, but none as compelling as the Church of the Resurrection.
Christians have revered this place at least since the early 4th century when the Emperor Constantine and his mother Queen Helena ordered the construction of a magnificent church. That much is certain—you can still see remnants of the 4th century basilica incorporated into the Crusader period church (and a nearby sweet shop!). Before the 4th century is less certain, but the evidence is compelling. What seems to have happened is that followers of Jesus, quite naturally, established some kind of ongoing presence here soon after the death and Resurrection of Jesus (a shrine possibly, or a meeting place?) At that time it was a quarry where executions were held and bodies put into tombs carved into the wall.
Sometime after Jerusalem was sacked and the Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., the Emperor Hadrian built a temple to Aphrodite in this spot, apparently to suppress the Christian presence. In the early 4th century, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, great churches were ordered to be built in the Holy Land to memorialize the life of Christ. In trying to locate the actual place of Jesus’ death and Resurrection, Constantine and Helena consulted local tradition, which maintained that the place of Jesus’ death and Resurrection was directly under the temple of Aphrodite. At enormous expense the temple was dismantled and the area excavated down to the original contours of the land. A stone quarry with tombs (two still visible in the church) was discovered. One tomb was identified, somehow, as the very tomb of Jesus. Helena had the stone around the tomb cut away, leaving a kind of igloo, around which was built a magnificent open-air rotunda. Calvary itself was determined to be a close-by outcropping of inferior stone [“The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (1 Peter 2: 7, quoting a Psalm)].
During my most recent visit to the church I mused upon those two small tombs carved into the limestone in the 1st century. Could Helena and Constantine have been mistaken? Could one of them have been the actual tomb of Jesus? They’re only a few yards away. It doesn’t really matter, of course, which of the tombs it was. None of them are any place for a human being—too dark, too small, too confining. I was glad to make my way out of the church into the bright sunshine of the courtyard.
Just little tombs carved into the rock at the site of an ancient quarry. But a powerful metaphor. I’m struck by how often I find myself in small, dark places, places of confinement, places where life itself can seem extinguished. The human condition is full of small, dark places: fear, hatred, resentment, jealousy, self-centeredness, judgment of others, unkindness. Each of these is its own kind of tomb, its own kind of small, dark, confining place. And there are the small places of illness, addiction, injury and insult. Some of these “tombs” are of our own making, some are burdens we would never choose.
But it is in our nature to seek out the broad and bright places of life. Resurrection from the tomb of fear brings us into the broad and bright places of courage. Resurrection from the tomb of hatred, jealousy and resentment brings us out into the infinitely expansive light of Love. Resurrection from the tombs of illness or addiction or emotional anguish brings us out again into wholeness and fullness of life.
I’m reminded of a well-known little story, one version of which goes something like this: a reporter visiting a monastery approaches an old and wizened monk. “What do you do all day in here,” he asks the old man. “We fall down, we get up, we fall down, we get up…” We get up—we stand up again: anastasis, resurrection. The daily dying and rising in ways sometimes trivial, sometimes profound. Buried in the little tombs of our lives, we stand again.
Sometimes our “standing again”, our stepping out into the broad and bright places of life, is something we can undertake in an intentional way. We may confess a sin that confines us, make restitution when possible, restore our relationships—and then experience the broad and bright place of forgiveness. That is resurrection. We let go of a resentment that has trapped us in a small place and reclaim the open spaces of respect and love.
Or, we may step out into the broader, brighter places of knowledge and understanding. Ignorance and lack of understanding and empathy are small, confining places as well. The power of resurrection is active within us whenever we seek a more expansive vision of the world and of our humanity. The thirst that leads men and women to study astronomy, particle physics, physiology, neurology, sociology, languages, cultures and countless other fields of endeavor is another manifestation of resurrection. We are made in such a way as to seek out our own magnification, our own escape from smallness and confinement.
And there is beauty. The human capacity to experience beauty is a gift that leads us out from our smallness, our confinement and into that which is larger than ourselves. Beauty, whether in the natural world or in the world of human creativity, is yet another manifestation, another epiphany of larger life.
God the Poet, God the creator has raised Jesus from the dead. And in so doing, reveals his intention to do the same for us. And in a singular mighty act, the Poet gathers up all movement into new life, all movement into broader and brighter places, and imbues them with the light of his Resurrection, making them all signs and sacraments of his great promise.
Sometimes our “standing again” is experienced in the gift of healing, a gift we can desire, but must wait upon. We rejoice when we and others are restored to health and can stand again in renewed appreciation of the gift of life. Healing from some serious disease or injury or addiction can be experienced as a powerful resurrection.
And yet, at some point, as we all know, the gift of healing we so desire is not forthcoming. We must all die in that very ordinary way that can seem so final, so frightening. We are eventually overcome by forces that diminish us, even to the point of death. Sometimes these forces begin to overwhelm us long before actual death. The process of dying and death itself remain for most of us as truly terrifying, something to be resisted.
The Resurrection of Jesus is God’s response to our very real and very understandable fear—we are created, after all, by Life to seek life. In the Resurrection of Jesus Christ God offers us a glimpse of what lies beyond our physical death, a vision of the greater, infinitely expansive light and life beyond the frame of this present existence.
The Poem continues, into eternity. Beyond all tomorrows God speaks yet more stanzas. The Poet’s promise is that we’ll be there.
Lord Jesus Christ, creator of all life and giver of New Life, help me this day to enter more fully into the light of your Resurrection. Help me to leave behind all that binds and diminishes me and step out into the expansiveness of your risen glory. Help me so to make my way through the suffering of this life that I never lose sight of the greater life you have promised to share with us. To you be glory, thanks and praise. Amen.