And, then the very next verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” [John 3:16] Martin Luther called this verse the gospel in miniature. It’s all about eternal life. The whole point of the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is eternal life: as Christ was raised from death in his resurrection, so shall we be resurrected to eternal life.
In the most literal sense, resurrection simply means standing up again. The word has a broad range of resonance: it’s the word we use referring to Jesus’s being raised from the dead and also God’s raising us to new life after our death. We also use the word more broadly to refer to all the dyings and risings of this life, all the fallings down and standings up again.
I think of resurrection also as coming out of a tomb and into an open, light filled place—out of closed in, dark, confined places into more expansive, sunlit places. If you go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem you can see two first century tombs just a few feet from where Jesus is believed to have been buried. They’re like large ovens that you can crouch down and crawl into. These “oven tombs” are interesting, but they’re not places to live in: they are places to be dead in. They are places to get out of: out into open places of light.
The oven tombs are handy metaphors for the kinds of situations in life that confine us or degrade our humanity: the kinds of places that are dark, cramped, closed in. Christ calls us out of those tombs; like Lazarus, we are called out of our tombs, out of the dark, confining spaces of life. Stepping out or finding our way out or being dragged out of these places, we find ourselves in open, expansive places, places filled with light, places where we can stand up to our full height. Places where eternal life begins to feel present, real, even palpable. We are called out from everything that would confine or degrade us into the expansiveness of eternal life—even now.
We shall know this eternal life fully only after we die, in our resurrection. And yet, light begins to filter in even now, even into the oven tombs of our lives. This beautiful chapel is a handy metaphor for this. As we sit here in this enclosed space, we notice light from a larger world filtering in through the windows. We can’t see what’s beyond, but the light filters through. We know there’s something out there, a wider world, a more expansive reality, though we cannot see it. After the service, we’ll pass through a doorway out into a broader, more expansive reality, a light-filled place, especially on a lovely spring day.
But there are more windows here than just the windows. The sheer beauty of this chapel is a kind of window through which the light of eternal life filters through. The noble proportions, the high ceiling, the handsome stone, the beautiful carvings go far beyond what is strictly necessary for a meeting place—we could make do with far less. But the grace and beauty of this place are luminous: some of the light of eternal life filters in, even through what is made of marble and limestone and granite. This is a thin place where even thick things can be translucent.
The sacraments are windows, windows through which the light of eternity filters through. The scriptures are luminous—sometimes even the words of a sermon! The lives of human beings can be luminous—not only the lives of the saints in the clerestory windows, but your lives. Even the simplest gestures of love shed light. The music we hear and sing and the beautiful things we have here for our use brighten this space in their special way. The light filters in from that larger place we call eternal life through many windows.
As wonderful as it is, however, this chapel is a confined space. When we depart, we pass through a doorway out onto the street into a much larger space, filled with yet more wonder and life and amazing things. We go out from this small side chapel into the immense cathedral of the cosmos, with the dome of the infinite overhead and worlds of other wonders deep down inside things. And yet, this mighty cathedral of the cosmos is itself a confined space compared to what lies beyond it. When we pass through the doorway of death, we enter an even greater world: the realm from which emanate all light and all love.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “Wait just a minute: life is not all sunshine, butterflies and rainbows—at least for me right now.” That is true: the world can be a very dark and painful, even destructive place—and we will all die. The crucifixion is the Christian reality check, which is one reason a crucifix is often prominently displayed in churches. Yes, Easter resurrection is an eternal reality and its light illuminates us. But Good Friday is equally real in the human condition. There is a sense in which the risen Christ continues to suffer. One of our hymns puts it this way: “Christ is alive! Let Christians sing…” the hymn begins. But later: “In every insult, rift and war where color, scorn or wealth divide, he suffers still, yet loves the more, and lives, though ever crucified.” [H182] Yes, Christ is risen. But, yes, Christ still suffers—when human beings suffer.
This may be why Anglican liturgy typically does not wear a smiley face, even in the most joyful seasons. The suffering of humanity tempers our joy, even at Christmas and Easter. When we lift up our hearts in the Great Thanksgiving, we lift them up in whatever state they happen to be. We celebrate the Eucharist in much the same way, whether it’s a wedding or a funeral. The Eucharist is the Eucharist, whether there be tears of joy or tears of sorrow—or both. What happens at the altar is both Good Friday and Easter. Easter in the Kenyan Christian community this year must have had a lot of Good Friday about it.
Human suffering is real, yet the light of eternal life filters through countless windows in this world. He came to point to that light, to direct us to that larger life, to give us courage to endure the hardships and sufferings and even martyrdoms of this world. And, most of all, to make sure we know that life eternal shall be ours forever. And if our current sufferings make it difficult to see this light, if we are so enclosed in our tombs that we cannot hear the risen Lord calling us out, that may be why we’re here: to be reminded again of the largeness beyond the smallness of our lives.
In some ways, the resurrection is an invitation to live large, to live in the most expansive way possible, in spite of the Good Fridays of this life, to claim the broad, open, sunlit spaces of this earthly existence. Not stooped over, crouched down in one of those oven tombs, but standing tall, arms open wide—living large, living wide, living love, claiming the dignity bestowed on us as children of God. If the cross is ours to endure, the resurrection to eternal life is ours to claim, even now. If the tombs are real; the life to which Christ calls us is yet more real.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.