The Resurrection of Christ (April 21, 2019)
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
How a community depicts that morning is telling.
Two biblical scholars did a thorough survey of how Eastern Orthodox Christians depict the resurrection in their iconography. They observed the differences in how Western Christians depict the same event. But before I get to their observations, I thought I’d survey our own culture’s depictions of the empty tomb. What better place is there to take the cultural pulse than a Google images search? Oh the cartoons…
My apologies if these are kind of irreverent; I’m just sharing what’s out there floating around in the ether. There’s a whole subgenre of cartoons that I’ll call “comeback stories,” those that use resurrection as a metaphor for someone “rising from the dead” of their career. There’s one from just last week on Tiger Woods performance at the Masters.
There’s the other subgenre of what I’ll call polite Christian comedy, like the one of the Roman soldier standing next to the rolled-away stone with a panicked look on his face and sweat pouring from his brow and he says, “No!… No… Not on my shift!”
But the one that really captures the spirit of the times is one from six years ago, “If the Resurrection happened today” was the title. It depicts Jesus bursting forth from the tomb, with light emanating from behind him and the mammoth stone rolled away, with his arms opened wide in this “It’s me!” gesture… and all the disciples who are there have their phones out snapping pictures of him. One disciple, a woman, is already hunched over, presumably texting the pic to someone or posting it on social media. Jesus has this flummoxed look on his face like “What?!”
There’s something hilariously yet painfully true about that last one, isn’t there? We often miss what’s happening right in front of us in all its glory because we’re trying to “capture” it.
How a community depicts that morning is telling.
John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Crossan were the biblical scholars who did that comparison of Eastern and Western Christian depictions of Easter morning. Over a period of fifteen years they traveled around to various sites in the Mediterranean rim to explore early iconography of the resurrection. The Crossans point out that the precise moment of Jesus’ resurrection is not described in any of the four gospels, only its after-effects. And the after-effects fall into two camps: the “empty-tomb tradition” in which varying combinations of male and/or female disciples arrive on Sunday morning to find Jesus’ burial place vacant; and the “risen-vision tradition in which female or male disciples see the risen Christ.”
And from there the depictions tend to portray either an individual resurrection, with Jesus there by himself, or a universal resurrection, with Christ raising others with him, grasping Adam and Eve (who represent humanity) by the hand or leading the dead out of Hades. Because there was no direct description of Easter morning in the gospels, the Christian artistic imagination took over. The Western imagination tended to focus on the individual resurrection, whereas the Eastern one conceived of it in more collective terms.
The Crossans ask a question that confronts all of us each Easter Sunday:
Whether you understand Christ’s Resurrection as a historical event or a theological interpretation; whether you accept it as a myth or parable, symbol or metaphor; and whether you accept it religiously or reject it absolutely, what does it claim and what does it mean? How can someone or something that happens once in a certain time and in a specific place influence or change the whole human race—not just forward to the end of time, but backward to its start?
In other word, why does it matter? What’s a stake here?
How a community depicts that morning is not only telling, but how communities narrate it, how we tell and retell the Easter story matters. If we relegate it to the past, dismiss it as mere fantasy, or confine it to what may or may not have happened to this one man at this one point in time, then we stifle the power of the empty tomb.
As Ambrose of Milan, a fourth century bishop put it, “If Christ did not rise for us, then he did not rise at all, since he had no need of it just for himself. In him the world arose, in him heaven arose, in him the earth arose. For there will be a new heaven and a new earth.”
For us. For all of us, together. As the Eastern Orthodox icons show Christ snatching Adam and Eve, symbols of all humanity, from the jaws of death, and hauling out those who had been imprisoned behind the gates of Hades, the story of the empty tomb is good news for a world ensnared by Death and its offshoots—violence, hatred, oppression, destruction, and despair.
It is a reminder of the transformative power of God that manifests itself in community. Did you notice in Luke’s version of the story how the women went to the tomb together? And how, after the terror and shock of their encounter with the two men in dazzling light, they fled to the other disciples, back to the men, to tell them what had happened? And if you keep reading Luke’s account, the risen Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and they finally see that it’s him when they gathered around a table to break bread. And Jesus then appears to the others who were back in Jerusalem and in their bewilderment says, “Peace be with you.”
And if you keep on reading through Acts, which Luke also wrote, it tells the story of how the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church, infusing them with the presence of the living Christ. That presence set them on fire. That presence made them bold. That presence got them in trouble some times. And that presence propelled them into all sorts of wild adventures with the Spirit.
How we tell the story of that morning in community is vital.
When the church says or sings “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” It’s always in the present tense. Christ is risen, not was. That’s a present-tense proclamation. It’s a statement about the fierce resilience of life—how evil, how empire, how the systems and forces that threaten to overwhelm us all did not win. Love did. It’s a statement of stubborn hope, a foreshadowing of the new heaven and new earth to which God is drawing all creation.
Do the bad things still persist? Absolutely. We need no reminders of that. Did the empty tomb fix it all? We know that it didn’t. But it all started in the dark, in the early dawn. The risen Jesus met them right there in the midst of their perplexition and fear and grief. And he met them there in community and propelled them into a new way of living sparked by his aliveness among them.
The question for us this and every Easter becomes: are we an empty tomb kind of people?
Friends, I’ve seen the risen Jesus this year. Right here in this very neighborhood, down the street at the Benedictine Monastery. When Casa Alitas/Catholic Community Services first started housing folks there at the former convent, I went over there for a meeting and after the meeting, wandered around the place. I had only been in there once before, a few years ago when I popped in the chapel to pray.
The nuns order was the Benedictine Order of Perpetual Adoration. For decades they prayed around the clock, adoring the Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. They also tended an amazing, bounteous garden of citrus trees. They had been there since 1939, but due to declining numbers and increasing maintenance cost, they had to sell the building in 2017.
So by the time I went back to the chapel after that meeting, the place had been deconsecrated. I don’t understand the traditions surrounding that, whether or not that means a place is no longer considered holy, but the interior of the chapel seemed to communicate that. There it was, stripped of all its sacred objects: statues, stained glass, the altar, pieces of the confessional booth. It was really eery, and abysmal, quite frankly. It was like a tomb–cold and lifeless.
And I saw right atop the canopy an image that had not yet been removed, a relief of a mother pelican feeding her young. That’s an ancient symbol for God, by the way, because if an actual mother pelican can’t find food for her nestlings, she will prick herself and feed them with her own blood.
Fast forward to months later and the shelters for people from Central America seeking asylum are full. And in that chapel, cots lined the floor, scores of them. The place was teeming with life! Volunteers from all over the city scurrying about. Kids playing. People eating delicious oranges that the sisters had grown. Courageous people had headed north trying to find safety for themselves and for their families with faith that God was with them. Joy abounded in the midst of a very discouraging situation. Hope persisted, despite the violence of their homeland and the violence of the journey. Life was pressing on, despite the efforts of empire to suppress it.
The words on the steps up to where the altar had been still had those words etched on them, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
Our Mothering God, One who breathes life into dark places, was still there gathering her children under her wings. Her holiness had never left. Her love would not be defeated. Her love would not be snuffed out.
Allelluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!