I've sometimes wondered what it would be like to celebrate Easter in the southern hemisphere: South America, Australia, Southern Africa. It would come right about the time summer turns into autumn. The days would be getting noticeably shorter. At really southern latitudes the leaves might be getting ready to turn, and there would be a chill in the air, a harbinger of the approaching winter.
Wouldn't that be strange?! It would feel strange to us because of all the associations we make between Easter and springtime: new beginnings for caterpillars turned into butterflies, new life for baby chicks, the sheer reproductive fecundity of rabbits. All of these symbols that our culture associates with Easter speak loudly of the sheer persistence of birth and life in the face of death and decay. It leads us to an understanding of Easter that sees it as about death being survived—survived, but not particularly defeated, challenged but not necessarily conquered. The lengthening days we are enjoying will, around the twenty-third of June, start to get shorter again. There will be another winter. The baby chick that gives us an Easter feeling will end up on somebody's dinner table, and that Easter bunny in the backyard will become a meal for a hungry owl.
These realities push us to re-interpret Easter in terms that are less than fully concrete: “It's a spiritual reality,” “Grandpa will live on in our memories,” “Aunt Betty is alive in our hearts,” “When something dies, it is absorbed into the cosmic life principle,” or some such. The sheer unlikelihood— in terms of our ordinary experience, that is—the sheer unlikelihood of real resurrection causes us to water down the meaning of Easter. We have, after all, never seen water flow uphill. The sun has never risen in the west. And dead people don't come back to life.
Now, if all we had to go on, in terms of written accounts of the resurrection, were the appearances of Jesus to his friends and disciples in the forty days following his crucifixion, we could be forgiven for our attempts to “spiritualize” Easter. Jesus does come across as somewhat ghost-like—walking through walls and on top of water, suddenly appearing and disappearing, sort of recognizable but sort of strange-looking at the same time. But these stories are not all we have. We still have to deal—somehow —with the empty tomb, with the experience of those women who came to anoint the body of Jesus early on Easter morning and found that it was not there. They were told by an angel that he was not there precisely because he was risen! This is not a spiritual event we're talking about here. The same flesh and blood that was nailed to a cross, breathed its last, and was laid in a tomb, got up and walked out of that tomb!
The witness of the empty tomb is that Christ's resurrection is not about “surviving” death, spiritually or otherwise. It is not about living on in somebody's memory, or in somebody's descendants, or about being absorbed as a drop in the great sea of life. The resurrection of Christ is about the annihilation of death, the defeat of death, the conquest of death. And not just any particular death—not just my death or your death, but the very underlying principle of death, the notion of death, the idea of death.
I want to share with you some lines from a poem by the late John Updike:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse,
the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart that—pierced—
died, withered, paused,
and then regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not paper-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour,
we are embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
My friends, our Easter hope is as concrete as the lives we live and the bodies we live in. Our Easter hope is not that anyone whom death has separated from us will live on in our memories or in our hearts. Our Easter hope is that we will once again embrace them in our bodies—bodies, yes, that are more glorious and incorruptible than we can contemplate, but bodies that are, nevertheless, still bodies, which can be seen and touched and recognized.
Christ is risen—we are risen. Death is swallowed up in victory. Christ is risen from the death, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life. Alleluia and Amen!