M. Kent Mayfield
UU Fellowship of Dubuque
April 21, 2019
From The Message: The Gospel of John, 20: 1-21 – a translation by Eugene Patterson
Paul Van Buren, from The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, 1963
We shall summarize our interpretation of the language of Easter. Jesus of Nazareth was a remarkably free person in his own life, who attracted followers and created enemies in a matter comparable to the effect of other liberated persons in history. He did as a result of the threat that such a free human being poses for the insecure. His disciples were left no less insecure and frightened. Later, Peter, and then other disciples had an experience. They experience a discerning situation in which Jesus, the free person whom they had known, themselves, and indeed the whole world, were seen in quite a new way. From that moment, the disciples began to claim something of the freedom of Jesus. His freedom began to be “contagious.” For the disciples, therefore, the story of Jesus could not be told simply as the story of a free human being who had died. Because of the new way in which the disciples saw him and because of what had happened to them, the story had to include the event of Easter.
“The End and the Beginning”
Translated by Joanna Trzeciak
[It is almost as if the poet is referring to the jumble after the crucifixion…]
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road…
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door…
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods ….
From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.
“Impressions of the Theater”
For me, a tragic play’s
most important act
is the last.
when every one rises up
from the stage’s battlegrounds,
adjusting their wigs, their robes,
wrenching out the fake knife from their chest,
removing the noose from their neck,
and the nlining up
in front of the living audience
to face them.
They bow, alone and together;
their pale hands on their wounded hearts;
the lady who had killed herself curtseys;
the beheaded guy nods to one and all.
They bow in pairs:
anger extends and arm to shyness;
a victim looks blissfully
into the hangman’s eyes;
the revolutionary bears no grudge
as he walks right next to the tyrant.
They trample eternity with a golden slipper.
They sweep morals away with the brim of a hat.
They show incorrigible readiness
to start afresh tomorrow.
Single file, those who died a lot earlier,
say in the second or third acts,
It’s the miraculous resurrection
of those lost without a trace.
The thought that they have been waiting backstage, patiently,
not taking off their costumes
or wiping off makeup moves me strangely,
more than all the play’s tragic tirades.
But truly inspiring is the lowering of the curtain.
And that brief glimpse of what lies beneath it.
Here, one hand
hastily grasps at a bouquet of flowers,
there, another hand
picks up a dropped sword.
Only then does a third, invisible hand
Perform its task: it clutches at my throat.
So, why, I wonder, does the poet Szymborska feel a hand clutch at her throat when the tragic play ends? Why does she feel such deep feelings when, after all the dramatic massacres are over, all the dead rise up from the floor, and pick up fallen swords and catch bouquets of flowers from the applauding, deeply affected audience?
Because in real life, that just doesn’t happen. Szymborska knows that the folks on the stage haven’t really died. They are pretending to die. They have been trained to fall the right way and without hurting themselves in the least. They have learned to appear to be run through by daggers or to fall limp from poison.
But, in real life, they don’t get up. The daggers work; the poison is deadly. Our latter day Romeos and Juliets do not start breathing again after the drive-by shooting or opioid overdose, after the explosion in the barracks or after the mortal illness claims a vigorous young (or frail old) life. The curtain comes down and does not go up again. Szymborska feels a hand at her throat because the theater of the world does not have that last act, the one when everyone stands up again. She is moved because, although the play tells the truth about life as it know it, its last act, the curtain call if you will, seems to erase that truth, or, at least, hold it at bay.
Yet, the Easter stories claim to tell the same hard truth as any tragedy by Shakespeare (or Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams) – betrayal, fear, injustice and unfair death…but then surprises us by serving up what it claims is a REAL honest-to-god curtain call. The story insists that its main character, killed in a most awful way, actually does stand up again on the stage of the world. (Anastasis, the Greek word clumsily translated as resurrection, means just that…to stand up again.)
Like all those actors on the stage.
However, there is a story in Matthew’s gospel that clearly suggest (to me) that Jesus’ “standing up” was not one of the visions of the dead that grieving people often see. At just the moment Jesus dies, Matthew tells us, “there was a great earthquake, and rocks were split apart,” he says, “and tombs were opened, and many good people came out of their tombs…and went into the holy city where they appeared to many.”
Note that the very fact that these people were seen in the city is not put on a par with the first Easter experience. Matthew never asks us to see in this strange event more proof of some Easter story.
There may be something of a reason for this.
I’ve been a minister on and off again for more than 50 years, and I tell you now that in that span of time there are many people who have had visions, dreams or unusual experiences of the recently dead. I’ve heard this story in my office, or on strolls across the Wisconsin hills or down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue or on the phone (and now by email) countless times. I heard it from a Tibetan monk. I’ve heard it from the poet Robert Bly. Thomas Merton once told it. And, just three weeks back, the unremarkable mother of a dearly loved and shockingly, suddenly dead friend, told me the story of a dream, a vision, an out-of-the- body experience – call it what you will – of her Angie along with her long-dead father and another friend. She saw them against a field of dark green with a deep blue sky-color behind. And, they held a real conversation. But she told me, “I know science rules over my dream experience, but I must admit I’m pretty damned awestruck.”
Exactly. Which is why I don’t struggle against the visons of ordinary men and women who come to me with these stories. Arguing about neurons, endorphins, psychological grief, projection and all that is completely beyond the point for me. Experiences that bring out the griever’s awe and wonder, dreams which comfort with a deep green heaven are gifts to leave us awestruck.
Remain faithful to science. By all means. I am. But, remain faithful to your love and your grief to. You don’t have to file any experience you have into some specific drawer in your head where you tuck the unenlightened non-sense of your life. You can just rejoice in the wonder of it. You don’t have to come to some particular “ism” or some time-honored interpretation either. Being awestruck is its own reward, it seems to me. Experience can remain experience. You can reflect on it, of course, but you don’t have to come with some notion to finalize an interpretation. I don’t think we have that power. I don’t think anything has that power.
But the gospel of Matthew suggests that this kind of vision is NOT what it means when it speaks of the anastasis, the resurrection, of Jesus. Let me be clear: anastasis does not mean resuscitation, there are other Greek words to describe such, but this is much more like the experience of Mary the Magdalene having a conversation with a gardener in a cemetery that turned her life upside down or like Paul of Tarsus, who didn’t even know the historic Jesus nor had even seen him. But Paul claims he saw a light that knocked him off his high-horse, clearly horrified, even a bit peeved, standing up again, but not the same. It was all about things not remaining the same.
Paul Van Buren makes that clear: The Easter event was not about something staying the same. No, he says, Easter is about something new, something different, the transformation of an altogether human teacher, a remarkably free human being who died, into something else: a community of women and men and children trying also to stand up in freedom.
A “contagious” transformation Van Buren calls it. Contagious, unexpected, out of their control…or the control of others.
We received an invitation from our Milwaukee neighborhood newspaper “RiverWest Currents” to place an ad for Easter at St. John’s On The Lake, where I live. Some wag suggested to me that, should we advertise, it should say something like, “Join us for Easter. We’re not sure what happened.”
Right. We’re not sure what happened.
WE CAN SAY THAT the story of the Resurrection means simply that the teachings of Jesus are immortal like the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Beethoven and that their wisdom and truth will live on forever.
Or we can say that the Resurrection means that the spirit of Jesus is undying, that he himself lives on among us, the way that Socrates does, for instance, in the good that he left behind him, in the lives of all who follow his great example.
Or we can say that the language in which the Gospels describe the Resurrection of Jesus is the language of poetry and that, as such, it is not to be taken literally but as pointing to a truth more profound than the literal.
Very often, I think, this is the way that the Bible is written, and I would point to some of the stories about the birth of Jesus, for instance, as examples; but in the case of the Resurrection, this simply does not apply because there really is no story about the Resurrection in the New Testament. Except in the most fragmentary way, it is not described at all. There is no poetry about it. Instead, it is simply proclaimed as a fact. Christ is risen! In fact, the very existence of the New Testament, of the Church, of Christianity itself proclaims it.
Something very real indeed took place on that strange, confused morning but we don’t know what.
Yet we try to reduce it to poetry anyway: the coming of spring with the return of life to the dead earth, the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul.
Mary Oliver walks out to the pond near her house in Provincetown and finds mystery, not preserved in ancient times or in strange language. Just silent imagery. What does she find? A seed transforming slowing into a stalk of wheat, which looks nothing like a seed. The round blue egg giving way to a moist baby bird, looking nothing like an egg. The turtle trustingly covering her rubber-soft eggs which resemble her not in the least.
We don’t what is happening, there, and I don’t mean to suggest that it was Easter morning at Blackwater Pond, but the four mysteries of Mary Oliver go against expectations, transcending ordinary human cunning and control.
We try to suggest that these are the miracles that the Resurrection is all about, but they are not. In their way they are all miracles, but they are not this miracle, this central one to which the whole of Easter points.
Unlike the chief priests and the Pharisees, who tried with soldiers and a great stone to make themselves as secure as they could against the terrible possibility of Christ’s really rising again from the dead, we are considerably more subtle. We tend in our age to say, “Of course, someone has to straighten things up…make some sense of the mess.” But when we are pressed to say what it was that actually did happen, what we are apt to come out with is something pretty meager: This “miracle” of truth that never dies, the “miracle” of a life so beautiful that two thousand years have left the memory of it undimmed, the “miracle” of doubt turning into faith, fear into hope. If I believed that this or something like this was all that the Resurrection meant, then I would turn in my certificate of ordination and take up some other profession. Or, at least, I hope that I would have the courage to take those “rusted out arguments from the bushes and carry them to the garbage pile.” (after Symborska)
We don’t know what happened in the days before a catastrophic literalism befell the fathers early Christianity, but, we know what it’s like when someone appears whose message we feel offers hope; who inspires us with new ways of living which touch our hearts and lift our spirits in anticipation. We know what it’s like when they fall short of our expectations, or worse, are cut down by the forces of hate and bigotry.
We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like when someone has grown profoundly into our own lives, who seems as much a part of our living as our own breathing, whose presence lives in our souls. We know what it’s like when death takes them from us, perhaps prematurely, and the empty place in our souls is much like an empty tomb.
We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like to feel sorrow and loss, despair and grief. We know the waves of tears and the thoughts of the past which flow through us, which begin to fill the emptiness with stories and memories, begin to shore us up again with a different presence which will live with us for all of our lives.
We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like to realize, to have it dawn upon us, that what we have known and loved lives on now with and within us, a part of who we are. We know that somehow, in our hearts and souls, resurrection is real: not that of the body, but of the spirit—a spirit renewed, even reborn, in the midst our lives and our living.
We’re not sure what happened. But, we know that there is a difficult hope, a faith, that through the living of whatever sorrow and grief we feel (and will continue to feel on occasion) there is also a growing sense of grace and gratitude, of joy and thankfulness, in the mysterious and abiding astonishment of human being.
Easter, then, is not about what happened or did not happen to Jesus. Easter is about what happens to us, to you and to me, when we are open to being restored to the deepest life within us. What Easter is about is not awe-inspiring visions of the recently dead, or some wild resuscitation, but, rather, something possible for everyone, here and now. Over the years, some of you and your friends have told me, sometimes while trembling or even weeping stories about facing great odds: about how you faced them even when you were afraid; or you’ve spoken about finding relationships that have transformed you; or getting out of relationships that were hurting; or risking new and untested endeavors; or refusing to be defined by failures and grief or gender and discrimination. All of these are Easter stories. They “Easter” life.
They are one with the stories of Jesus or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Susan B. Anthony or Sojourner Truth, each them individuals who were trembling and fallible but free. But. none of them got up from the stage of history after they fell and walked around again. Life may be a stage but it is not, alas, a theater. The slain do not get up in Dubuque, catch bouquets and bow.
There are spots of time that are and are not enough to hand a life on. At some point you need a universally redemptive activity. You need grace that has nothing to do with our own efforts, a life force, proposition to which you can no longer assent but which becomes the very engine and aim of being, for at some point—whether because of age or disease or despair, exhaustion or loss—you will have no efforts left to make.
I do not mean to be profound, except inasmuch as there is a persistent, insistently profound mystery at the center of the Easter story, at the center of our existence, not in any ultimate sense explicable to anyone but available to everyone who will not actively resist those moments in which the self and all it attempts are finished. It may happen at any moment in life when, “with an eye made quiet by power/Of harmony and the deep power of joy,” (Wordsworth) we cease to be entirely and only ourselves but paradoxically, more ourselves. Perhaps, our souls.
We don’t know what happened there on Easter morning, perhaps. And, not knowing can be bewildering. But, there can be a kind of bewilderment that reorients one’s spirit, that takes one to that inchoate edge of existence and gives it an actual edge, that brings the cosmic into the commonplace. (Very different, mind you, from the cliché of discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary.) That creates, in the space of a story, a big sign pointing to a grand abyss that says – This Way to All We Cannot Say.
Still, those of us, the living, who are lucky enough to hear the stories of the fast, fierce and remarkably free can be moved by these stories beyond the safe edges of our own lives and experience a moment when physical things acquire an uncanny porousness, as if human life, and more than human life, streams through them, and when “what we know little/And less than little/And finally as little as nothing,” -“love” for instance, or “hope” –can seem almost tangible, at once authentically time-bound and defiantly timeless, something unlike the past, something new, something “else,” something like EASTER.
May it be so.