Easter is not the answer

Wading thigh-deep through the world’s sadness one archetypal spring, I wanted Easter to come. I was winding once again through the cycles of winter and summer and the spaces in between. In retrospect, that season portended this terrible pandemic in its sadness and in its timing. I remember craving the glory of the empty tomb, the wet eyes eternally dried, the Jesus of Nazareth now undeniably the Christ. I needed Easter to be the answer to my woes.

But Easter is not the answer. It’s something else entirely.

Don’t get too comfortable. I’m not going where I’m supposed to. I won’t stake a claim in these culture wars between people who need questions to feel alive and those who find safe harbor in answers. Because questions and answers belong to each other. A hunger for truth and clarity (i.e., answers) motivates the good questions, and finding answers opens up new vistas for questioning. It’s generally not until we have real answers that we can ask truly intelligent questions. That’s all well and good, but my Easter revelation wasn’t about controversies over questions and answers and the relative merits of those who favor one over the other. Easter doesn’t care which battle trenches we inhabit in contemporary politics. Easter wants something else. Easter calls us and the world we love to a disorienting transformation.

I’m aware that I’m not describing Easter as we normally talk about it: the direct solution to our worries and woes. To understand Easter as something other than the answer requires that we rewind past the Reformation, past even the Catholic Church that the Reformers wanted to fix. We need to forget how things end up. Time needs to flow from its undetermined present into an unknown future. We need to visit the present of the disciples whose life stories became the New Testament when they wove them with the story of Yehoshua, the carpenter-turned-prophet from Nazareth. (I find Tom Wright’s account of these stories persuasive and illuminating; my views of Easter have been shaped by his.)

The account of Jesus’s life as we find it in the New Testament is a story of a clear-seeing poor man who redefined humans and holiness. It also speaks of the people with loyal hearts and dim wits who followed him. These disciples needed a God-anointed king of Israel and saw the carpenter prophet as that king. They were hungry and often afraid, laboring constantly with uncertain prospects for success. These women and men felt abandoned by God. Their national pride was injured; they were angry. Jesus was the answer.

The Psalms—the songs of sorrow, fear, yearning, and praise that are the framework within which Jesus lived and preached—are lovely and complicated works. One major thread in the Psalms shows the Israelites clamoring for an answer to death, sorrow, and pain. They pleaded with God to solve their problems. With the intensity of a hungry child, the singers of psalms cry out that what matters most about us is that we will die and that we suffer in the meantime. God sometimes seems to matter to the extent that God honors God’s promise to liberate Israel from such suffering. The answer the Psalms sometimes seek, in other words, is a cure for human dis-ease. Easter is not that cure. Jesus is not that man.

What Jesus knew and when he knew it remains a mystery, to me at least. We suspect based on the scriptures that he learned the meaning of his life one passage at a time, one grace followed by another. I wonder whether, in the midst of his great pain, Jesus moved from grace to grace in Gethsemane. Was that when he finally understood who he was, when he finally brought all of us into himself in an act of free and complete identification? If so, then Jesus was learning about his mission until the day he died. Little wonder it took his followers even longer to gain an inkling of what Jesus meant.

What’s not a mystery is that the disciples were dullards. Time after time, they looked on, unknowing, as he stirred up trouble and drew the world that they knew out of focus. Standing next to the mortal Jesus, they couldn’t even recognize him. They had his future backwards and not even a blurry image of what that future would call them to. But they are our exemplars in their ignorance and in their ultimate knowledge.

The story of Jesus’s life and death and life again was that we’ve had it all wrong. Most days we still have it all wrong. Along with the disciples, we thought that power was powerful, that wealth and prosperity were good in the same way that creation is Good. We thought the Messiah was the answer to the Psalms. We thought the Messiah was the mighty warrior sent to kill the Romans. We thought that religion was to make us feel happy or strong, to persuade us that we are the better sort of folk. We thought that tax-collecting traitors and bedraggled prostitutes were the world’s dross, the problem with the world. We also thought that death was the problem that deserved to be spelled with a capital P. We thought that we must live always in the shadow of that horrid stillness and our task was to do war with it. We were forever stalked by the ugly quiet of a no-longer-breathing body and the suffering inherent in human life.

Many disciples thought Jesus was a miracle worker and the activist preacher who would reform Jerusalem society. They knew that he would not die before that mission was fulfilled. I don’t mean to overstate their ignorance, although if I did so I would fit safely within the New Testament. They got some things right, like we all do, in the midst of the ignorance. They at least knew that they belonged to him, if nothing else.

And yet consistently Jesus told them that they didn’t know him. They never did. Not even the most famous and devoted of the disciples knew what Jesus was for or what he was saying. They hoped for a lot of things. They prayed with the Psalms that God would answer their questions, would solve their problems.

And then their Messiah was dead. Murdered casually and horribly by an indifferent state. His followers had gotten used to the notion that he would humor the outcasts, even love them. But they hadn’t thought he, at the end, was the worst of such outcasts. But there he was, and then there he wasn’t. Just a body. Just that same accursed stillness of death. The same brutal indifference to the weak and forgotten that they thought he would solve.

Details are sparse in scripture, but it seems fair to guess that the disciples cried and stared and tried, fruitlessly, to sleep. They rehearsed his preaching in their minds and the miracles he worked and asked why everything had gone wrong. What happened to the psalmic hero who would rise to liberate Israel from its political and religious oppressors?

And then Easter. A devout woman went to prepare Jesus’s broken body for burial. Let the men stare uncomprehending, wallowing in their discomfiture, there was work that needed to be done. So she put her shoulder to the proverbial wheel. However much the disciples failed to understand about Jesus, she could see that she owed this respect to his broken body and their shattered dreams. She could hold his discarded body in her hands and say that it was still loved. It didn’t matter to her that he had failed, that he was not the Messiah they had dreamed of. It mattered that she loved him, and she sensed that he had loved her.

What she discovered was that the world was forever turned upside down. The tomb was empty, and the divine gentleness of the once-dead Jesus stood beside her. When he called to her, she too did not immediately recognize him. She thought he might be a gardener standing beside her and the empty tomb.
Stunned by his return from death and whatever state stands between death and new life, she returned as the first witness of Christ’s resurrection. Tom Wright and others have drawn attention to the authentic and world-inverting ring to this story: the witness to the great and founding miracle of Christianity was a woman, a person not even authorized by Jewish law to bear valid testimony.

Jesus and his disciples shared a luminous few weeks where he began to explain to them just how wrong they had been throughout his ministry. He made clearer to them the call that had been made. He told them how miserable their lives would be: death and suffering awaited them on the road to a remaking of heaven and earth. And then he left them, promising a spiritual presence that we know as the Holy Ghost, to get about their painful business of loving the world into a new state of existence.

And here we see the answers that Easter isn’t. It’s not that Christ was safely in paradise with the thief who died beside him. It’s not that death is not the end. It’s not freedom from suffering and strife but instead the possibility of a lot more of it. Easter is the fact the Psalmists’ classic questions don’t make any sense. Those questions feel good, even necessary. And they are honest. But they are not what matters. Not on Easter.

On Easter we discover forever that we have had it all wrong. We thought it mattered that Christ was dead. We thought it mattered whether the Romans defeated him. We thought it mattered that his disciples felt safe. But it doesn’t, not really. Our mortal lives matter. By God, they matter. But the fact of our coming death is a distracting mirage. I want to be as careful as I can be here. I am no Gnostic. We mortals are not illusions. Our bodies are not illusory. But whether we are dying or not isn’t the issue. We die, yes, the risen Christ seems to say. But that’s not the point. The point is that the world is not as it seems. Not even about the big things. And we are called to see, love, and transform that upside-down world.

This is why the Easter Gospel is so threatening in our modern age. Easter says that we’ve read the world upside down and backwards. And we can’t stop doing so. It’s as if we are addicted to a powerful drug. We want our merely human needs to be the most important story. We want to imagine that access to a surplus of consumer goods and comfortable beds and fine food is the answer to the question the sometimes brutal world poses to us. Easter says that we can and must break that addiction. There is something much better. There is a world-transforming love and our capacity to live within it.
As always, the truth can be made to sound awful. I repeat—I am no Gnostic. The world is real, and our bodies matter. Grief is no illusion. The pain we feel is actual, and God forbid that we ever trivialize the misery of the sufferer. Our tender regard for those who suffer is indeed what matters more than the fact of our looming deaths. Our ability to succor at the interface between time and eternity is the true mark of our incarnation.

The question is not whether we will die, whether we will suffer, whether we will ache. In various proportions and at different times we all will. The question is whether this sometimes agonized life is lived within the Christ who defies our expectations about how the world works and whose light and grace permeates the universe. Lived there and then, in the eternal realm suffusing our relentlessly mortal hours, we realize that we are free from the tedious and confused questions the disciples always asked. We will flicker between the human and divine realms in the company of the risen Christ. We will know that the lilies of the field don’t worry about their meals or who is persecuting them or why they are unhappy or that they will one day die. They live in the full power and grace of God’s animating love.
We want much, predictably. We want the good to prosper and the evil to suffer. We want to know that if we sing the right psalms our enemies will be vanquished. We want to hear that we will never die. Can we have those reasonable requests? Easter offered no answer to those desires, to the psalms read in that urgently human way so familiar to our modern ears. Easter offered instead a world in the process of being remade and a call for us to put our shoulders, like the women at the tomb, to the wheel. In our earnest love of a broken world full of life and the promise of beauty, we are part of that rebirth. That is the story of Easter.

Everything looks the same. But nothing can ever be again.

Comments

  1. Arganoil says:

    Beautiful Sam, that really resonated with me. I have sometimes the feeling we are creating such a narrow, overly correlated narrative in church that feel inauthentic and petty. I love your broader inclusive view of the easter story!

  2. Sam Brown says:

    Thanks, Arganoil. I really appreciate your views on this. For me I guess I’m hopeful that my more melancholic perspective will be a loving complement to the “correlated” views, which are also a source of great goodness. I think my take on the body of Christ (including at Easter) is that the body is greater than any member even as it is constituted of those members, and within that body I think we are all trying to find language to describe the power, beauty, and grace of the life in Christ. For those of us of a more pessimistic constitution (guilty!), there is grace. For those of us more optimistic and invigorated by structure (so many of the lovely “correlated” Saints that I know and love), there is grace. This is that world flipped upside down at Easter. There is no zero sum game here.

  3. Oh, ‘April is the cruelest month…’ I understand Eliot’s intention so much better this spring.

  4. “There is no zero sum game here.” Lovely

  5. This was a welcome reminder.

  6. A compelling analysis Sam, especially for this particular Easter. The empty tomb makes hollow our earthly expectations. If we could only grasp who the souls we encounter every day truly are it would transform our hearts and our service. I feel like I regularly stumble in my attempts to overcome the cares of the world to allow His grace enough room to effectively operate in my life and transform my own actions and attitudes.

    I tried to console a teenage daughter today who feels isolated and trapped at home with her family, is desperately worried about what the future holds, and is struggling to overcome the depressive feelings that surround her as a result.

    We concluded that seeking ways to serve would be key to opening an effectual door for her but I believe your exploration of the paschal mystery will be a beneficial read for her as she sorts through her struggles.

  7. larryco_ says:

    Now I think I know, what you tried to say to me
    And how you suffered for your sanity
    And how you tried to set them free
    They would not listen, they’re not listening still
    Perhaps they never will.
    -Vincent/Don McLean

    Masterful, Sam

  8. Thank you Sam
    Easter is not the answer, for me it’s the question that ask, if we truly understand our purpose in life, even in knowing the end.

    Faith requires exercise, even when uncertainty prevails in all that we see, because we are taught to trust in the Lord and the Resurrection, as “the answer.”

    But as many are challenged this Easter for lack of it’s perfection in going to a meeting place, in dressing up for an occasion to display all that we are blessed to have, as our evidence of the good that we have been favored with; or that we come to pray for the end of disease that has halted even our very exercise of faith to gather in number beyond 3 is a great challenge to some. I understand.

    Forgive me, but I didn’t miss what I’m supposed to miss, this Easter, because I wasn’t looking for the answer there. I didn’t miss being at church. I didn’t miss singing. I didn’t miss anything, I didn’t even miss Sacrament. Forgive me not. Why would I say such a thing? I’m myself a person who saw this Easter as being its most pronounced; in asking me if I truly understand my purpose, beyond any given day to praise Him, for He has arisen. But I didn’t just come to the revelation alone, even having the presence of the Holy Ghost. It took the 107 yr life, of a grandmother’s death 10 days prior to Easter and memorializing her a day before Easter to teach me, what has always been there for me to learn and know.

    Life’s purpose is answered in kindness and the pure ignorance of not even caring who a person is to yet still place kindness there and to Follow Him in acts of purpose, to love even the unloveable. We will never fully know the answers we seek, until we are able to truly give, just give ourselves and our hearts to serve and love as He has loved us. I love my grandmother, because she loved me; but true understanding for me is in accepting the example of her love and kindness to everyone, even those that caused her pain. We sometimes seek things from our faith that we ought to seek from within ourselves, the answers; we call on Bishops and Stake Presidents to listen to us conveying sorrows of why, why, why, why; why don’t people understand me, why do you hold the keys, why do some die a painful death, why am I burdened by weeds that take to spring sooner that the tulips can find room to burst through, why did my grandmother die of a broken heart because of social distancing, not understanding or accepting no visitors allowed, deciding at will to not eat and pass; not of COVID-19 or any illness just alone and without kindness placed there for no visitors allowed. How hurtful that some would say, “She was 107 already, what are you crying for?” But they don’t know, what I knew, that she knew her purpose and did it so well she was allowed to stay longer, giving ample time for the hard of HEARING HIM, to watch and learn and share and know.

    I get it now and yes, I’ll say it again, I didn’t miss anything this Easter because I saw purpose in my life by displays of blind ignorance and kindness shown to even me on Easter, not because of Sacrament being passed, but when a loaf of bread was delivered to me by a family of 5, that came humbly on bikes, smiling all the way, without a care of the storm that would likely out chase them, rushing to be kind to me. All while I had left from where they were coming, not mindful of so many privileged things to help me manage social connections, smart devices, smart phone, smart watch; all never given adequate notice of someone’s coming to bring something to you; but instead rushing against the same threat to beat the same storm to deliver meals to those needing them. Disappointed that I missed that delivery in person to give a heart felt thank you and smile at the glory of kindness shown to me, deeply; But even they forgave me (another act of kindness, forgiveness) so I’m not worried or upset anymore, because I know, we were all where we needed to be on this Easter Day and therefore I didn’t miss anything or anyone, but my grandmother, because now I realize it’s on me (it’s on us, it’s on you).

    I have to be my own example of faith and not simply rely on a grandmother’s faith but exercise my own by not seeking the answer in Easter, but within my own capacity to be kind, blindly and unconcerned where that kindness is placed or if it is reciprocated. Easter is not the answer.

  9. your food allergy is real says:

    I really, really want Easter to be the answer. So this is an hard saying; who can hear it?

    Thank you very much for this. A lot to think about.

  10. Samuel Brown says:

    Food allergy (if that is your real name): Me too. Desperately. I get these little intimations or glimmers of it not needing to be when I’m trying to live in Christ.

  11. your food allergy is real says:

    Sam, it is my assumption based on what you’ve written that you deal with death a lot. I do too, and I am only now starting to realize the effect this has had on me, something akin to PTSD but with an obsession with the mortality/time question that I can’t shake. A better way to live, a better question to ask, would be of profound importance to me. Thanks again.

  12. Interdenominational household here.

    By years long agreement we attempt to participate in two churches on an equal basis. Normally we attend sacrament meeting and then the worship service at this Protestant church.The cancellation of social gatherings has proven most challenging. We listened to general conference last week and it fell flat for us. This week we listened to this Protestant sermon on Sunday.

    I will spare you the long, gloomy Friday evening sermon which is designed to make everyone feel horrible that Jesus was crucified. The pastor slowly pounded nails into a big wooden cross while reminding us that our sins nailed Jesus to the cross. He does something similar every Easter. Last year he had children pounding nails with great energy into the same cross they drag into the church every year. Drag-because its too heavy to carry. Definitely not boring.

    But I think last Sunday he really hit the nail on the head.

    https://www.redeemeratlanta.org/sermons/?enmse=1&enmse_mid=478

  13. Sam Brown says:

    allergy person: I’ve found reason Kohaks Embers and the Stars very useful for evoking this sense of eternity as it encounters human time. And Wrights notion of easter as the inauguration of a new world is really helpful to me. I’m also vaguely hopeful that my translation book (even thought it’s intellectual history) will help describe a model of restoration theology that is relevant to these questions as well. God speed. It wears on one to be so close to death.

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