The Hope of Easter

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished,” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

The central message of Easter is hope—hope that death is not the end of us, hope that our separation from God is not permanent, hope that a human being is more than just a random collection of subatomic particles that can do a little math. Doubt and fear seem to inhere in the human condition because we can only inhabit the middle of our own stories. We weren’t here for the beginning, we can’t see clearly to the end, and almost everything about the parts that we can see seems calculated to increase our anxiety, our depression, and our despair.

Anxiety, depression, and despair are part of our human nature. Traditional Christianity explains this by pointing to the Fall. Once, the story goes, humans weren’t isolated middle-dwellers with no idea why they existed. They were immortal creatures who walked and talked with God and never wondered about anything. Then they did the one thing they weren’t supposed to do, and they fell from grace (and took all of us with them). Yet Christ, through the atonement and the resurrection, somehow reverses the effects of the Fall. In Adam we all died, and in Christ, we are all made alive (1 Cor 15:22).

None of this actually makes any sense to me; it sounds like a pretty dumb way to run a universe. God made a bunch of creatures who wanted to sin and then he told them not to sin. Then they do a sin because OF COURSE THEY DO; IT’S IN THEIR NATURE. And this means that God has to torture them for all of eternity, even though he doesn’t want to, because that’s just the way things work. But there is this weird loophole. If somebody who is kind of God, but also kind of God’s son gets born and then dies a horrible, agonizing death—and then gets resurrected and waits 2000 years to talk to anyone—he can start forgiving people when they do bad stuff. He can even forgive people on credit before this horrible, agonizing death, just because he knows it will happen.

There is no way that I can make rational sense of this salvation drama. Strangely enough, though, it still corresponds to the way that I, and many other people, see the world. We experience God mainly through an absence, and we feel that absence keenly. It takes forms like loneliness, despair, anxiety, profound feelings of inadequacy, loss, and a hunger for more meaning than the world makes available.

Plato allegorizes something like this in Aristophanes’ speech in Symposium, when he depicts humans as perpetually lonely half-beings who have been separated from what makes them complete and who spend their lives trying to restore what has been lost. (Plato is talking about erotic love, but the longing that he describes works for lots of other things too—even God). Human beings are born wanting something that they can’t identify. We feel a lack that we can’t even describe. Nobody expresses this better than Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his brilliant long poem, In Memoriam:

Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final end of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

Tennyson puts his trust in God’s ability to make everything work out the way it should. The line, “I can but trust that good shall fall / at last,” expresses a great hope backed by a very faint trust—he trusts that God understands all of the things he cannot understand, and he trusts that God is both good enough and competent enough to make everything work out in the end. He trusts because he must; it is the condition of hope.

According to Christian tradition, the last thing that Jesus Christ says on the Cross is, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Once again, Jesus quotes from a psalm, this time Psalm 31, which begins

In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed: deliver me in thy righteousness.

Bow down thine ear to me; deliver me speedily: be thou my strong rock, for an house of defence to save me.

For thou art my rock and my fortress; therefore for thy name’s sake lead me, and guide me.

Pull me out of the net that they have laid privily for me: for thou art my strength.

Into thine hand I commit my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth. (Psalm 31:1-5)

This, too, is a poem about trust, which is really just another name for faith. Its central argument is that the speaker can always trust God, even when nobody else is trustworthy. “Fear was on every side: while they took counsel together against me, they devised to take away my life,” says the speaker. “But I trusted in thee, O Lord: I said, Thou art my God” (Psalm 31:13-14). Christ’s final gesture—to trust that God will make everything work out in the end—is an expression of exactly the kind of faith that can serve as the basis for hope.

To have hope, we who dwell in the middle must trust that our story has an author. We need to believe that something out there—some process, protocol, personage, or plan—is good enough to want things to work out and powerful enough to make sure that they do. Most days, all I can manage is a feeble acknowledgment that some kind of meaning in the universe is not quite impossible. But even that is enough for hope. And where there is hope, there can be life.

Deficits of meaning and profound alienation, I think, precede religious belief. Despair is inevitable for a species whose desire to understand things will always exceed the universe’s capacity to explain them. And despondency comes naturally for creatures who are born with the ache of an emptiness that they don’t know how to fill. These are the core problems that every religion tries to solve, and the solution always looks like hope—a beautiful, powerful, irrational belief that something, sometime, somewhere can fill the God-shaped hole inside us.

Comments

  1. Grateful reader says:

    Thank you.
    The only thing I’ve ever read about Easter that makes sense, makes me want to forgive myself, and makes the despair less overwhelming.

  2. Raymond Winn says:

    Thank you Mr A.

  3. Olde Skool says:

    Thanks for this whole series, Michael. Your perspectives have been expanding, transformative, and moving.

  4. Matthew73 says:

    Michael, thank you for this series, and particularly for this concluding post. This is beautifully written and resonates deeply with me.

  5. A beautiful, wise series, Michael. Thank you.

  6. Thank you for the whole series, Michael.

  7. Let me add my thanks as well Michael. hope keeps us going, it is the thing with feathers.

  8. Thank you so much for the time and effort you put in to share this whole series with me, several friends, and family. This made Easter mean so much more to us than it has in a very long time. You helped us see things from a different perspective. It was food for much thought and conversation.

  9. So grateful for people who write their thoughts so clearly like you. Writing the thoughts it seems like we all have erased before we could finish it for fear of being called lacking in faith is so strangely comforting. Thank you for developing this gift of yours.

  10. wayfarer says:

    This series has been astonishing, I am so grateful and hope that it might be re-posted next year. This bears repetition, so much to think about.

  11. I really love this simple series to explain the importance of Easter. I am amazed by Jesus Christ’s readiness and unfailing faith to do what was asked of Him. His obedience is unmatched and perfect. He was willing to follow through with His promise even after He knew what the journey and outcome was. I am so grateful for His undying love and sacrifice. I strive to have the faith and obedience He had while on this earth and even now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: