What Do You Make of Easter?
I assume you know we're not here to celebrate bunnies or spring or the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, Eastre. But what do you make of Easter?
Is it as useless as Waiting for Godot? That's a 1950's play by Samuel Beckett about 2 men who wait day after day for a man named Godot who never shows up. After a while, the audience knows Godot is never going to show but these two go on waiting and hoping. Is that what you make of Easter? Are you waiting for what you know never will be? You keep going to church year after year on the promise that "He is risen", but by now you know Jesus will be a no show to His own resurrection party. And what will change anyway if Jesus does show? In the play it makes the very postmodern point that waiting is the point. You never know why the men are waiting for Godot other than he told them to and promised to be there. You don't know if anything will change if he does come. So, what changes for you Easter after Easter? You get older, sicker, more tired, more bored. And would any of that change if Jesus walked through the doorshowing off His nail and spear holes?
We could dismiss "Waiting for Jesus" as no more than Waiting for Godot, as just a matter of art, a story, a myth to get you thinking. But if you have any sense of history that won't do. "Many facts from antiquity rely on just one ancient source, while two or three sources in agreement generally render the fact unimpeachable. In the case of the first Easter, there are at least seven ancient sources - the four Gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul and Peter..." that record the event (In the Fullness of Time, 197). Rather than put us in Waiting for Godot, that makes us more like Mark Twain. He said that while most people are bothered by passages of Scripture they can't understand, he was troubled most by the ones he did understand (Illus. for Biblical Preaching, 30).
I can't understand how God can become Man in the Person of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary. I can't understand why God the Father would send His only beloved Son on behalf of all sinners. I can't understand how after living a perfect human life, His Father could give Him over to damnation and death on a cross. I surely can't understand how the dead Jesus rose: the earthquake, the angel, the rolling stone, and guards scared to death. But none of that bothers me. What bothers me are these words from the First Lesson that I can understand: "Jesus is the One whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead." What bothers me is that I do understand death isn't the end. There is something after, more than this, better that this and yes, very far worse than this. It's Shakespeare's line that there's more things in heaven and earth than are even dreamed about in our philosophies. This is C.S. Lewis' speaking of "the packed reality of Heaven (which men call empty space).." (That Hideous Strength, 320).
Neither science, technology, nor unbelief have taken away the niggling thought that we die not when we die and that not everyone goes to the good place. There's a reckoning after this life. In the words of the Athanasian Creed: "all men shall rise again with their bodies; and shall give account of their own works." Be we have switched from the ancient Creeds "looking for the resurrection of the dead" and believing in the "resurrection of the body". These are very concrete expressions. The Latin is literally "the standing up of the corpses"; "the standing up of the flesh" (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 178). We've switched from the concretely physical to the vague immortality of the soul. Now we look to when the soul is separated from the body, i.e. death, as the answer.
The immortality of the soul is a Biblical teaching, but Christianity is not Platonism where the only reality is that of the soul and bodiless entities. The soul is not considered all important in Christianity (Genesis in Time and Space, F. Schaffer, 97). Indeed, Luther's hope was not only in the immortality of the soul, but said, "'I want the body too'" (Brecht, Luther III, 141). In ancient times up till modern, salvation was not in the fact all people had an immortal soul. Salvation was understood as the resurrection of the flesh, the reuniting of the soul to the body. Now the majority is of the opinion that the body is the seat of sin and all that is necessary to redeem the soul is to sperate it from the body. This is salvation by death. Just by virtue of dying the soul is freed and goes to heaven. No, Man was created a unity of body and soul. Death fractures that unity. Resurrection reunites the two, but there is still the matter of sin to deal with. Sin led to death; death is the separation of body from soul. Unless sin is dealt with death is not and eternal dying is the future of body and soul.
I understand how this can be, should be. It's written in my conscience. It's in my sense of fairness. That the Bible says this is no surprise to my body or soul. So, perhaps I am more like Twain than Beckett, but whatever you do, don't call be Ishmael. That's a parody of the first line of Melville's Moby Dick. Melville thinks there is great comfort in knowing where you're dead are buried. If you're a grave-goer, you know where he's coming from. The WW II generation had loved ones who never came home from either or both the First and the Second World War. Ishmael goes off on this point: "Oh! Ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say Here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these" (Chap. 7, par. 6-7). I'm a grave-goer; I get the point, but I also get Alexander Pope's point in his Fourth Pastoral. He mourns, "Fair Daphne's dead, and love is now no more!... / Fair Daphne's dead, and beauty is no more! ... / Fair Daphne's dead, and sweetness is no more!... / Fair Daphne's dead, and music is no more! " (Pope, Collected Poems, 20-1). So what if I know where my dead are buried? Daphne's still dead.
The comfort is in Jesus. First, He names those dead for thousands of years whose bodies had long decayed back to less than dust who no one living knew where they were buried and says, "For all are alive to Yahweh" (Lk. 20:38). Then we read in Paul: "For as in Adam they all die, so also in Christ they all will be made alive" (I Cor. 15:22). C.S. Lewis said, "It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. 'Look out!' we cry, 'it's alive'. And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back" (Miracles,150). Read all 4 historical records of Easter. The men, much more than the women, do this. They draw back in fear thinking Jesus is a ghost, rather than He is alive and huggable as do the women in our Gospel.
"Look out, He's alive." And I say it is actually true of Jesus what Chesterton said of Francis of Assisi. Jesus didn't walk the world "like the Pardon of God." He walks this earth yesterday, today, and forever as the very Pardon of God. And for this reason, we celebrate today. This is what to make of Easter. And in this sense you can call me Ishmael.
Chapter 91 of Moby Dick and 92 as well are devoted to ambergris. It's produced by sperm whales and has been used for centuries in perfumes and oil. It's produced in these whales by the indigestible parts of things they eat which are usually vomited out. "But in rare circumstances these parts move into the whale's intestines and bind together. They slowly become a solid mass of ambergris, growing inside the whale over many years" (). What has this to do with Easter? It has to do with the tomb. In Moby Dick, a French whaler has found the corpse of a sperm whale floating. A character on Ishmael's whaler, Stubb, convinces the French to abandon the dead thing. As soon as they get out of sight, his crew goes to work digging like frenzied gold hunters on the dead carcass. All the time countless birds are swirling and diving attracted to the stench of the dead whale. Stubb, who leads the digging, is beginning to look disappointed as the horrible stench increases the deeper they get into the rotted carcass. "Suddenly from out of the very heart of this plague, there stole a faint stream of perfume." He thrusts both hands into the whale crying, I have it! I have it! And so do you in the empty grave of Jesus.
"Odor of sanctity" now refers to dying in a state of grace. "He died in the odor of sanctity." Originally it referred to "A heavenly fragrance said to emerge from the tombs of the blessed" (Browser's Dictionary, 278). A heavenly fragrance floats from the empty tomb of Jesus smelling of peace, of forgiveness, of life, of hope, of a world without end. Jesus, being God in flesh and blood, died as a sacrifice for our sins. He, the sinless Lamb of God, was loaded with the sins of the world which required death, and not just in time but in eternity. That hell you try to look away from. That hell I try to not think of as being forever. That hell that keeps flaming up like a fire I thought I had put out in my conscience long ago, has been suffered, endured, and gone through by the Man who is God, Jesus. And by so doing, Jesus satisfied the wrath of God that no one can face and live. Having once died for our sins, Death had no reason, no cause, no ability to hold the Man who is God, and so He rose in the flesh to walk the earth as God's Pardon.
Author Taylor Caldwell said, "he who laughs remains untouched by death," (Arm and the Darkness, 578). Early Church theologians called this "Risus paschalis the Easter laugh." Tolkien coined the term Eucatastrophe from Greek eu- "good" and katastrophe "destruction". It's "the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears." Tolkien said the Resurrection is the greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible and it produces that essential emotion: Christian joy (Letter 89 tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Eucatastrophe). Easter is the death of Death and the resurrection of the flesh never to die again. That's a laugh!
There is joy today not because of what we make of Easter, but because of what Jesus makes of our dying, our dead in Christ, and death itself on Easter. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis: From now on, when the idea of, the fear of, or the reality of Death comes to mind and meets Jesus, Death is what gets changed (Greif Observed, 149). Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Resurrection of our Lord (20210404); Matthew 28:1-10