The Resurrection of Christ

One of the things I like best about my husband is his way of prefacing the neutral, or the plain disappointing, with the words ‘but the good news is…’ There is always good news to be discovered if you look hard enough, for him at least, and that is something I love about him. But make no mistake about it, he is not an incurable optimist. He is a realist, not given to constantly affirming the positive in the best of all possible worlds.

I have always felt that optimism, when I encounter it in others, and when I resort to it myself, is fundamentally dishonest. To be merely optimistic about life is to start from a place that we have to invent for ourselves before we can begin to actually live from it. And when we do try to live from it we very often find that it rests on rather shaky foundations.

The season that we have now entered, the season of Eastertide, is not a reward for optimistic persistence in the face of troubles and difficulties, or even of death itself.

If we consider the great Easter moment, it does not promise very much. The empty tomb which has presumably been robbed, is, if anything, an emphatic signal that death is indeed final and that endings are often far from happy. The grief of the woman who discovers it is profound and raw. It does not take much imagination to empathise with it.

But what is extraordinary, I find, about this story, is that it does not take any imagination at all to understand and experience what happens next, when she hears her name called by a man who she presumes to be the gardener. There is something so ordinary about this moment and, in the light of what follows, it is probably one of the only moments in the bible when we can actually laugh, if we engage with it fully. We can laugh at the ordinary almost colliding with the extraordinary. It is a truly funny moment, when you think about it.

Like all really funny moments in life, they are best when there is more than one person laughing at them. Humour is a collective thing. It is prompted by a shared experience, or perhaps a shared memory. There is something of the absurd in them, although this is often too subtle to record accurately. The juxtaposition of impossibles is usually what makes for the absurd; a woman and her friends come to anoint a dead man. They wonder how they’ll get in to the tomb (had they not asked themselves this before?), but find it empty, with two outlandish looking strangers crouched inside (they are exceptionally tall) telling them the obvious, that the man is not here, and then a conversation with the gardener who turns out to be .. well, we know who he is.

But what does the woman who has stayed behind to grieve actually experience in the moment of this encounter? A mixture of incredulity and fear would be an understatement – or perhaps an overstatement. It would be to say too much about something that defies description. Perhaps we can only do justice to the moment by laughing with the two of them. Because the moment of recognition would have been marked with laughter and, not surprisingly, with a desire to hug, but that is forbidden, as it is in these hugless times. It is forbidden because, the woman is told, he has not yet gone to his father, who is now her father too.

So hugging is forbidden in this particular moment because there needs to be another encounter, one which encompasses and consummates every kind of love that will ever be known, on earth or in heaven itself. It is the loving embrace of the Father with the Son.

In a sense, that is to look ahead to the end of all things, the end of the Salvation Story, as we understand the word to mean, and we are not there yet. We remain, for the foreseeable future in this now moment of joyful encounter. We remain with the laughter. And that leaves us with yet more of a mystery, that somehow with all the mess and pain that we might be enduring in the moment of reading this, there is underneath it all a deep laughter, something that refuses to be defeated by cynicism, hatred or despair. Some will dismiss it as pious whimsy, others will call it mere optimism. I would call it faith.

True Resurrection

If you are someone who has to speak publicly about the events of Good Friday, and if you have done that with integrity and the conviction of faith, you will be feeling pretty wrung out by Saturday morning. A single day, the day we call Holy Saturday, is hardly enough time to gather shattered emotions together and turn a numb brain towards thoughts of the Resurrection, but it must be done, and it must be done with as much conviction as anything that was said on Friday.

The difficulty with speaking about the Resurrection lies not in its literal truth, but in the conviction of faith held by the one doing the speaking. Conviction has very little to do with belief. You can believe or not, as you choose. With conviction, the choice is made for you. In terms of doing theology, conviction is what shapes the message and drives the work. But by conviction, I do not mean trying to put across something that we don’t really believe in in a way that sounds convincing. It doesn’t even begin with trying to convict ourselves. Conviction is not about persuading ourselves, or anyone else, that something is true. Conviction lays hold of a person. It is not something we decide to do or become, either intellectually, or for that matter, spiritually, although it does entail a certain ‘assent’ in both these areas.

This begs a question. In the light of what empirical evidence, some of it dubious, that has been garnered over the centuries for the physical resurrection of Christ not having taken place at all, what are we to make of the event, for ourselves, as well as for others? Any number of arguments can be put forward in defence of its not having taken place. Some of these border on the absurd, such as the idea that Jesus having somehow survived the torture and the piercing with the soldier’s spear, was taken down from the Cross and then disappeared to India with Mary Magdalene. There are, for sure, slight variations in the gospel accounts, but these neither prove nor disprove the Resurrection having taken place. The altercations that have been around for centuries concerning this topic suggest, then, that something more is needed than simply believing, or proving, that the event was categorically true. Even if it could be proved categorically, it is part of a far wider salvation story, enmeshed in other stories, so if it is true, it is true on more than one level.

For those who have known its truth at a different level than simple belief, the Resurrection of Christ is pivotal. Without it, Christianity makes no sense and, as St. Paul suggests, we are no better off, than we were before God ever involved himself with the human predicament (a loose definition of ‘sin’) in the person of his Son. The categorical truth of something – of an event or of a related story, for example, does not invariably stop at the point where what we are talking about ceases to be a matter of whether or not particular words were spoken, or a particular event happened.

This is especially important in regard to how we read scripture. There are plenty of stories in the Old Testament which are true but unlikely to have taken place in precisely the way described, if at all. All reporting, all story writing, needs to be placed in a context which makes sense to the reader of the time. The real truth about the Resurrection, the test of its veracity, does not only consist in its having taken place. The most important thing about it is that it is still going on all around us. The truth is still going on for us in our time.

But to return to the issue as categorical truth, however we choose to read the Gospels of John and Matthew, it seems that there were other people involved in the event. Even if they were not conscious in the moment it took place – the stunned soldiers for example. Also, something was said. A verbal exchange took place between Christ and Mary Magdalene. The greeting, and Mary’s response, takes us beyond the empirical, or propositional truth of that moment because of the way it was said.

When our name is called by someone we love and trust and who knows us well, it resonates with our true self. In the case of the exchange which took place between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene, the words suggest a kind of mutual knowing. The greeting took on an altogether different significance, and greater depth, than it would have done when he spoke it before he was crucified, as we sense he must have done on many occasions.

In these kind of exchanges it is not only what is said that matters, but how it is said and under what circumstances. These are in turn shaped by mood and possibly a person’s general state of health. Mary would have been both emotionally and physically exhausted. If the tomb really had been robbed, she would have had neither the physical strength or the reserves of courage needed to go and complain to the authorities, so, understandably, she appeals to the gardener. The ‘gardener’ does not proffer any useful information, or even offer assistance. He simply calls her by name, in a voice she has always known. He is unrecognizable at one level, disguised as a gardener, and yet profoundly recognizable at another.

What strikes me about this moment of truth is that he calls her by name in a quite normal way, not sounding broken or weird, as if he were a ghost or a hallucination. Neither does Mary’s response suggest she is afraid. He is simply fully and completely there in the fullness of the moment, a moment which is for all time. Part of the problem we have with the truth of the Resurrection is that it is often hard to see it as a reality with cosmic significance – of one particular time, one specific moment, but for all time, all moments, up to and including this one.

Perhaps the best way to verify the truth of the Resurrection is to seize this moment, as it belongs to that other moment, and hear the voice calling us by name – and answer…?