I have some friends on Vancouver Island doing a new church start they call “Weird Church.” I think there’s also a book that has some variation of that in its title.
This might seem a weird, if you will, name for a church. But maybe not. The church and the gospel are always being tamed or domesticated. And, alas, too often the church cooperates quite willingly in the process. But if the church’s seminal story is plumbed a bit more deeply it is far more weird, or if you prefer “strange,” than it is comfortable or even comforting.
I like the spring flowers now blooming in the Northwest as much as anyone. And I will get a kick out of seeing my grandchildren race around the yard for the annual Easter egg hunt. I look forward to an Easter gathering of family and friends.
But there’s more here, way more and a fair bit of it is, well, decidedly weird.
In an essay published a year ago, Robert Barron noted his own fascination with visiting graveyards and burial sites of the world’s great and not so great. “Cemeteries,” wrote Barron, “are places to ponder, to muse, to give thanks, perhaps to smile ruefully. They are places of rest and finality. The last thing one would realistically expect at a grave is novelty and surprise.”
Yet, the New Testament narratives all agree that the graveyard where Christ had been entombed on Friday was not only a place of novelty and surprise, but of fear and alarm. Having heard from a mysterious messenger, “He is not here. He has been raised,” the women who went to attend his remains ran from the tomb, says St. Mark, “in terror.”
“If the grave of a hero is customarily a place of serene contemplation,” writes Barron, “this one is so disturbing that people run from it.” The message is not that someone had “broken into the tomb [to steal the body of Jesus], but “that someone had broken out.”
The efforts to domesticate this weird and alarming story have been many and various. Generally it is some version of saying Easter is but a symbol, perhaps a metaphor. A symbol of the earth’s rebirth in the spring or for the way that the teachings of Jesus live on beyond him. A metaphor for the triumph of the human spirit.
Yet, as Barron points out, that would hardly explain what happened after the first followers of Jesus got over their shock and fear and got their bearings and words. They didn’t say Easter was a symbol. It wasn’t “flowers blooming the spring, tea-la.” It was a life-changing reality that caused the church to turn the Roman world, and worlds and orders since, upside down.
Another popular way to domesticate Easter is to point out that human mythology is chock-full of dying and rising gods, say Dionysus, Osiris or Odin. But as C. S. Lewis pointed out the New Testament isn’t like those at all. There’s no “once upon a time,” or “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” There’s a particular time in human history, which the New Testament writers are at pains to document, naming names.
Perhaps with time names like Herod, Pilate, Mary and Judas have taken on a mythic, otherworldly quality. But the claim of the Easter accounts is not that these are inspiring or interesting myths, but that this is history, that it really happened, and did so in a particular time and place, among particular people. Remember how the Christmas story begins? “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus . . .” He is the first of a long list of actual people in history.
Whether you buy the claim that Jesus really lived, died and was raised victorious from death, don’t domesticate it as “only another myth.” The claim is this really happened. Not myth or metaphor, but event and news.
” . . . the Greek word used most often by St. Paul to characterize his message is euangelion, which carries the sense of ‘good news.’ The myth of a dying and rising god and the story of the hero’s adventures may be intriguing and illuminating, but the one thing they are not is news. Paul wasn’t trading in abstractions or spiritual bromides; he wanted to take everyone he spoke to by the shoulders and tell them about something that had happened, something so stunning that it changed the world.”
Mention of Caesar brings up another way that Easter is hunting bigger game than flowers and candy. Basically the claim of Rome, and proof of one’s allegiance to Rome, were the words “Kaiser Kyrios,” or “Caesar is Lord.” The Caesar, the Emperor, was God presiding in Rome, the eternal city.
The primal Christian confession of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” is a frontal assault on Rome’s claim, and the claim of every other worldly power to exclusive and absolute loyalty.
As Barron puts it, “St. Paul’s intentional play on words [Jesus is Lord] implying that the true Lord is not Caesar, but rather someone whom Caesar put to death and whom God raised from the dead, was meant to tweak the nose of the political powers . . . Faith in the resurrection does not delegitimize political power, but it relativizes it, placing it decidedly under the judgment of God.”
Ezra Klein, as I noted in another recent post, remarks on the ways that political powers always try to make religion, and specifically Christianity, a vehicle of their legitimacy as Putin is currently doing. But in the end, notes Klein, it never seems to work. No king, emperor, dictator or President is ever really able to tame Jesus. Inevitably, Christianity unsettles any who claim absolute power or authority.
So enjoy the festivity, the flowers, the colored eggs and that chocolate Easter bunny, but remember that there’s more than that here. Way more. And that however the world today may try to domesticate the resurrection, it remains weird. Weird, surprising, disruptive and hopeful. Happy Easter dear ones!