Why It Matters
“Why It Matters That Jesus Really Did Rise From the Dead,” is the header on Tish Harrison Warren’s Easter column in the New York Times. It’s a great piece, and so I share it here.
She writes in dialogue with two poets, John Updike and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Updike, in his famous “Seven Stanzas at Easter” takes on something I brought up in a pre-Easter piece. The reduction of Easter to a “metaphor.” Updike:
“Let us not mock God with metaphor.” Isn’t that a great line! I say this as one who loves metaphor.
Warren argues that the historicity of the resurrection matters, in fact, makes all the difference. Here she is:
“Whatever else Christianity is, it is an assertion of historic fact. The New Testament invites us to examine the evidence. Its claim of a bodily resurrection was as strange and impossible — as Updike says, “monstrous” — when it was first made 2,000 years ago as it is now.
“It would be so much more acceptable if Easter was merely a ritual communicating religious ideals, teaching us to cultivate the better angels of our nature. But if Easter is only an abstraction, it doesn’t mean much to me. I’m with the Apostle Paul who wrote and the billions of Christians around the world who profess, ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.’ If Jesus wasn’t actually resurrected, then Easter is less real than the budding buzz of spring, less real than a dying breath, less real than my own hands, feet and skin. I have no interest in a Christianity that isn’t deeply, profoundly, irreducibly material.”
As I noted in “Weird Easter” the point is not simply to assert historicity, but to mark a contrast with the mythic tale or heroic legend. We are not in a “once upon a time story,” but in a this world one.
Warren goes on to add something that seems to me also matters. That the meaning of the Resurrection is more than historical. Simply asserting or arguing over historicity can become tendentious. There is something more to it.
“Yet, believing that Jesus is risen is different than believing that Napoleon invaded Russia or that Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Though Christians say today that ‘Christ is risen’ as a point of historic fact, we are saying something more as well. We say this to herald God’s power in the world and in our lives, even now.'”
It may be something like this that those who emphasize the symbolic or metaphorical meaning of the resurrection have in mind and want to get to. If we don’t get to that, what’s the point?
Which leads Warren to her second poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
“Another poem that I keep in conversation with Updike’s stanzas is Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland,’ a gorgeous poem published in 1918 about a deadly shipwreck. Toward its end comes this line: ‘Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us.'”
“Easter, [Warren again] here, is a verb. It is not only an event but it’s something that happens to us and in us. This poem and prayer asks that Jesus transform our lives, that he rise not just in a tomb but in us as well, that the piercing light of the Resurrection fall on the darkness in our cramped selves.”
There’s another thing to notice in Hopkins line. He doesn’t say, as I’ll wager many Easter sermons did, “So, let us also easter up, rising from our own tombs of apathy and hard-heartedness.”
Hopkins says, rather, “Let him easter in us . . .” What’s the difference? In one, we humans are the subject of the verbs. Our transformation is something we are to do, perhaps inspired by the Easter story, but it’s on us. But for Hopkins, God remains the subject of the verb, the active agent, doing something in us and for us that we cannot do for ourselves. “Let him easter in us . . .”
The difference between the two is the difference between moralism and proclamation. Moralism urges us to do better, to rise up. Proclamation says, God is at work here, God is doing this. As noted from Warren above, “It would be so much more acceptable if Easter was merely a ritual communicating religious ideals, teaching us to cultivate the better angels of our nature. But if Easter is only an abstraction, it doesn’t mean much to me.”
The reason we so often opt for moralism rather than proclamation is that it is more “acceptable.” There’s nothing wild about. It puts us where we are accustomed to imagining we are — in the driver’s seat.
But here’s the good news, the risen Lord can do, and is doing, that in us we cannot do for ourselves or by ourselves.” There is power in the universe,” wrote Montaigne, “forever on the side of those bold enough to trust it.” Trust this and live!