Easter Day B
April 8, 2012
I have never liked Easter. You would think this would be a major handicap for a minister. But as far back as I can remember, I always found the holiday completely emotionally confusing. Being a good Catholic child, I loved Jesus. Jesus was
my Best Friend. I could never understand how we could go from mourning the betrayal and death of my Best Friend on Good Friday to having to dress up in girly pink and celebrate that everything was all fine again two days later. The story of the Resurrection rang hollow for me. Yes, Jesus was in Heaven, but … He still had been taken away from us on earth. I was stubbornly still in mourning, even as I duly shuffled through the paces of the mandatory Easter Egg Hunt and the pillaging of the Easter basket.
As the Gospel reading for Easter starts out, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James and Salome are still in mourning, too. Even though Joseph of Arimathea has already prepared Jesus’ body for burial by wrapping it in linen, the women came to the tomb with spices to carefully anoint the body. They are not ready to let go of their Best Friend, either. When they come to the tomb, however, they receive a surprise: The large stone that had been rolled over the tomb opening has been rolled aside, and there is a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting to the right. The “young man” tells them “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:7-8). The women respond by fleeing the tomb and telling no one what they saw.
I think part of the reason why Easter is still such an emotional rollercoaster for me is that, like the women at the tomb, I constantly think that I have to seek Jesus in dead places, where “He is not here”. I feel guilty for not attending Holy Thursday and Good Friday masses, even though they have long lost their relevance for me. But I simultaneously feel rage at a Church that regarded the ritual kissing of a large, gory crucifix on Good Friday as remotely appropriate for a child (or for anyone, for that matter). I keep thinking that, if I go back to those bad memories enough times and massage them with enough oil and spices, I can eventually enjoy Easter just like all the other normal people.
I don’t think I’m alone, either. As I look at photographs from Holy Week observances around the world, I see people everywhere going back to the empty tomb: to empty rituals – or even morbidly painful ones – looking for a Resurrected Christ.
I. Empty Rituals and Cheap Grace. In the picture to the right, Pope Benedict XVI washes the feet of a group of hand-picked priests at Holy Thursday Mass. I think my dear partner said it best when observing this picture: “Big whoop. If he really wants to demonstrate some humility, let him go out and find some of survivors of sexual abuse by pedophile priests and wash their feet.” The fact that the Pontiff also took the occasion to censure dissident priests who support the ordination of women also rubbed salt into the wounds of those women who have had to leave the Church in order to serve the Church. In his work The Cost of Discipleship, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer defines “cheap grace” as “grace sold on the market like the cheap wares of a bargain huckster. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices” (1937). If costly grace is to have any meaning to the faithful, the refusal of cheap grace must start at the top with genuine contrition and humility.
II. The Idea that Suffering is Inherently Redeeming. In the picture to the left, hooded penitents with sharpened bamboo sticks strapped to their bodies walk through the street in a Holy Week ritual to atone for their sins in Mandaluyong City, Philippines. The picture reminds me eerily of the infamous photos of hooded, tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib. It is interesting to note that, for the first millennium of the church, there were no images of the dead, crucified Christ: “”Christians filled their sanctuaries with images of Christ as a living presence in a vibrant world. He appears as a shepherd, a teacher, a healer, an enthroned god … But he is never dead” (Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. 2008. Saving Paradise. Boston: Beacon Press).
It was only after the bloody conquest of Europe by Charlemagne and the conversion of the Saxons at sword-point that we begin to see the first crucifixes, in 965 CE (Brock and Parker, xx).
With war and enforced religion came the notion that suffering (particularly of innocent victims) was sanctioned by God, as it was decreed for God’s Son to be the sacrificial lamb for the forgiveness of sins. As Brock and Parker pointed out in a previous book, Proverbs of Ashes, this notion of “redemptive suffering” frequently ends up justifying intimate victimization – spousal an child abuse – since God sacrificed God’s own Beloved Son (2001. Boston: Beacon Press). But for the first thousand years of the Church, the faithful knew: “He is not Here” in self- and other-destructive rituals and beliefs.
III. … So Where is He?
“For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” – Matthew 18:20. The hope and life of the church lies in small groups of Jesus-followers that spring up in the cracks of the old, battered institutional Church. Small prayer groups meeting in peoples’ homes, AA meetings in church basements – these are the places where people encounter each other, their hopes and fears, and learn to embody the risen Christ in their lives. For some excellent resources on starting and growing small groups of Jesus-followers, see UU Christian Fellowship Small Group Resources.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – Galatians 3:28. The risen Christ lies in fellowships that are radially inclusive in their nature, open their arms wide to welcome “the least of these”. One my favorite examples is the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community of Pittsburgh, PA, which welcomes the homeless street youths into its fold and holds “Bible Fight Club” in the back of a local tattoo shop (Jim Walker. 2008. Dirty Word: The Vulgar, Offensive Language of the Kingdom of God. Discipleship Resources).
“And you, O Magdal-eder (“Watchtower of the Flock”)
Stronghold of the Daughter of Sion,
Unto you shall the former dominion be restored,
the kingdom of Daughter Jerusalem.
Now why do you cry?
Have you no king? Has your counselor perished,
that you cry aloud like a woman in labor?” (Micah 4:8-9)
The living Christ will be found in a resurrected Church where women and the Feminine Divine principal are restored in equal balance to the male Lord, King and God Almighty. Scholars such as Margaret Starbird are unearthing the central roles of Mary Magdalene and other female Biblical figures, presenting a view of the Kingdom of God where women are not just property, virgins, wives or prostitutes, but are co-equal creative partners with men in both the Biblical past and in the present.
Let us leave the dead places where Jesus can no longer be found and create a new, living Body of Christ, right here, right now. Have a blessed, joyous Easter.