Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Shock of Easter

Nearly 2000 years after the first Easter, we have immured ourselves against its ability to shock us, or rather, we have accustomed ourselves to what we think is its message. "Christ is risen!" we proclaim. We marvel at the profusion of lilies on the altar, at the number of people who have entered the church to celebrate this day, at the glorious music offered by both the choir and the organist, and perhaps (if we are fortunate in our preacher) at the inspiration of the sermon.

But none of these -- not even the most inspirational of sermons, and not even the most glorious music, or altar decorations, or incense-laden rituals with golden vestments -- comes close to recreating in us today what I am calling the "shock of Easter." That first Easter was undeniably a shock to all who experienced it. Listen to the testimonies from the four Gospels:

From Matthew (emphasis added):
28:5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 28:6 He is not here, for he has been raised, just as he said. Come and see the place where he was lying. 28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead. He is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there.’ Listen, I have told you!” 28:8 So they left the tomb quickly, with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 28:9 But Jesus met them, saying, “Greetings!” They came to him, held on to his feet and worshiped him. 28:10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. . . .
From Mark (original ending; emphasis added):
16:8 Then they went out and ran from the tomb, for terror and bewilderment had seized them. And they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
From Luke (emphasis added):
. . . when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 24:4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men stood beside them in dazzling attire. 24:5 The women were terribly frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?
. . .
24:36 While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 24:37 But they were startled and terrified, thinking they saw a ghost.
The Gospel of John is alone in leaving out words of terror and fear, but it nevertheless agrees that the women and the disciples were both perplexed, and could not comprehend what had occurred (emphasis added):
. . . Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been moved away from the entrance. 20:2 So she went running to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 20:3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out to go to the tomb. 20:4 The two were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and reached the tomb first. 20:5 He bent down and saw the strips of linen cloth lying there, but he did not go in. 20:6 Then Simon Peter, who had been following him, arrived and went right into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen cloth lying there, 20:7 and the face cloth, which had been around Jesus’ head, not lying with the strips of linen cloth but rolled up in a place by itself. 20:8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, came in, and he saw and believed. 20:9 (For they did not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.) 20:10 So the disciples went back to their homes. 20:11 But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she bent down and looked into the tomb. 20:12 And she saw two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying, one at the head and one at the feet. 20:13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary replied, “They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have put him!” 20:14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

In precisely what, then, did the shock of Easter consist? Please indulge me with a few more more quotes:
. . . The Pantheist's God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at His glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be purged. It is with a shock that we discover them to be indispensable. You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters -- when the [fishing] line pulls at your hand, when something breathes beside you in the darkness. So here; the shock comes at the precise moment when the thrill of life is communicated to us along the clue we have been following. 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 -- I would have done so myself if I could -- and proceed no further with Christianity. An "impersonal God" -- well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads -- better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap -- best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband -- that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion ("Man's search for God!") suddenly draw back. Supposing we found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?

So it is a sort of Rubicon. One goes across; or not. But if one does, there is no manner of security against miracles. One may be in for anything.

--C.S. Lewis, Miracles, ch. 11 (emphasis in original).
* * *

"Shocking" is the opposite of "boring." I think Jesus is the only man in history who never bored anyone. I think this is an empirical fact, not just a truth of faith. It is one of the reasons for believing His central claim, and Christianity's central claim, that He is literally God in the flesh. That is, of course, the ultimate reason for the shock, and for the uniqueness of the shock: it is like the shock of Macbeth meeting not Banquo's ghost but Shakespeare; like Frodo meeting not Gandalf but Tolkien.

-- Peter Kreeft, Jesus-Shock, Pt. II.

* * *
"I am the way, the truth, and the life." (Jn 14:6)

Once again, abstractions acquire hands and feet and lips. Other teachers teach the way, the truth and the life, but He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is what they teach. That's why He does not write books. He does not point to a book because all books point to Him insofar as they are true.

"For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." (Phil. 1:21)

If your life is Christ, then your death will be more of Christ, forever. If your life is only Christlessness, then your death will be only more Christlessness, forever. That's not fundamentalism, that's the law of non-contradiction.
--Ibid. (Pt. I)
The truth of the Resurrection is shocking -- that is why it is a stumbling block for so many who call themselves Christians. (Notice how the author of the article just linked cannot even allow himself to speak of the Resurrection, but uses a lower-case "r" throughout, and scare-quotes around the word in his last paragraph.) That is why the media fell all over themselves in 1988 to trumpet the now-discredited findings about the supposed date of the Shroud of Turin. (And it is also why no major media or news source has ever reported the shocking tests that show the blood stains on the Shroud and on the Sudarium of Oviedo are from the same source, and bear out the fact of Jesus' birth from a woman who conceived without a human father.) The real evidence about Jesus is simply too shocking to handle; it is far easier to take potshots from ignorance than it is to speak the truth.

Attempts to explain the Resurrection by natural means are attempts to reduce the shocking truth of that event to something that is more comprehensible, and hence ultimately boring. Jesus remains the only human whose tomb was empty -- not due to human or natural causes -- just three days after He died. There is no escaping the enormity of that fact, and each of us has to struggle with the shock of it, just as the women and the disciples had to struggle with it that first Easter.

With the passage of time, and after they had seen and experienced the risen Jesus among them, they came to accept the truth of the Resurrection themselves, but it never failed to shock and amaze those to whom they bore witness of what they had seen with their own eyes. It was so shocking still, even some sixty years later, that John had to add these words at the end of his Gospel:
21:24 This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. 21:25 There are many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
I cannot resist closing with one more favorite quotation from Peter Kreeft's fine little book, Jesus-Shock (Pt. I):
What is Christianity? What does it preach, or say, or claim, or proclaim?

"this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim." (Col. 1:27-28)

The Christian kerygma, or proclamation, is the presence of a Person. If reduced to the shortest possible sentence, it would be: "Boo!"

He is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed!

1 comment:

  1. Well Done! Perhaps we should have invited you to be our preacher this Sunday??

    The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia!