Sunday, March 31, 2013

An Idle Tale?

It is difficult to believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. When the women return from the empty tomb and tell the other disciples that Jesus is risen, “they did not believe them.”[1]  Now, these were Jesus’ closest companions, people who had devoted their lives to him.  These were the folks to whom Jesus repeatedly foretold his death and resurrection – as the messengers pointedly reminded the women at the tomb. Yet, even they thought it was an idle tale.

Actually, “idle tale” doesn’t quite capture the meaning of the word leros that is translated here.   It is more like “garbage, drivel, crap.” Their first response to the news of the resurrection was not “Yeah, let’s paint eggs and eat chocolate.”  Basically, there initial response was, “bullshit.”[2] 

The news of the resurrection of Jesus is a disturbing word. We work very hard to find ways to explain it away.  The logic of the resurrection narratives themselves proceed from the assumption that people will not believe.  They try to answer the objections to the resurrection posed in their own time. 

Some said, “Oh, it isn’t really Jesus, but someone who looks like him, his twin.”  Thus, we have accounts of the disciples touching the wounds in Jesus’ body to verify that the Risen Lord is continuous with the crucified Jesus.  Others suggested that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ disciples came and stole his body.  So, the evangelists tell us that the authorities posted guards at the tomb.  Everyone in that time believed in ghosts, so maybe the disciples merely saw Jesus’ ghost.  The Gospels respond with accounts of the disciples eating and drinking with the risen Christ.  This was not a ghost.

As first century people, the apostolic witnesses to the resurrection were not trying to record history. They, like their contemporaries, were far more interested in the meaning of events.  What does it mean for me, for us, that Jesus rises, is seen, heard, touched?  Will I allow it’s meaning to penetrate my defenses, or will I try to deflect it and explain it away?

This question is as challenging to our 21st Century minds as it was to our first century ancestors – perhaps even more so, given how deeply shaped we are by the ethos of scientific materialism.   We have internalized the message that “seeing is believing.”  We are all skeptics.  Like Peter, our impulse is to investigate ourselves.  He is amazed to find the tomb empty, but amazement is not yet belief.

The news of the resurrection of Jesus is difficult to believe.  We resist accepting it, though not necessarily because of its miraculous nature.  There are plenty of phenomena that science can at best describe, but not explain or interpret their meaning.  We accept the Big Bang theory, but do we understand it?  Does the theory really reduce the mystery of there being something rather than nothing?  We accept the theory of evolution, but are we any less amazed by the transition from inanimate matter to animate life, not to mention consciousness? 

I think we resist the news of the resurrection, not because it is a mystery, but because of the order of magnitude of the mystery and its implications for our lives.  His Holiness Benedict XVI described the resurrection as the greatest leap in evolutionary history.  It signifies a degree of transformation akin to that of the moment just before, and just after the Big Bang, expressing even greater possibilities for human being than that wrought by the breakthrough from brain to mind. 

We resist the news of the resurrection of Jesus because we are not altogether certain we want to experience that much transformation.   The transformation of which I speak is not simply surviving death – life after death – though it includes it.  In Jesus time, everybody was thought to survive death, experiencing a shadowy, gray existence in a dimension of reality called Sheol.  Sheol is like living in Daly City and its always summer.[3]  Resurrection is much more than Sheol.

Resurrection is about being changed to a degree we cannot really imagine.  The change is so great that the disciples have a very hard time recognizing the Risen Christ.   There is continuity with our life as we’ve previously known it, but also a degree of transformation that renders us almost unrecognizable to others and even to ourselves; in this new creation “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”[4] 

Fr. Gregory Mayers offers an analogy to help us grasp this transformation.[5]  Each of us has, in fact, already lived another life.  It was a comfortable, safe life, one that we enjoyed very much and did not want to end.  I’m not talking about reincarnation.  I’m talking about the nine months we lived in our mother’s womb.

It was a completely different life than the one we live now.  While there is physical and mental continuity, we have developed in such a way as to be nearly unrecognizable to our pre-natal selves.   Things that are obvious and visible to us now were not obvious or visible to us then.

Imagine twin babies having a conversation together two weeks before their birth about what it will be like to be born.  It would be inconceivable to them.  They wouldn't have language to describe it, and would find the whole idea threatening.  Their conversation would in fact be a lot like our conversations about death.  Birth is like dying.  Our life today is the afterlife of life in the womb.  If birth is like dying, might not dying be like birth?

The afterlife of Jesus is not an idle tale.  It is a model.  It provides the pattern for what our own transformation entails.  Death is birth into a dimension of reality that we can’t anticipate.  St. Paul describes the life that we are living now as a seed and resurrection life as the tree that the seed becomes.  There is continuity between the seed and the tree; the seed contains within itself all the potential that the tree will actualize – but what a change!

St. Paul also speaks of resurrection life as a new creation, a dying to an old way of being and birth into a new way of being that begins now and continues through death and beyond.   The resurrection of Jesus opens the way into this new creation, not only for us, but also for the whole universe.  It inaugurates a new creation on a cosmic scale. 

Talking about the resurrection life is like two twins in the womb talking about birth.  It is difficult to understand.  We’d rather remain as we are.  Babies don’t choose to be born.  They are forced out – pushed and pulled by a power greater than themselves whose loving intention is that they move through the pain and loss of this transition so that they can realize their full potential for abundant life. 

So it is with our Mother God, who is always creating a new heavens and a new earth, whose final promise to us in Scripture is “See, I am making all things new.”[6]  Through the resurrection of Jesus we are being pushed and pulled by grace into the fullness of life that God intends for us.  Jesus is the model for this resurrection life, the beginning of the new creation, the definitive sign that the endless, unconditional love of God is a creative power that transcends even death. 

There is no barrier to this love.  It is always coming to expression in ever-renewed life.  It is manifest in you and me.  You are an expression of divine love.  Jesus comes to show us the way through the birth canal, dying to loveless life, so that we may share in the abundant life for which we were created.  Our life is meant to be a completely transparent expression of the love of God.  That is resurrection life. 

Resurrection is difficult because it pushes and pulls us into a process of
transformation that we resist.  It requires us to acknowledge all the loveless dimensions of the life we are currently living.  We cling to the identity we have secured on the basis of this lovelessness.  It is comfortable.  It is what we know.

Sharing in resurrection life is about learning to love and forgive as Jesus does, and discovering how often we fail to do it adequately.  It is a slow dying of our loveless self, and becoming ever more transparent to the love of God that is beyond our grasping but shines through us when it is freely accepted.  If we don’t find this hard to believe, it is only because we have not grasped the magnitude of the transformation it entails.

What we see in Jesus’ death is God’s love continually being poured out for the renewal of the world.   In his resurrection, we see that nothing can stop this love from making all things new: from making you and me new!  With God, there is no life before and after death, there is only life – eternal life overflowing into each and every moment.  It is our lovelessness that obstructs our capacity to see and enjoy this life.

Resurrection is not an escape from reality into another world, an idle tale to sooth us.  It is the revelation of the inner dynamic and ultimate nature of reality.  In the words of the Orthodox Easter hymn:

Now all is filled with Light,
heaven and earth, and the realm of the dead.
The whole creation rejoices in Christ’s resurrection,
which is its true foundation.[7]  Amen.

[1] Luke 24:11
[2] Anna Florence Carter interview at
[3] Fr. Gregory Mayers, “Resurrection and the 21st Century Mind” and “The Resurrection,”
[4] Isaiah 65:17.
[5] Mayers, op. cit.
[6] Revelation 21:5.
[7] Monk John, “Canon for Pascha,”

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