Rise heart: thy Lord is Risen. Sing his praise
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.
“Early in the morning, on the first day of the week…..” This is how the Easter narrative begins. There is something beautiful and strange about this simple matter-of-fact sentence. The beginning of another week, another day; the familiar cycles of life and time continue. Its ordinariness is oddly comforting. When the security of our world has been shattered by violence and death, we long for the ‘ordinary’, the ‘normal’, the familiar, even the banal. Yet, this sentence is anything but ‘ordinary.’ It quietly opens into a new time and a new world: a world that is now defined, saturated, by the resurrection.
All the gospel appearances of the Risen Christ have an unadorned, almost naive quality at odds with the encounters they describe. Even the very brevity of the accounts is puzzling. Why so few? Why does the narrative of such a transforming event seem incomplete? The more we read them, and let them speak to us, the stranger they become. What seems like an unfinished moment is the way they continue to remain open to us. We cannot stand outside these accounts, even as we read or listen to them, they enfold us. We, too, become participators; we, too, are invited to become witnesses.
No matter how hard we try to understand it, the resurrection will not succumb to any of our categories. It will only meet us on its own terms. It refuses to help us with the pyrotechnics of a great theophany like that of Sinai. Here, in the stillness of the early morning when the world is quiet, there is no thunderous voice from heaven or a choir of angels breaking the stillness as with the nativity. There are only a few personal witnesses. Even when we catch their confusion and their joyful amazement, their experience is so intimate, so wonderful and disconcerting that they can only speak sotto voce. Yet, for all their strangeness and perplexity, these encounters with the Risen Lord have a luminous simplicity; they will always belong to that ‘early in the morning, just before the dawn’ – that shimmering in-between time of new beginnings and possibilities.
Here, we are not dealing with contrived accounts or carefully rehearsed scripts. Even their variations are the marks of personal authenticity. Against convention, the Risen Christ is always free to choose those to whom he will appear. With delicate care he comes to Mary Magdalene, making her his first witness, knowing the scandal of choosing her; knowing that the testimony of women was not acceptable in Jewish law. Nor are the accounts interested in brushing out the flaws and weaknesses of the disciples. These testimonies that the tomb was empty, and Jesus is risen are not pieces of propaganda that trade in cover-ups and idealisation, the strategies and manipulative techniques of the ‘old’ world. In the presence of the Risen Lord all pretence is rejected. There is only the truth no matter how impossible it may seem.
Even the very simplicity of the language used is of a piece with this truth. How can the resurrection be anything other than a reality whose meaning will always be a surplus beyond our words and concepts? Even when Paul tries to answer the questions of the Church at Corinth – questions we all have – we sense him struggling. Language, images and metaphors are stretched to their limit; they almost break down under the strain (1 Cor.15). Naturally, we want to find some way of making the resurrection plausible thinking that this makes it believable. We fail to see that it is its very implausibility that is its reality, makes it truly God’s act. We cannot encounter the Risen Christ without also encountering the God who raised him. Only the God that we know in the Risen Lord through the gift of the Holy Spirit can make the resurrection possible, and more than possible, makes it actual. In the areopagus of the world, the event of the resurrection will always remain a scandal. That public world will always prefer to be soothed, distracted or entertained by a convenient and beautiful myth rather than face the reality of the Risen Lord.
The scandal of the resurrection is not just the affront of a risen body that refuses to be dissolved into either a ghost or a collective hallucination. The narratives already anticipate these ‘explanations’. The deep scandal is the free and unconditional gift of forgiveness that does not abandon or erase the truth of history. It is the scandal of a Risen Christ who is known by the marks of his crucifixion. In this he carries all the victims of suffering and humiliation. Against all attempts to smother their cries or obliterate their memory, they are risen in Risen Lord. He is the resurrection of their truth in history. His victory is their victory. We stand in their presence where the ancient history of pain and degradation, the brutality of empires and all the systems of oppression with those who created them are exposed and judged. In his risen body our history is carried and redeemed but its truth is never compromised.
In the event of Christ’s resurrection creation, too, is risen. We have not only to rethink and reimagine the finite, we must experience and inhabit it anew. No longer is it determined by transience, entropy, decay and death; it is filled with the plenitude of life which does not end. It is contains a new glory. Forever, now, our relation to time, space, matter, light, energy, indeed the whole of our created universe is transformed. It does not cease to be ‘finite’, always God’s creation, but now it is given a sacramental character . All is lifted up into him, and in him knows itself afresh (Col. 1:15 ff). Before, it stood as a witness to God’s grace as Creator, now it is filled the presence of the Risen Lord, the redeemer. If, at its beginning, creation carried the blessing of goodness, now it carries the ‘shalom’, of the resurrected Christ. Where there was once the inevitable horizon of death, now there is the peace of an eternal sabbath. Where once the laws of violence ruled, now peace is inscribed in the heart of all being; it is empowered with a new telos of reconciling and healing, creating and re-creating. The cross, its height and depth, its length and breath, has become the architecture of the new creation its inner life of Love (Eph.3.18).
As with those who first saw, spoke, touched and ate with the Risen Lord, we will always be coming (becoming) into the ‘newness’ of this world, its life and its hope. No matter how sophisticated our science or penetrating our philosophy, we cannot enter and master, subject and exploit, wound and scar this new creation. Until we understand and live in it through the Risen Lord, we will never grasp its life, its ‘yearning, the freedom it, too, has in the resurrection (Rom 8.20). After our long exile, the Risen Lord has brought us back with him into our common home.
We can never come to the end of contemplating the resurrection of Christ, its strangeness and beauty, its promise and its hope, for this new life is also our future too. Life of grace is already the beginning of his eternal life within us.
Yet, no matter how much this mystery enfolds and holds us, we cannot encounter the Risen Lord without hearing him speak our name and call us to follow him. Whenever he shows himself to those who love him, there is no judgement, there is only mission – the mission of forgiveness and reconciliation, the mission of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. Like his disciples we are sent out on the old, well-worn, roads of the world to open the new path of the Kingdom. His disciples knew that they had become apostles and every road they travelled was an Emmaus Road. As the Risen Lord walked with them, so now he walks with us. Like them, we will always meet him in the breaking of the bread. And as God chooses, like them our lives may be consecrated in martyrdom. This is their witness to Christ and to us: in him death no longer has any power. There is no place or time so dark or lost in despair that Christ is not there. He is forever the way that opens into life in God’s presence.
Thomas speaks for all of us when he asks for proof, but the only proof is the Risen Christ himself and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Lord does not reject Thomas’ need but comes to meet it. Then he looks beyond him to see us, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20.29). That beatitude fills all time. Whenever we experience it, we know, indeed, we have encountered the Risen Christ and with Thomas all we need to say, all we can say, is “my Lord and my God.”
Of all the great composers none expresses this faith more that Johann Sebastian Bach. We can hear this Easter faith in his motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” where the contrapuntal voices of the choir open like a great peeling of the Easter bells: “sing to the Lord and new song”. If the angels sang at the birth of Christ, how much more must they sing now at his resurrection. No matter where we are or whatever is our situation, against all the violence of war, destruction and death they never cease to sing because they know the victory belongs to Christ: sing to the Lord a new song, the song of everlasting life.