April 21, 2019
Yesterday, my son sent me a New York Times Easter interview, asking for my comment. The interviewee was Serene Jones, President of Union Seminary in New York.
For the Times, Nicholas Kristoff asks for her thoughts about the resurrection: “Happy Easter Reverend Jones! To start, do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection. I have problems with that.”
Her answer is agnostic. “Those who claim to know whether it happened or not are kidding themselves,” she says. “But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”
Kristoff follows up: “What happens when we die?”
Again, the answer is agnostic. “I don’t know!” she says. There may be something, there may be nothing. My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife.” End quote.
My faith is. My faith is tied both to the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the promise of the afterlife. And so is my belief that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed. I pray from the bottom of my heart that throughout my ministry I have been clear on that.
I have always liked to read and write. One of the things I’ve loved about the ministry is that reading and writing are included in the job description. Of the writers I’ve read, perhaps the greatest is Marcel Proust, author of In Remembrance of Things Past. I spent some time with that novel early in my ministry.
It felt very relevant to my work. Proust saw what good and evil lurk within the human heart and he believed that the heart and mind, conscious and subconscious, are the stage on which the real drama of human life is set.
Proust's explorations were into what he called "states of soul". The scenery, at times, is scary. This writer is especially attuned to the dark life underneath the sunny boulders of pious sentiments. Understand Proust and I promise you will never be shocked by murder, no matter how friendly a neighbor the accused might have been, nor how sunny his television personality.
A long section is titled "Swann in Love." We tour the stages of romantic love almost as though they were on display at Epcot Center. Circle the lake from the left, starting with Infatuation. Don't miss the gift shop here. Continue moving clockwise through Desperation. Enjoy an extended stay at Bliss: this scenery is exhilarating and you won't believe the special effects. Jealousy is next, a good place to stop for a bite to eat. Next is Betrayal. Be sure to enjoy a ride on the Tower of Terror here. Then follows Desolation, a long exhibition. Will it ever end? Finally, we are released into Recovery. Some tourists step right back into Infatuation for another go. More sensible or experienced travelers kiss the ground in Recovery and vow never to return. Many, however, do.
The novel has no plot. Romantic that he was, Proust thought our “states of soul” are so much more serious than any intrigues of outer life––as he put it, “so far superior to (them) as to be alone worthwhile expressing.” He viewed the body as a temple, as had the Apostle Paul. He recognized and valued, as would Carl Jung, what Jung named archetypes. Proust said they are “the rich possessions wherewith our inner temple is diversified and adorned.”
None of us can be more than partially aware of what treasures, what “rich possessions,” adorn our inner temples. We do have some idea. We know which memories we treasure. Our songs unearth them. Driving down the highway, the radio offers random samples of those riches. I hear the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around.” I am nine years old, upstairs in my room in Jackson, Mississippi scanning between WWUN and WRBC. Next on is the Moody Blues, “Nights in White Satin.” Now it is a dark New England February evening, 1974. My roommate listens to music, while I am on the telephone with my girlfriend and—about to enter desolation. That happens to you, doesn't it? Your songs bring back your places, your people. They expose the riches that adorn your life.
There is more. We have been invited, (by Jesus, no less!) to count the missing pieces as riches of even greater value. Often songs remind us also of what might have been. The would-be friend you left behind, the lover you forsook, the door you did not open, the longing you set aside, perhaps, in the service of a greater love. These too adorn the inmost sanctum of the soul. Such sacrifices remain as longings yet to be fulfilled. Many times in many ways Jesus promised that our faithful unrequited longings will be. Blessed are those who mourn, he said!
And Jesus made this crystal clear: Although you may not regard yourself as special, indeed you are. Although you may not regard your life as valuable, in fact, it is. That's what I've been saying. Your soul is teeming with riches. Proust personified them. He called them “hostages, divine captives who share our fate.” They live in us. Their life depends on ours. When we are done, they end with us. Death in such company, wrote the romantic Frenchman, “is somehow less bitter, less inglorious. . .” and––in an oddly written afterthought that moves from romance into something more–– “perhaps even less probable.” That is almost faith from Proust.
Which brings us to Easter Sunday, the first day of the week, at early dawn. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Joanna arrive at a tomb, bearing oils and spices to administer last rites to Jesus. As Luke reports:
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body...Suddenly two men in dazzling apparel stood beside them, (saying) Why do you look for the living among the dead.
What kind of writing have we here? Are we speaking fact, metaphor, or fancy? Dr. Jones stands in a long line of teachers who say there can be many meanings and various interpretations of resurrection. That is true. So let me again be on the record to say that I cannot be in the least bit interested in any interpretation of Jesus' resurrection that does not begin with the deliverance of the man himself from death’s oblivion. By all means, enrich my head and heart with other kinds of resurrection, blessings of natural, social, ethical, and spiritual significance––but if such meanings of resurrection do not begin with a bright new day for Jesus, born of Mary, crucified by Pontius Pilate, you will get no alleluias out of me.
Karl Barth agreed. About Jesus’ resurrection he said this:
If Jesus Christ has not risen, if He has not . . . visibly and corporally risen from the dead then . . . the whole Christian church is based on an illusion and the whole of what is called Christianity is one huge piece of moral sentimentalism, to which we cannot say farewell soon enough – if Christ had not risen from the dead, then I would have no desire to stand before you as a theologian . . . [Our] knowledge that this is no dream but the truth . . . rests entirely on the Easter message literally understood. (Barth 1938, 87)
There is no overstating Easter. Let’s not understate it, please.
First came Friday and the death of Jesus Christ.
I imagine Jesus in his grave. I think of all the ornaments of his temple, the hostages of his soul entombed therein. There would be sacred memories of his companions. There would be scenes and places, the entire array of sentiments of the sort that are our own hearts’ deepest treasures. All the states of soul are there in him.
That Friday, down into the grave they went: memories of Lazarus, Mary, Martha, the woman of Samaria, the man born blind. Down went Jesus’ songs, his loves, his compassion, his integrity, his courage in the face of opposition. Down into the ground went all his remembrances of things past: good times, bad times, roads not taken. Down went thoughts, regrets, perhaps, of children he would not have. Down, underneath the weight of darkness, went the power that made men and women whole. Down went Jesus’ sense of intimacy with God. God the Holy Spirit was the inmost hostage Jesus carried to his grave.
And then came Sunday morning.
Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but risen.
So what happened?
Within the so richly, diversely, intriguingly adorned soul of Jesus, down in the deepest recesses of that human temple, lived the hostage death could not contain. A divine captive––the divine captive––stayed with the one that he named “Son.” God stayed with Jesus on the cross. God descended into darkness. God remained as love among the ruins. God unlocked the door. God awoke the hostages. God restored his son to life. God unlocked a door into eternity, through which Jesus, with all his captives, all his riches, his treasure store intact, moved on his way rejoicing, alleluia.