The Promise of Easter

On this Saturday of Holy Week, the sun is shining brightly and the spring air is soft. The forsythia and daffodils are blooming, and the maples and earliest apple trees are in blossom. Cardinals and robins are singing, and the message of rebirth infuses the earth.

I think about tomorrow, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, named in our language for an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and rebirth. And I think about the way many religions, ancient and contemporary, reflect on the cycle of the year through stories of the god who dies and is reborn. Rebirth – resurrection – is the central concept of Christianity, but we are not unique.

There is something very powerful in the turning of the seasons that stirs human imagination. We may explain the seasons scientifically, but they still seem more significant and more amazing than the physical facts of scientific explanation. Perhaps this is because the forces that drive the seasons are so much larger than we are.

But the mystery of rebirth is also larger than we are. We need our myths to help explain the incomprehensible nature of rebirth. And so we have our stories of the god who dies and is reborn. The story in my heart is the story of the passion and resurrection of the Christ. I am a Christian because I grew up in a Christian culture, and the stories of the Christian tradition resonate with me. They help me find my way to God – or, rather, they help me see that God is with me. But I don’t for a moment believe that my stories are the only ones that are true.

We are like the group of blind people in the story of the encounter with an elephant. One person, feeling the elephant’s leg, said that the elephant was very like a tree. Another, touching the ear, declared that the beast was like a ship with a large sail. A third, stroking the trunk, said that the elephant was like a snake. And so on. Every faith has grasped a part of God, but no one has grasped all of God. We are human and limited in our understanding; we can’t fully comprehend the infinity that is God.

And so we waste our energy arguing over our beliefs, assuming that our own way of faith is somehow more true than others. When we believe we know the only truth, we try to convince everyone else to believe exactly what we believe, while those of other faiths do the same. And so we have crusades, jihads, holy wars, grieving God in the name of God.

We try to discover evidence that Jesus really (that is, in physical fact, empirically observable) did die and rise again. Some seem to believe that the truth of the resurrection depends on such physical reality. But the real truth of the story rests in its power to transform us, its power to bring us into an ever-growing relationship with God.

What matters about the story of the god who dies and is resurrected is not its historical accuracy. What matters is not even the story of rebirth’s connection to the cycle of the seasons. What matters is the message of God’s power and love behind the story of resurrection. What matters is the little bit of truth about God revealed in the story.

There are many different theological statements about the significance of the Resurrection of Jesus. The one that one hears most often is that Jesus died for us, to save us from the consequences of our sinfulness. There may be truth in this concept, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. It may be the elephant’s tail, but the whole truth of the elephant is something else.

For me, the larger truth of the passion and resurrection is the revelation of God’s overwhelming love for us and the promise of God’s presence with us. God chose to suffer and die as we suffer and die. God understands us completely and is with us completely. God promises to go with us into the darkest places of our lives. But even all that is not, I think, the whole truth of the Resurrection. The whole truth is beyond my limited human comprehension. All I can do is experience the power of the story and love God.

(Note:  This was first posted a year ago.)

What Is Truth?

“What is truth?” he asked, lifting one hand slightly.
The ragged man before him glanced upward and did not reply,
while the abyss between them deepened and grew wider.
A single word danced above it and split into a hundred permutations,
each with its own singular meaning.

Truth is sunlight pouring through the leaves of the maple.
Truth is the lightning bolt that shatters the tree,
the lily bud unfolding in the morning light,
the wind howling across the mountain pass,
the warm arms of the sea in a sheltered cove.

Truth is the convolution of the nautilus,
the mysterious equations of the stars,
the first stroke of paint on wet paper,
the rainbow in the waterfall,
the crystalline promise of the unbroken geode.

Truth is the bullfrog’s song in the warm dark of a May night,
the storm clouds gathering against the sunset,
the winter moon in the branches of a tree,
the scent of peonies on a warm morning,
twilight moving across a northern sky.

Truth is the magma seething at the earth’s core,
the collision of cells conceiving,
the shuddering of the earth forcing one plate against another,
the acorn sprouting under the soil,
the breath of God in everything that is.

 

(Note:  The image above is a photograph of children playing on the Temple Mount, near the area that was once thought (probably erroneously) to be the site where Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus, asking “What is truth?”)

 

A Night in Gethsemane

Tenebrae: The Service of Shadows

Maundy Thursday. A difficult night. A difficult service. We love to rejoice with the risen Christ, but it is far harder to suffer with the betrayed and bleeding man on the cross. As the readings for the service of Tenebrae move from betrayal and desertion to mockery and death, the candles in the sanctuary are put out one by one. As we hear the story in scripture, the shadows of our own sin and guilt grow deeper, closing in around us.

The darkness presses in on me. If I had been there that long night and the dark day that followed, which role would have been mine? Would I have taken an active part, calling out accusations before Caiaphas? Would I have been convinced that this man was a disrupter, a threat to my faith, a creator of disorder who had to be destroyed in the name of God?

Might I have been a Roman skeptic, amused at the foolishness of these Eastern fanatics who thought a poor itinerant preacher a serious threat? Or would I have played the part of the military bullies who jammed the crown of thorns on his head and struck him repeatedly in the face, not caring who or what he was, only knowing that this was a chance for a bit of fun?

Might I have been one of those who had heard Jesus teach, seen him heal, who had believed that he was indeed the Messiah? Would I have watched from a little distance, my faith in the Lord who had entered the city in triumph only a few days earlier violently shaken by the sight of the blood on his face? Would my voice have been the voice of Peter, denying that I even knew him?

Jesus was not, after all, the clear sign that had been expected. The Jews looked for a military leader who would free them from the yoke of the Romans. They expected ritual purity and unmistakable glory. Instead, Jesus had eaten with sinners, entered the city on a donkey, and washed his disciples’ feet. The Romans were expecting the sort of armed revolt they were so good at crushing, not a king who claimed his kingdom was not of this earth. When the sign came, it was undecipherable – not because the sign wasn’t meaningful, but because the people who saw it were blinded by their own expectations. The dying Christ and the empty tomb were mysteries too deep for human reason.

The shadows close in. All I can do is weep for my sins, my doubts, my blindness, and for the infinite suffering endured for us. Endured so that we might glimpse our own brokenness. Endured so that we might know the infinite love that made us and pray for the marvelous, undeserved, overwhelming light of Easter morning.

(Note: This was first posted two years ago.)

Bull-Dancing

We are linked to them, the old ones
Who walked the intricate path of preparation,
Moving in graceful arcs, approaching and receding,
Weaving the pattern of eagerness and reluctance
Toward the Encounter with Death and the Goddess.

And in the center the Dance, ecstasy and fear intermingled,
The youths and maidens leaping over the gilded horns,
The bull tossing his head and stamping at the agile figures
Weaving the pattern of joy and death over and around him.
Was the Lady pleased?  Did she delight in the dance,
Mourn her children who fell, or glory in the ecstasy
Of those who went dancing into death?

Oh, Christ, my dangerous one,
Desire of my heart and pattern of my soul,
I walk this labyrinth, my aged joints aching
Along the smooth arcs, the clear pattern,
And I am one with those children who went
Gaily or solemnly toward the potent beast.

When I reach that center,
The flowered heart of the labyrinth,
Shall I dance with you there?
Will you lift me up in joy,
Or shall I pour out my heart’s blood
On the impervious stone?
To you, oh my life and my death,
Are they not the same?

 

 

Note:  The myth of the Minotaur is thought to be founded on a ritual of ancient Crete in which youths and maidens performed acrobatic feats with a bull in honor of the Great Goddess.  This bull-dance was performed underground and accessed through a labyrinth, which provided a ceremonial path to the central dancing floor.  The word labyrinth comes from labrys, the double-bladed axe that was the holiest symbol of the Goddess in Minoan civilization.  Today, walking the labyrinth is used as a contemplative tool in Christian spirituality.