Sunday, April 20, 2008

Eastertide


What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, "Son, go and work today in the vineyard."

"I will not," he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing.

He answered, "I will, sir," but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?

-Matthew 21:28-30 (NIV)

In the church calendar, we're about halfway through Eastertide, a time of feasting and celebration as we careen toward Pentecost. We've had, ostensibly, the desert experience of Lent, and now we've swung out to the other pole, so to speak, getting our liturgical groove on before settling in to the wide open spaces of summer, and Ordinary Time.

That is, if you go to a church that pays a lick of attention to the liturgical calendar, and mine doesn't. I think that's a shame. In fact, at least one of our staff refuses to use the word "Easter" at all because it has pagan origins. I always chuckle at that -- doesn't everything? Are we really supposed to believe the timing of Passover, the setting for the Passion and Easter narratives, has nothing to do with Spring, with renewal, with the return of the dawn after winter's dark night? I must admit the whole bunny thing seems a bit silly, and for our part we hunt eggs on the Vernal Equinox like proper pagans so that we might celebrate Jesus on Easter like proper Christians, but surely there's more than a little syncretism -- even parasitism -- going on here.

As important as incarnation and resurrection are to Christian theology (I can't imagine being a Christian without them), we invented neither the virgin birth nor the concept of rebirth -- and I daresay we probably stole them outright. For you fans of postmodernism, worship of Yahweh was bricolage long before the French came along to give us a word for it. This is a bit of a scandal, the dark secret we try to hide. Most of our religion was cobbled together from cultural sources at hand, and it still is. I'm okay with this.

Most of the Christians I know -- certainly the ones I know personally -- believe in the Resurrection on fairly literal terms, and find alternatives unconscionable. As far as I can tell, St. Paul believed pretty literally in the Resurrection, too, and I agree with those who argue that this claim cannot be reduced to resuscitation, or vision, or some other variant so popular with old-school liberalism. The Biblical claim of the resurrection of Christ is not a cover-up for something else, not a misunderstanding of a more explicable event, not an account of mass hallucination, but the claim that Jesus of Nazareth, executed by the Roman state at the behest of his own people (betrayed, even, by one of his own disciples), was raised to life again by the power of the God he worshiped, the God he pointed to, the God whom he, in some way, embodied. I take this claim very, very seriously.

I don't take it literally. I can't.

I have friends who would say this is because I am not properly "postmodern", that I am still trapped by modernist assumptions of what can or cannot happen, of what truth can or cannot look like, trapped by presuppositions that prevent me from seeing how something can be historically true even if it cannot be empirically verified. But I honestly don't think that's the case. I just don't believe it actually happened, and I think the poverty is theirs, not mine; they can't see how something that didn't actually happen could still be true. Touché!

Others would tell me that I must then explain the martyrs. A friend of mine is fond of declaring that the resurrection must be true -- in the literal sense -- because people died for the faith, something they wouldn't do for a lie or myth. But he's wrong, or everything anyone has ever died for is true. People don't die for things that are true; they die for things they believe in. The witness of the martyrs is not a testimony to truth but to belief. I'd like to think that they died less for ideological purity than for their friends, their communities. They chose to recapitulate the crucifixion of Christ rather than the kiss of Judas.

My imaginary interlocutors may adjure me to explain how Christianity took off like it did if it's based on a falsehood. But I don't have to, any more than my more literal-minded friends have to explain the rise of Islam, or Buddhism, or any mass movement at all. These things happen. What I see is a desire to root the uniqueness of the Christian message an assertion that its formational mythology happens to be an accurately portrayed historical event. Is this really necessary?

In his poem "The Mad Farmer Liberation Front", Wendell Berry offers the now-famous admonition: "practice resurrection." Like all good poetry it is at once splendidly concrete and deliciously ambiguous. I don't know exactly what it means but I believe it. I believe resurrection can be practiced, and that this is precisely what we are called to do. I think of it as a way of living imaginatively, creatively -- an Easter way of seeing the world and living constructively in it. And maybe we can rehearse this at Eastertide as a way of framing the whole of life, to celebrate the risen Christ, not with puerile, petty triumphalism or shrill cries of absolutism but with affirmations of life, recognitions of mystery and the manifold ways resurrection comes to us.

Peter Laarman puts it this way
(though his words could apply equally to incarnation):

What we do know-and all we can know-is that God is present when we share bread with our neighbor; God is present when we make room for the stranger; God is present when we set the prisoner free; God is present when we tear down barriers of prejudice and privilege and when we unmask the hypocrisy of unworthy rulers. What could be more breathtaking than to meet the living God in the face of the other? What could be more compelling than a lively faith, a saving faith, forged in the actual daily work of making a little bit more room in the world for the peace of God?

Maybe the ideal is to believe Christ literally rose from the dead and that resurrection can be practiced. But maybe those of us who have trouble with the whole literal thing can be like the second brother in the parable I used as an epigram; our inability to take the Bible literally, even on a a big-ticket item like the Resurrection, is our "I will not" -- but the path is still there before us, to go and work in the vineyard anyway. Are there some who can check off the Resurrection as one of the impossible things they believe before breakfast, their "I will", and then fail to make it to the vineyard at all? Maybe.

We might not even be sure we believe the vineyard is anything but a barren wasteland. Even this does not close the path for us. I am reminded of one the ancient desert monks, whose spiritual director made him water a stick, every day, as an act of faith. It sounds pretty crazy. I think it's possible to end up helping people believe something you can't quite, because you know they need to believe it. This, too, sounds pretty crazy.

But maybe some of have to water that damn stick, even if it means other people get to see it bloom when we can't.