Almost Easter, 2016

Today, the Saturday before Easter, doesn’t have a name so far as I know. In the church Bette and I attend, there are special services for Maundy Thursday [1] and Good Friday [2] and of course, on Easter [3]. At my church, and at English-speaking churches around the world, we will perform this little antiphon. The presiding minister will say, “He is risen” and the congregation will respond, “He is risen indeed”

Every year, I wonder why we say it that way. This year, I have been thinking that we use that language because it is not very specific. Also, because it is archaic and archaic expressions lend themselves very nicely to occasions that have the gravity to bear them. I’d like to explore the lack of specificity just a little, then this essay will take me wherever it wants to go. [4]

Passing On

When we began saying “passed on” to refer to someone who had died, I understood it as a reference to another place. That’s what “on” properly means. [5] You were here on earth and now that you have died, you have gone to “the next place.” Since this was being said out loud about someone we all knew, that was presumed to be heaven, but it is “on” that assured us that it was somewhere.

An alternative form—I think of it as later because I began to hear it later—is “passed away.” Notice that “away” does not require another place. She was here and now she is not here. She is “away.” We could say that of dust on the porch furniture after a windstorm, although we probably wouldn’t because of the associations. The dust was here and now it is not; we would not imagine a “dust heaven” to which it had gone.

But now, the expression I hear most is “passed.” Why is that, I wonder. Why do we not specify the implications of either “on” or “away?” I think we use it because it is imprecise. We don’t have anything precise to say so we choose a form that accommodate all the current meanings.

Being Raised

Easter 1I think that is why we say “He is risen.” But that’s not the way I say it when I have a chance to say it by myself. I say “He is risen” along with everyone else, but I mean, “He was raised.”

My choice of that formulation ought not be taken to mean that I know what happened at the event my church celebrates as “the Resurrection” with a capital R. It means that the form in which the church first began to preach about it is still the form that means the most to me. Here is Luke’s re-creation of the sermon Peter gave to the multitudes. Peter is speaking to the crowd at Pentecost and says this:  “This man [Jesus]…you took and had crucified…but God raised him to life.” [6]
Notice what that says. The event that we celebrate at Easter is something God did. It is not something God did “through Jesus,” which is a way we often characterize his ministry, but something he did “to Jesus.”

Jesus was dead. That’s a very orthodox thing to say. And then he wasn’t. And it is God who accomplished that transition. That’s what Peter says. Later formulations [7] say that Jesus “rose” from the dead as if it is something that he did, rather than something that was done to him. You see now, I hope, why I began with “passing on” and “passing away.” Whatever the resurrectional appearances were like, as the disciples experienced them, they caused the disciples to focus on the implications, rather than on the mechanics of the process. The overwhelming hit for the disciples was, “So it was all true after all.”

In our period of history, so much more in love with knowledge than with trust, we would like to know what actually happened. We would like to have that account in our pockets and we think if we only had that, we could keep track of the expanding role of Christ that the church crafted on his behalf and we could do it with understanding and tolerance. We don’t have that account. We have the early stages of the traditions and the later stages.

What I am saying is the I find the early stages of that process—Peter, as Luke imagines him—more meaningful. On the other hand, I am part of a community here is Portland that really doesn’t care one way or the other whether the verb is active (rose) or passive (was raised) and I’m not saying they should. I am saying that I want to be a part of that community so when I am greeted by a dear old friend or by a relative stranger with “His is risen,” I will say, “He is risen indeed.” It is what I should say and it is what I will say. But some small and inaudible part of myself will say, “Jesus was raised. Thanks be to God.”

Easter 2I think C. S. Lewis comes at this question best when he comes at it indirectly. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he includes a scenesin which Aslan, the lion, who is the Christ-figure, is humiliated, tortured, and killed on a stone Table. And then one in which he is alive again. The witch figured she had Aslan dead to rights because he gave up his life to save the life of a traitor. But, Aslan says, the next morning, “There was a deeper magic that the witch did not know. She did not know that when a willing victim was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

Lewis, in the children’s stories, contents himself with the notion that there is  “a deeper magic.” I really don’t think that we, as Christians, can do better than that. Something happened. That is solidly historical. The first tellers of the tale were driven by the rHealed 2 (Dale).jpegeturn to life of the story they had thought, up until the death of Jesus, they were part of. When he died, they thought they must have been mistaken. Then when they experienced him again, they said first, “So it was all true!.” Then they said, “Look, these scriptures—as we now understand them—show that this was the plan all along.” Then they said, “OK then. Let’s get to work.”

For me, most of this is captured in a whimsical little cartoon that my dear niece, Lisa Hess, sent to me years ago. She and I have a sense of humor that strikes people as odd on occasion. She thought this card was funny and that I would think it was funny in the same way she did. I did think it was funny that way, but for some reason it also strikes me as true in a powerful and not funny way.

On the front of the card, as you see above, the stone rolls away from the opening to Jesus’s tomb. It rolls over what must be the slowest bunny in the world and kills him. “Easter,” it says on the front of the card. On the inside, it says, “It’s not about a bunny.” Even about the world’s slowest bunny. But then there is this wonderful transaction in the bottom right hand corner of the card.

Jesus, restored now to life (but life of a different sort) heals the bunny. It’s You are healed (Dale).jpegpretty simple, as you can see. “You’re healed,” Jesus says. “Thanks!” replies the bunny, “Welcome back!” This bunny knows from the beginning what the church struggled even to begin to grasp. It’s so easy for the bunny. It isn’t easy because he was healed although I think we could say that not being dead is an advantage. It is easy because it is easy. It is easy in the way it was easy for the girls in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

There is, apparently, a place you can be where Easter is easy. I don’t know where that is. But I celebrate in anyway. A part of my celebration is that every Easter, I wear to church a pair of socks that once belonged to my dad. His name is written on a tape on the socks because in that part of his life, he didn’t know what his name was.

For all the years I knew him, Dad struggled with the Resurrection, as I do. He believed it as he was able, as I do.  He believed with great courage and I would fill his shoes if I could. I can’t. But every Easter, I wear his socks.

[1] From the Latin noun mandatum, “commandment.” Jesus said to his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you. Love one another.” (John 13:34) It is easy to see the English mandate in that.
[2] There is more debate about this than I thought among language people. I always thought it was an extension of God—as it is is “good-bye,” i.e. God be with ye. Apparently not. It appears that a consensus was achieved while I wasn’t looking that it reflects an earlier meaning of good, i.e. “sacred.”
[3] Easter is the only non-Christian word of the bunch. It’s almost ironic. We get the word in English from Eastre, the dawn goddess. It was, my dictionary says, “almost coincident in date with [the] paschal festival of the church.” I’m fine with that. There was already a festival at our Christmas, too. It isn’t as if we are going to run out of significant dates.
[4] My brother, John, and I have a very healthy respect for personalization. John is a biologist and there are moments when is just seems to him the right thing to say about a Roseate Spoonbill (for instance) that it is just beginning to think about heading home. There is something about the expression on the face that evokes that impression from John and he has no qualms about saying it because everyone understands that he is not claiming to know what the Spoonbill is thinking. It is a way of saying what John’s experience of the Spoonbill is. I do the same thing. I know that this essay does not have somewhere is wants to go. “It” does not exist, because I have not created it yet. But it does feel like that. It is like feeling a current in the water and imagining that the stream “wants you to go that way.”
[5] The series of alternative terms for “died” in Monty Python’s skit about the Norwegian Blue Parrot, one of which is Hamlet’s “shuffled off this mortal coil,” comes inevitably to mind.
[6] Those are fragments of Acts 2: 23,24. This is an amazing passage for any number of reasons, one of which is that Luke is giving to Peter a Christology that he himself does not hold, but that he thinks Peter held.
[7] Or Pauline formulations, which are based on a mystical “life and death” of Jesus, not a “following him around Galilee” life.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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