As many Christians sat down Sunday morning to celebrate Easter, a suicide bombing targeting Christians halfway across the world in Lahore, Pakistan killed 72 people and injured at least 320. Right as American Christians were shouting, “He is risen, Alleluia!” an entire city cried out in horror and mourning. As American children hunted Easter eggs, a bomb exploded into Pakistani children visiting a neighborhood park.
In the space between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, between the acclaiming of Jesus as a king and his execution as a threat to the political order, I was no more ready to read the news this morning. The stifling, exhausting repetition of violence and terrorism is both all too common but still shocking. And yet, I hope that Christians in particular can draw upon the narrative arc that moves us from Jesus’ triumphal entry to his seeming defeat on Calvary.
Seeing Bartholomew and Mary’s trust in the risen Christ made me want to raise my hands and trust him with all of my hopes. If Christ could master death, what limits could there be to what he could do with them?
Seeing the gracious way in which Jesus shows Thomas his wounds, provides fish for his followers, and restores Peter made me remember all the ways he’s lovingly cared for me. He’s not just a vague myth or a good idea — he’s alive.
There’s a beautiful moment in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (now in limited release) in which the character Ma explains the reality of their situation to her bewildered son. Contrary to what she had taught up until that point — that they were the only people in the entire realm of existence, which was limited to the room in question — she explains that they are actually held hostage in a small garden shed in their captor’s backyard. Sensing that Old Nick, her kidnapper and Jack’s father, might kill them because he will lose his house, Ma enlists her son’s help in an escape plan.
In shock and denial he says, “I want another story.”
Ma replies, “This is the story you’ve got.”
There is no political outcome that will make these children not drowned. There is no politics that will pull their shirts down to cover their exposed tummies, the way a parent’s loving hand would do. There is no politics that will make their drenched clothing anything other than the last outfit their parents ever clothed them in, unaware when they did so that it would be the clothing in which their children would die. There is no politics that will give these children another life that does not end in terror and despair and cold water. (God, God, how does one write words like this?) There is no politics that will give their parents anything but the end they had: of going into the dark knowing that their dear ones were lost forever.
All this is permanent. It is done and cannot and will not and will never be undone. And while I am all for good politics, which is to say I am all for a good future, and so I am all for doing better by the refugees that yet live, I also refuse to let the past go as if it were merely the gravel under the sub-foundation of whatever shiny tomorrow we happen to build next.
There is no politics that can redeem what time has irretrievably taken. To stand as witness to the past is to stand either in utter nihilism and despair, or in the desperate, desperate hope that in the end a Redeemer will walk upon the earth, who will bring forth those whose flesh was destroyed, to see and be loved forever by God.
In the midst of my family’s Easter celebration yesterday, I decided to check Facebook. Most of my friends posted comments like “Happy Easter!” and shared pictures of their celebrations.
But this meme also appeared on my feed:
The meme is attributed to Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science and is meant to debunk Christianity and Easter as just another example of an ancient myth. The reasoning goes like this – Christianity has so much in common with other ancient myths, so how can we take Christianity seriously?
The meme shows the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian goddess Ishtar and makes a few claims against Christianity. The first is that “Ishtar” was pronounced “Easter.” The second is that Ishtar was the goddess of fertility and sex and so her symbols were an egg and bunny. The meme concludes that Easter is merely a copy of the Ishtar myth and its roots are “all about celebrating fertility and sex.”
Megan McArdle of the Daily Beast did an excellent job debunking the meme.
I’ve celebrated Easter before. My whole life I’ve dressed up, colored eggs, gone to church.
But this year was different. This year, I realized resurrection.
I’m not sure how the realization came.
Maybe it came because this was the first time I gardened. My mother once said, “Gardening is prayer.” I never believed her until I physically saw the transformation of dead earth into mustard greens and zucchini plants. I never realized how good the pulse of the sun felt on my back after months of gray. I never saw seeds push through the darkness of soil and become new life — until this year, when I realized resurrection.
Maybe it came because this was the first time I’ve ever felt depression. This winter was the first time there were no windows in the tomb. The first time I held myself crying in the shower wondering if the emptiness would stop. This year was the first time I saw Lent as a season to sit in deep sadness. The first time I realized that Mary Magdalene sat at the tomb simply because she was just so sad.
Maybe it came because this was the first time I’ve fully embraced a Christian community. The first time I’ve intimately walked through the liturgical season with the same people. The first time I shared the miracle of Christmas and the deep sadness of Lent in the eyes of other vulnerable humans. The first time I’ve attended an entire week of Holy Week services. The first time I sat in the dark on Good Friday after service ended and cried.
This year, I realized resurrection and I’m not exactly sure why.
It was five years ago now. I had recently finished a few week stay in the ICU, more than two months in the hospital, and more than one conversation between my parents and doctors about whether I would pull through. Still, I had made it, and after several months of regular home nurse visits, fentanyl patches, dilaudid pills, and 12 hours a day on an IV for liquid and nutrition, I was stable but still far from recovered.
The Saturday before Easter was sunny and unseasonably but appropriately warm. My mother and I took a walk outside, over a mile, the furthest I had gone in nearly five months.
“Wouldn’t it be poetic,” I asked, “If suddenly this whole illness, everything that went wrong in the hospital, all made sense tomorrow on Easter?”
“Hunny,” my mom responded kindly, “I think that’s a lot of pressure to put on the pastor. Don’t you?”
The next day was seasonably and appropriately repetitious. I heard nothing new. The same Easter story that had been read for centuries on centuries was read again. I received no specialized message from the divine about my own pain and struggle. That morning, I realized that might be the point.
Jesus came to make resurrection mundane.
Something has gone awry in our culture when we begin to tell the Resurrection story from a narrative of “The Good Guy Wins.” We love seeing the good guys kick ass. We celebrate rugged heroes like Jack Bauer from the hit TV show 24, even when they kill. So steeped are we in what Walter Wink calls, “the myth of redemptive violence,” we have subsumed the Easter story into this framework.
In cultures where Christianity has become the dominant power, the resurrection of Jesus has been turned into the triumph of the victors. The way “Jesus is Risen” is proclaimed, it sounds like bragging — essentially one-upping those who disagree with us by saying smugly: we win. Easter is used as a trump card to threaten people into joining our side, because we are the side of the victors. Again and again, the church tries to grow by dominating: passing laws discriminating others, fighting legal battles in the courts, using money and clout to sway people into a certain ideology. Easter celebrations at megachurches get bigger and jazzier every year. We are like the disciples who just don’t get it. We argue and argue over which among us is the greatest.
We need to figure out how to tell a different story.
Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell (out now), is a heartbreaking meditation on personal grief. It’s also joyful, baffling, and delicately mundane.
In the spirit of a listening party, a few of us sat down to play through the album, sharing liner notes and meditations on the songs that grabbed each of us. Conclusion: it's really, really good. Stream Carrie & Lowell here, and listen along with us below.
Tripp: I love the first song of an album. I think of it as the introduction to a possible new friend. “Where The Streets Have No Name” on U2’s Joshua Tree or “Signs of Life” on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, that first track can be the thesis statement to a sonic essay.
So, when I get a new album — even in this day of digital albums or collections of singles — a first track can make or break an album for me. I sat down and listened attentively to “Death With Dignity.” It does not disappoint. With it Stevens introduces the subject of the album — his grief around troubled relationship with his mother and her death — as well as the sonic palate he will use throughout the album.
Simple guitar work, layered voicing, and a little synth, the album is musically sparse. The tempo reminds me of movies from the nineteen sixties or seventies where the action takes place over a long road trip.
Catherine Woodiwiss: I was thinking road trip, too. There’s real motion musically, which, given a claustrophobic theme and circular lyrics, is a thankful point of release. It’s a generous act, or maybe an avoidant one — he could have made us sit tight and watch, and he doesn’t quite do it.
Julie Polter: This isn’t a road movie, but the reference to that era of films just made me think of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold and Maude, especially “Trouble.” (This album is one-by-one bringing back to me other gentle songs of death and duress and all the songs I listen to when I want to cry).
In 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Paul says that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
I can think of many times when I’ve felt foolish. Like forgetting someone’s name, or worse, calling them by the wrong name. Or when I read The Life of Pi and thought it was based on a true story because of the voice of the journalist.
The times when being foolish has really hurt, though, were when I placed trust in people only to be let down.
It seems like violence will never end. Portland. Seattle. Las Vegas. Isla Vista. Almost every day in Chicago. Not to mention Iraq, Boko Haram, the conflict in Ukraine, and the continued war in Afghanistan.
The Huffington Post just reported that “If it’s a school week in America, odds are there will be a shooting.” Since the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012, the United States has averaged 1.37 school shootings per week.
And our culture is divided on how best to respond. One side declares we need to increase gun regulations. The other side insists we need more guns. The two sides are locked in a bitter political rivalry, using terms like “rights” and “responsibilities” and neither side will budge. One side will win the political battle concerning gun rights, but I fear that no matter who wins the battle it will only perpetuate the war.
I’m feeling despair, and from my Facebook feed, I know many others are feeling the same way. After all, this is so much bigger than guns; it’s about a culture of violence. But please, don’t fall into despair. We have too much work to do.
Society has an affinity for death. There is a pervasive fascination with (im)mortality. We appreciate life, but we are seduced at the intricacies and unknowns of death. While there is much enjoyment and celebration over health, personal accomplishments, births, and birthdays, women and men around the world ponder the “what ifs” concerning the end of life. The thought of death grips us with a “thanatopsis” like inquisitiveness — no fear just sheer curiosity.
Look at the ubiquitous commentary on demise and dying. The Walking Dead has become one of the most highly watched shows. Along with True Blood, Cold Case, and Resurrection television is replete with musings over death and what happens when the “dead” come back to life. Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven and the book-turned-film Heaven is for Real challenge us to discard any sense of reason or rationale when it comes to what many of us living have not experienced personally — that is dying. Yes, we have gone to funerals, but dare I say we were not in the casket.
The seasonal items aisle in the grocery store is a work in progress. Stuffed bunnies are being replaced by garden gnomes. Cans of sunscreen will soon inhabit the shelves that displayed egg-coloring kits a few days ago.
Easter is over.
Well, not completely. Boxes of purple and yellow Peeps are stacked on clearance tables in the middle of the aisle. Chocolate rabbits are available for half-price.
And tombs are being emptied.
But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him." Matthew 28:5-7
“Christ is risen!” That is the Easter greeting that Christians around the world have used for generations. It is one of my favorite parts of Easter — I love to hear the words “He is risen.”
But for so many of us, Easter is not just a religious holiday — it is a personal celebration and re-commitment. How do we personally experience the resurrection? Every year, as I hear and say “He is risen,” I remember that it’s not just a theological affirmation, but something I need personally.
Because I need — I think we all need — to remember and celebrate the hope that those words proclaim. “He is risen” is much more than an optimistic expression. It is not an empty platitude or wishful thinking, but the assertion of that in the midst of all the personal and collective pain, brokenness, injustice, and oppression that we see or experience, Christ is victorious. And we start over every Easter with a new affirmation and conviction of the hope that will always change both our lives and the world.
As I’ve been personally reflecting on the resurrection, I wanted to share an adaptation from the last chapter of my book, The Call to Conversion that explores what “Christ is risen!” meant to the earliest disciples. I hope that it will help you this Easter, as you celebrate the fact that “He is risen, indeed!” and reflect upon what this day of hope means for you.
“On the third day, he rose again.”
But how that statement is interpreted is the source of some of the deepest rifts in Christianity — and a stumbling block for some Christians and more than a few skeptics.
Did Jesus literally rise from the dead in a bodily resurrection, as many traditionalist and conservative Christians believe? Or was his rising a symbolic one, a restoration of his spirit of love and compassion to the world, as members of some more liberal brands of Christianity hold?