Easter 2009: Mysteries
I Corinthians 15: 51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
55‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The empty tomb.
What to make of it? A conspiracy? That's an explanation both ancient and contemporary. That a coterie of friends seeing a sudden end to a potentially profitable enterprise, theirs, decide to take matters into their own hands and enlarge the legend gathering about the winsome young rabbi from Galilee. It's happened before... and since. So run the suspicions of critics of Scientology in their quest for L. Ron Hubbard's earthly remains. The authorities in Jerusalem 33 AD accuse Jesus' disciples of stealing his body to make it appear, as he promised, that he had risen from the dead.
Dig up his bones or find them in a crypt, as the TV show breathlessly suggested last year, and the jig is up. 2000 years of faith, steepled monuments everywhere, hospitals and universities named in honor of him or his most devoted followers: all of it founded on a ruse. Don't take it from me. Listen to Jesus' most articulate spokesman: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile." From the Apostle Paul's pen to your eyes.
I come this Easter Sunday to that empty tomb as a child of my times; that is, as an heir to the Enlightenment, filled with RenéDescartes's hubris, that man is the measure of all things. Nor am I willing easily to dismiss this development in the western world, as if it were designed solely to snuff out every vestige of transcendence in its admiration for mortal courage and wisdom. I am more than happy to leave behind the ancient fears, now dispelled, in "ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night." The Age of Aquarius may look wistfully back upon a simpler, more spiritual time; but it tends to forget the horrors and fears with which our foreparents were consumed day by day, a very spooky world filled with malevolent forces at every hand. Good riddance to all that. Thank you, René.
But, René, three hundred twenty-five years later the confidence implicit in your "cogito ergo sum" has waned. Human knowledge has vanquished millennia of superstitions, but mysteries remain. Such as: did the universe begin with a bang or a whimper? Did Shakespeare really write all those plays? Who really killed Martin Luther King Jr.? Who is to blame for the Great Depression? Who fired first at Bunker Hill? Did Reinhold Niebuhr write the AA serenity prayer? Will the Chicago Cubs ever win another World Series? And on and on, mysteries, wrapped in enigmas, galore... and these are only a few of those that titillate our curiosity and exasperate our efforts at solution.
We are not as smart as we think we are.
In matters of heart and soul, we are no wiser than Adam. Or St. Paul, who famously mourned his quandary: "the good I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, I do." Anyone who hasn't felt this conflict in his bones either has not lived long enough nor thought deeply and honestly... or listened carefully to what others think of him.
The mystery and the misery (and the intransigence) of human meanness (I would have called it "sin," but that would unfairly color the logic here): we listened recently to Sondheim's lyrics in West Side Story. In the song "Somewhere," Maria longs, as many of us do, to "find a new way of living... a way of forgiving Somewhere." The Peaceable Kingdom forever eludes us, though, God knows and everyone else too, we yearn for such a place where tribalism is an old and shameful memory, a place where lion and lamb dwell together, and mushroom clouds no longer cast their shadow on world politics. Somewhere... but still not here.
The brave new world isn't that brave or that new.
For a mystery of happier consideration think of the random acts of generosity which delight and confuse us. I spent the early 1940's singing about Rodger Young, "who fought and died for the men he marched among." He curled himself around a grenade lofted into the bunker he shared with his company. He died, they lived. Battlefield heroics, but no less heroic for being on the battlefield, a selflessness that no amount of training could turn into habit, certainly not in me. Giving oneself entirely, not just for a Greater Cause, but for someone else, that's a mystery which defies the common sense that we must, after all, look first after number one. Adlai Stevenson meant it when, the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he wished to heaven it had been he and not the young president... a thought which has crossed the mind and even the lips of parents in the aftermath of the untimely deaths of their children.
Paul (again!) has an observation to make on this mysterious impulse in an otherwise self-seeking race: "At the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." Could he be suggesting that deep in the heart of the universe, or Whoever designed it, resides a generous, self-giving impulse; and Rodger Young and his compatriots in sacrifice confirm a nobility of spirit that defies the greed which so deeply stains human behavior?
Which is to make the point: that for all of our scientific advances, and all our accumulation of wisdom, certainties about everything and anything truly important continue to elude us. The longer I live, the less sure I am. The less sure I am, the more willing I am to ask (but not in imitation of the obnoxious ads for Royal Caribbean), "Why not?"
The empty tomb. That is, the triumph of life over death. The victory of good over evil. The transforming power of love over hate. The descent of God into human flesh. The ascent of humans to judge the angels. String together these opposites and you have... well... a mystery. Issuing from the cave in Joseph's lovely garden. When naysayers, from the beginning in Jerusalem to the present moment, today's breed under the same influence as me, Cartesian logic; when they point out the obvious, that things don't happen this way; that coming back from the dead is a storyline from the movies, not from reality; when they insinuate, as they did early on, that the empty tomb only raises the suspicion that the disciples were grave robbers; when they shake their heads disapprovingly at the whole range of startling epiphanies which some believers have claimed to experience of the risen Jesus, not just then but ever after, even now; when they evoke from my own soul, steeped as it is in western skepticism, sympathetic stirrings of doubt; then I say to myself, and any who will listen, "Why not?"
Sure, I offer no resounding Easter declaration, like you'll be able to find on television almost any hour of the day when Brother This or Dr. That hold forth in their pulpits. However appealing their certainty, and however lame my confession seems by comparison, I am, nonetheless, betting my life on that empty tomb. That out of it issues a hope for you and me and every sinner for a larger, far larger, life. Here. Now. In love toward others. Full of generosity. A peaceable spirit. With a hunger and a thirst for righteousness. Arms opened wide to receive and embrace. And a mind open to eternal possibilities beyond the reach of mortal imagination.
The empty tomb: enter it with faith, and its mystery, if never completely dispelled, offers light and love more than enough to go through our days, whatever comes, as champions.