There is something anti-climactic about the story of Easter. It’s not like the Passion Story that comes before it: now that’s a story, the kind that bears telling and re-telling. And we did that; we told and re-told the story of the Passion of Jesus, beginning last Sunday with a dramatic reading taken straight from the Gospel of Matthew and then re-telling and re-enacting, in traditional ceremonies of the church (locally-adapted, of course), the journey from supper at sundown on Thursday, through the long night of watching and praying in the garden, through the three hours of horror and sorrow on Friday afternoon, to the peace of Saturday morning, and the silence of the tomb. It is a tragic story, but like all great tragedies it is cathartic. It lets us feel the way we really experience the world a lot of the time but rarely get to express in community. So there’s a way in which the betrayal, and trial, and crucifixion, and burial of Jesus feels like an entirely satisfactory climax to his story.
And yet if it ended there, it would not be the great story, the sacred story of two thousand years of religion, and music, of painting and sculpture, of drama, film, and literature, of the folk art and ritual of cultures from South Africa to Siberia, and Fiji to Guatemala. It would not be the story that turns ordinary men and women into saints. Not because it would be a sad story—the world is full of sad stories, and many of them beautiful—but because it would be only another sad story among so many. The whole story of Jesus only becomes what is because of Easter. But what kind of story does it become? Does it change from a sad story to happy one? Or from a true story to a myth?
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary run away from the tomb of Jesus not with fear and not with great joy but with both mingled together. And this combination of fear and joy is what accompanies an encounter with what the great rabbi and philosopher Abraham Heschel called “the sublime”: that which transcends and radically calls into question our normal categories of experience. Which is why it is essentially irrelevant to ask, concerning the resurrection of Jesus—“did it really happen?” That is the question of a humanistic age, and its import is, “is this something we can fit into our conventional human story of reality?” When you put it like that, the answer is clearly “no.” But if the answer is “no; the resurrection does not fit into the story we human beings prefer to tell about ourselves,” it is because it is the answer to a different kind of question. The resurrection comes into a human story, the story of Jesus and his disciples, but it is not our question to ask about that story. The resurrection is the essential question that story asks about us.
The story of Jesus and his disciples is our story, because it raises the essential questions put to us by our own existence. They are the questions asked of us by being alive and being human: by our experiences of joy and love and healing, of freedom and forgiveness, and belonging in community; and our experiences of fear and hate, affliction and loss, of conflict and oppression and despair, of missing the mark, and being at loose ends. These experiences, and the way they all somehow come together as the one experience of being alive and being human, also come together as a single question; a question that is bigger than we are, that we cannot answer and don’t even really know exactly how to ask.
Reading the Bible is one way, our way, of entertaining that question, of letting it live, and work on us, so that we are not simply drifting half-asleep down our passage through this world being satisfied with our own answers to our own superficial questions. For Christians the story of Jesus and his disciples is the crystallization of the question that the Bible asks us. And in the story of the resurrection we find our answer. And the answer is “yes.” “Yes.” The resurrection is God’s “yes” to the question of what it means to be human, a “yes” we can give in answer because we believe it was first given to Jesus, and then to his disciples, by God.
Just for that reason, faith in Christ’s resurrection is not a mental exercise, not a matter of convincing oneself that “I believe it really happened.” We can believe that, but just as it is the answer to the question posed to us by our whole lives, it is an answer we must give with our whole lives. That is why St. Paul urges us, in the Letter to the Romans, to understand that when we were baptized we died and were buried with Christ. Which can’t have “really happened,” because here we are, alive. So Paul must not be speaking to our rational intellects, to the part of us that asks and answers our own questions. Rather he is speaking to the heart of our consciousness, to that inner image we have of being “I”, a person, unique and entire unto myself, who is alive and has a life story.
And what Paul is saying is that to be “in Christ,” to really know and really live in God’s grace and spiritual power, it is not enough to accept the certitude of doctrinal assertions about Jesus. It is not even enough to obey him as the authoritative moral teacher, and to attempt to practice what he preached. These things are valuable and even necessary, but in and of themselves they are not enough. Because what it really means to be “in Christ” is to surrender everything we are to God. All of it—even that deepest, most essential heart of our being, that very sense of being a person who owns the copyright on the story of “me.” If we give that up to God, with the nakedness of faith we see in Jesus, praying in the garden, “not my will, Father, but yours be done”; if we say “yes” to God with the abandon of love that we see in Jesus on the cross, we will get it back.
It will be very like what it was before. We will be the person we always were, the same weak, gifted, happy, sad, simple, complicated, stupid, brilliant, virtuous, sinful person. The same mere mortal—only completely new. We will be raised with Christ. United with Christ. “It is not I who live,” says Paul in Galatians, “but Christ who lives in me.” And in Colossians: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then [who you really are] will be revealed with him in glory.”
“The glory of the Father,” says our passage from Romans today, is what raised Christ Jesus from the dead. Which is a curious way to put it. Why the “glory”? Why not the power, the mercy, the love, or the justice? I think to understand what Paul is saying here we need to know that glory is not just one among many attributes that we assign to God by analogy to human characteristics. The Glory of God is what belongs to God alone. You could say Glory is God, because in so far as human beings can see God, Glory is what we see. But what Christ’s death and resurrection renews in us is the knowledge that God does not keep his Glory to himself, but gives it away. We may be looking upward at heaven, or outward at the earth, or inward at the uncreated image in ourselves, but if ours are the eyes of a heart that says “yes” to God, what we see is Glory.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, arriving the tomb, experience it first as a kind of anticlimax, the emptying out of their expectations for how the story of Jesus will end. But then, running away from the tomb with their strange new message, they meet the glory of God in person. He greets them: “Hey!”—just the way one person would greet another on a bright spring morning on a garden path. And they fall to their knees and prostrate themselves before him in the first-ever act of Christian worship. But they also grab onto his feet, just to be sure.