“Christ is risen.” “He is risen indeed.”
These words, with slight variations, will echo today in many different languages as most Christians around the world celebrate Easter. They are a statement of hope. And the church has always proclaimed that they are a statement of fact: that Jesus truly did rise from the dead. Christians mean these words literally.
“Make no mistake: if He rose at all, it was as His body,” begins John Updike’s exquisite poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” “if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle, the Church will fall.”
Updike’s poem, which he wrote in 1960 for an arts contest at his church (he won), is beloved by many, myself included. It tells the reader that the Resurrection is not a parable, not an event to mark the rebirth of spring. Easter is no tamed observance that respectable modern people can fit neatly into our sensibilities. The force of its claims must be reckoned with, yet their content can never be accepted in a purely philosophical materialist view of the world.
Updike is pushing back on an idea that became ascendant among mainline Protestant churches around the turn of the 20th century and still exists in some places: that belief in a bodily resurrection is incompatible with modern science, technology and medicine. But many who rejected the literal Resurrection of Jesus wanted to maintain some kind of Christian identity, so the story of Christ rising from the dead was recast as a purely spiritual event or a metaphor, not strictly, materially true. In contrast, Updike almost roars: “Let us not mock God with metaphor.”
Jesus, he says, rose with “hinged thumbs and toes.” A stone, textured, rough, heavy, was rolled away. A cold, valved heart regained its pulsing beat. A real angel “weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in the dawn light” announced a touchable reality.
Whatever else Christianity is, it is an assertion of historic fact. The New Testament invites us to examine the evidence. Its claim of a bodily resurrection was as strange and impossible — as Updike says, “monstrous” — when it was first made 2,000 years ago as it is now.
It would be so much more acceptable if Easter was merely a ritual communicating religious ideals, teaching us to cultivate the better angels of our nature. But if Easter is only an abstraction, it doesn’t mean much to me. I’m with the Apostle Paul who wrote and the billions of Christians around the world who profess, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” If Jesus wasn’t actually resurrected, then Easter is less real than the budding buzz of spring, less real than a dying breath, less real than my own hands, feet and skin. I have no interest in a Christianity that isn’t deeply, profoundly, irreducibly material.
I don’t believe what I believe because I’m a particularly faithful or credulous person. There’s always that if — Updike’s “if he rose at all,” Paul’s “if Christ has not been raised” — with any historic claim or unrepeatable event. I am troubled by the “if.” I tend toward doubt. I believe, in part, because I doubt my doubts and I doubt my doubt about my doubts. I can keep going. Round and round, round and round.
But at the end of the day, there’s this unflinching claim to reality: an empty tomb, as Updike says, a stone rolled back, “not papier-mâché, not a stone in a story.”And I, like every person who encounters this claim, have to decide if Jesus’ earliest followers died for something they knew to be a lie.
Yet, believing that Jesus is risen is different than believing that Napoleon invaded Russia or that Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Though Christians say today that “Christ is risen” as a point of historic fact, we are saying something more as well. We say this to herald God’s power in the world and in our lives, even now.
Christians believe that because Jesus is risen, the same power that raised him from the dead is alive in us. The Book of Romans says, “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you.” This historical event leaps out of history into the present tense.
Another poem that I keep in conversation with Updike’s stanzas is Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a gorgeous poem published in 1918 about a deadly shipwreck. Toward its end comes this line: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us.”
Easter, here, is a verb. It is not only an event but it’s something that happens to us and in us. This poem and prayer asks that Jesus transform our lives, that he rise not just in a tomb but in us as well, that the piercing light of the Resurrection fall on the darkness in our cramped selves.
Updike reminds us that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, the church is a lie, but Hopkins tells us that if he was and is raised, then absolutely everything can be changed and redeemed — even shipwrecks, even death. In the final pages of the Bible, the end of the long story of the redemption of the world, the writer describes a vision of Jesus. He is sitting on a throne and says, “Look” — most translations use “behold” but that sounds so churchy; I think what he’s saying is closer to “look,” “notice,” “hey, pay attention.” And then he says, “I am making all things new.”
Jesus promises a future when everything is made new. But the only real evidence that that is any more than wishful thinking is rooted in history, as solid as a stone rolled away. The Resurrection happening in truth, in real time, is the only evidence that that love in fact outlasts the grave, that what is broken can be mended, and that death and pain do not have the final word.
Not everything will be redeemed in our lifetime but, even now, we see newness breaking in, we see glimpses of the healing to come. We believe that, because “He is risen indeed,” we can know God and our lives can participate in the life of God, that our own biographies and mundane days collide with eternity.
If Jesus defeated death one morning in Jerusalem, then suddenly every revitalization, every new birth, every repaired relationship, every ascent from despair, every joy after grief, every recovery from addiction, every coral reef regeneration, every achievement of justice, every rediscovery of beauty, every miracle, every found hope becomes a sign of what Jesus did in history and of a promised future where all things will be made new.
This Easter I pray with Updike that we Christians around the world will “not mock God with metaphor” and I pray with Hopkins that God will “easter in us.” Easter, if it’s worth anything at all, is more than a metaphor. But it is more than mere history as well. It happened in a specific hour 2,000 years ago yet it cannot be captured in time. It is earthy and palpable but also a sign and a symbol pointing to a reality more mysterious than I can name. The Resurrection spoke the unsayable.
So I will settle for the words that can be said, words I’ve received from others: “Christ is risen.” “He is risen indeed.” Happy Easter!
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Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”