“He is risen!” What amazing words. I hear them every year. “He is risen, indeed!” The pastor says it in her sermon; Facebook updates cheer it into the inter web; church signs shout it to the passerbys in their SUVs and minivans, to commuters with mortgages and teething toddlers.
But do I hear this, Lord? Do I catch these words like a punch to the gut, the way Peter must have? Do I welcome them with the uncertainty of Thomas, hesitancy that turns into unshakeable joy when he learns the news that is too good not to be true? Do I discover it with the faithfulness of those women on that early morn? Grief choked their hearts; fear dripped amongst their tears. And yet, while all else were sleeping or hiding, they came toyou, even when there was no hope to be found withyou.
And so they were the first to receive that ultimate hope: “He is risen!”
God, I my not hear this words like them. But I ask that you might strengthen me to live in such a way that whispers it every day, calmly, soft and yet strong, so clear that the people of this noisy world who are within earshot can stop and ask the most pertinent of questions: “what does that mean?”
I want my life to ask this question, dear God. I want everything I say, everything I do, to proclaim the mystery and beauty of an empty grave, of a perplexed disciple looking into the throes of death and finding its grip wrenched open and its power forever destroyed.
God, I can write these elaborate prayers all I want. And I can sing and sing and shout with everyone else this morning, before the reception and donuts, followed by a lovely ham dinner and children racing around the yard, looking for Easter eggs and chewing on peeps, which -months from now- will be stale in the cupboards and only good for microwaving. I can celebrate Easter. But can I live the question that follows: “He is risen! …okay, so now what?!!”
It is only by your grace that I hear this proclamation and, I pray, live this question. Help me live it, not only today, but forevermore.
My wife came home the other day with a potted pansy with which to decorate the apartment. We set it by our living room window for ample sunlight and I was disconcerted to notice it already looked somewhat withered. So I watered it and opened the window, assuming fresh air would do it some good.
The following days were warm and amicable. I didn’t check the weather too much and the window stayed open. Then one night a front moved through. My wife and I went to sleep with the sound of rain falling outside our open window and just a lite blanket on our bed.
But by the time we awoke both of us were shivering. When I raised the blinds in our bedroom I beheld a thin layer of snow covering the ground. I closed the window then remembered the pansy.
Sure enough, it was sitting upon the open windowsill exposed to the bitter chill from outside. The leaves were completely withered, hanging over the side of its pot like a ten-year-old with a bad case of seasickness might posture himself over the railing of a ship. I closed the window quickly, though I doubted it would do any good.
I have not come to terms with a world in which things die; I’m not quite sure I am meant too. For the survival instincts of a living, breathing and pulsating planet beckons me to witness the common bond between all living things, the bond that drives us in a plight for survival. Despite what we all know.
I went for a run the other day and jogged over what used to be a squirrel, flattened in the middle of the road. I stopped and looked at it grotesquely arranged on the pavement, a drunken eulogy of flesh and bones. I looked for a moment, then I continued jogging.
My wife appeared from our bedroom with two sweatshirts on and a look that I’m certain was meant to remind me of how I’d insisted on keeping the windows open the night before. But I didn’t take note.
“The flower,” I said, “it was left by the open window last night.”
“So was your wife,” she noted.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said.
“… ‘Sorry’ would be a good start.”
I rolled my eyes at her. “I meant about the pansy.”
Which is, to say the least, missing the point.
I could, perhaps, save the plant. Maybe some super-duper fertilizer would do the trick. Maybe if I put it into the microwave the warmth would revive its veins (note: as it turns out, this is not a good idea). Maybe, if I’m there five minutes before, I can dash out into the street and scare the squirrel into a tree so it isn’t run over.
But the pansy will die eventually. The squirrel may stay in the tree for a moment and, when I’m gone, dash beneath the wheels of the next car to pass. The executioner’s blade will fall upon us all, eventually. We can dodge it for a while; we can avoid it for a time. But learning to avoid it is missing the point. And I’d rather believe that death is god and it will win than ignore the elephant with cross-bones in its eyes looming at the end of my existence. I could not live in such denial.
But that is why yesterday I celebrated the only death I can celebrate: the death of a humble carpenter from a humble town, one that I’ve never visited. I celebrate this death with joy and reverence. I celebrate this death as I remove the pansy from my windowsill and stare at the body of a squirrel in the street. I celebrate the death with every moment of my existence, a living celebration to Him.
I celebrate His death for the fact that it was the most voluntary event in the cosmos. He was not a flower weakly succumbing to a sudden atmospheric change. Rather, He submitted to death’s terms by choice. And I celebrated His death yesterday because tomorrow I will celebrate that His agreement to said terms was only temporary; He always held the upper hand and He played it for everyone. Everyone, that is, but Himself.
I cannot accept a world where things die around me but I can accept that hand. I can accept a hand with a nail driven through it. I can accept a hand played for a world that lives, breathes and fights for life in testimony to the voluntary acceptance of the final sting in our stead. I can accept the hand which says a dead flower on my windowsill is neither permanent nor unnoticed.
I can accept that hand and within it find joy.
Then I can apologize to my wife for leaving the window open.
Cynicism is a lot like the flu and I would know because every year I manage to come down with both. The flu always starts with a sore throat, transforms into a fever, and next thing you know I’m lying in bed with using what little energy that remains to chug a nasty mixture of Emergen-C and Sunny Delight. After a few days of this, I drag myself to a doctor, drop some cash for a co-pay and describe my symptoms fifteen times only to be told: “Sorry but…”
Which I take as the doctor’s way of saying “Dear Bryn’s immune system…”
Such is my faith.
Every few months or so I am hit with a wave of cynicism. Christian sub-culture, Nicholas Spark’s novels, the plight of a world filled with AIDS, genocide, cancer and the Dallas Cowboys swells up into a feverish cynical attitude in my soul. My takeaway from Sunday’s sermon is how many clichés the preacher used. I read my Bible like it was written by an arrogant ex-girlfriend (“who does this GOD fellow think he is???”). I ask “why?” and when the answer is silence I move from liturgical prayers to:
In a fit of desperation, I spew my symptoms to fellow Christians who nod with reassurance and then confide that it does appear that I am, in fact, cynical.
“What can I do about it?” I ask. I beg.
And the response:
To which I say:
Maybe you can relate to this. Maybe you can relate to my spouts of cynicism, my feverish fits of sarcasm and despise towards anything that smells remotely like optimism. Maybe you’re reading this article despite yourself, rolling your eyes at another “progressive blogger” who’s decided to prove a point by using memes. I get that; throw your cynicism my way. I can take it. And together, oh cynics of today, we shall vote suspiciously, despise any sort of label, abhor religious clichés and yet desperately, for some reason, still hang onto our faith.
That reason, my fellow cynics… yes, the reason my faith can survive such infectious cynical attitudes, is Easter.
Of course, the problem is that we Christians tend to really suck at Easter.
Because somehow we’ve concocted Easter into one big, fancy Sunday brunch. It’s almost like we’ve realized that a few months have passed since Thanksgiving and it’d be good to get the family together because God knows we need some more bitter holiday disputes in life. So- what the deuce- let’s do this Easter thing.
Let’s get all dressed in our new outfits from the GAP and herd the kids into our Honda Minivans for the drive to church. When we get there we’ll chuck ‘em into the nursery then find an open seat while balancing free coffee and donuts on our Bibles (God love those seeker-oriented baked goods initiatives). Once situated we’ll take a moment to hear the good news between cell phones going off, clap our hands out of rhythm and follow the choir in yet another rendition of some Third Day song from the 90’s. Afterwards we’ll all return home, bake a ham with some potatoes, maybe make some punch- yea, punch, anyone want punch? Anyone? Maybe a little? Ah, screw it! I’m making punch- eat ourselves full then sit around and talk about Uncle Bertie’s knee operation while the kids look for cheap plastic balls filled with candy which we took upon ourselves to hide throughout the yard. In the midst of it all we can lean back, take a deep breath, look around us and think: “Now this…this is Easter!”
So yes. Is this a little unfair? Possibly. Is it hyperbolic? Most likely… but have we met? Am I being obnoxiously cynical? Perhaps.
But rather than shed my cynicism, when I approach the Easter narrative of the gospels I find that my cynicism is not shunned or destroyed. Instead, I find that within the Easter narrative my cynicism finds a home. For (if you will allow me to get philosophical for a minute) when reading the Easter story, I find that my cynicism is absorbed by the text and then, once within the story, becomes transformed. Indeed, contrary to our cultural adaptations of Easter Sunday, the message of the Gospels is one that embraces cynicism and transforms it into joy.
The Easter narrative starts on Good Friday, an ironic name for any contemporary bystander to say the least. For there was nothing good about it for the disciples watching their Savior die on the cross. There was nothing good about it for the men and woman who had spent the last three years living off of Jesus’ every word. They had dropped out of college, quit the financially secure job, ignored the advice of their parents, stared with defiance into the eyes of the religious authorities, thrown caution into the wind and instead placed everything: their reputation, their well-being, their futures, hopes and failures…they had placed it all squarely on the shoulders of Jesus. They had ignored all reason, all caution and, in the pursuit of hope, they had abandoned all others for a man they now saw hanging on the cross naked and tortured before their eyes.
For his followers, Jesus’ death didn’t signal merely the end of a movement or the loss of a friend. Rest assured, the disciple’s reaction to Christ’s death was not some archaic version of:
Rather, Christ’s death signaled the fulfillment of every cynical thought they should have listened to before. It signaled that their hopes of restoration, salvation and rescue from this world were never to be fulfilled. They had played all their cards and they had lost the gamble.
Likewise, for the Christian cynic such as myself, the message of Good Friday, the message of Jesus hanging, desperately gasping for air on the cross, the message of the Roman soldiers mocking him and a sign above His head seething in the irony of it’s words: “The King of the Jews”, from all of this…. the message of Good Friday is: “You were right for being cynical”.
Because: “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless’”.
Because: if not Jesus…then who?
Because: if we have only hoped in Christ, as the Apostle Paul says, and he is now dead on the cross…then we are to be pitied above all else.
Because: the sting of death has struck again and this time we are the victims.
And that’s the end of the story.
Except it’s not.
Because if the message of Good Friday is “you were right for being cynical” then the message of Resurrection Sunday is:
For the point of Resurrection Sunday is not :
No, the message of Easter Sunday is much deeper than that. The message of Easter Sunday is that all is conquered. All sin, all pain, all hurt, all death, all power, all authority; all of it is conquered. And who was it conquered by? How was it conquered?
It was not conquered by war, by battle, by might or skill. It was not conquered by deviousness. It was not conquered by brute strength by a cosmic clashing of Titans. It was not conquered by bloodshed; it was not conquered by sorcery. It was not conquered by politics, democracy, communism or any of the above.
Instead, it was conquered by humility. It was conquered by submission. It was conquered by sacrifice.
It was conquered by love.
Love in the fullest sense of the word. Love that was in the beginning and will be in the end. Love that whispered us into Creation and has not left us since. Love that is mysterious beyond all mysteries, more marvelous than all marvels.
It was conquered by Love that we cannot begin to comprehend. Love that makes a fifty-year marriage look like the fleeting dedication of two middle schoolers hooking up under the bleachers. Love that makes the romantic scenes in Forrest Gump sound like a low-budget Hallmark card. Love to which there are only desperate though sincere imitations. Love with no equal.
And when Love entered the grave, Love had lost. Love was dead. Cynics were right; pessimism and sin had won.
But when, three days later, Love rose from the grave, comforted the weeping figure of Mary and looked into His disciples awe-struck eyes before saying:
…then cynicism met it’s end. No longer could cynicism be justified, but rather cynicism had been taking to it’s fullest degree and, once there, it had been transformed.
The message of Easter Sunday was one of affirmation to the cynic: “You see everything that is wrong with the world around you,” it says, “As do I. In fact, I see it with clarity you can’t begin to comprehend. And I won’t stand for it; I’ll die for it.”
This is where my cynicism is fulfilled. For this is where my cynicism goes beyond the cross, goes to it’s nth degree, and arrives at the empty grave on Sunday morning. And once there, rather than be exhumed, my cynicism becomes joy.
When cynicism meets the risen Christ it is anything but anti-Christian. Rather, cynicism becomes the voice of prophecy. Cynicism becomes the call for reform. Cynicism becomes the tone of joy speaking from within the Christian heart asking everyone why they’re still stuck on Good Friday.
It is the message of a cynical heart that has turned it’s angst away from the Creator and toward the sin that kept us from Him. My joy is cynicism lived out to it’s full extent: “Oh, death where art thou sting?” I sing on Easter Sunday. And in doing so I give a finger Satan and tell the rest of the evil in the world to:
Easter Sunday isn’t about cynicism dying. In fact, Easter Sunday isn’t about anything dying save for death itself. Rather the message of Resurrection Sunday is the renewal of all things, the transformation of the entire cosmos back into perfect relationship with the Origin Of All Things.
On Easter, I’ll probably eat some ham, definitely drink some punch and maybe even swipe some candy from a few Easter eggs (that stuff’s not good for kids anyway, it’ll rot their teeth!). I’ll attend church, I’ll sing, I’ll clap and I’ll partake in all the American festivities towards which I’ve become so cynical. But in doing so, I’ll seek to look beyond the facade, beyond the curtain of our times, beyond the now but not yet. I’ll go beyond myself and into the empty grave and the Eternal Hope that rests within.
For the end of my cynicism is the beginning of my joy. And Easter Sunday is the day I celebrate it.