Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Factuality of Easter As the Foundation of Our Confidence

It is early Easter Monday here in Mukono. The mosque has just announced it with the call to prayer! The Christians, I suspect, may be sleeping in, as Easter Monday is a national holiday, and there was much feasting yesterday.

Our Easter at UCU got off to a wet start. On Saturday afternoon, we had a brief but violent rainstorm pass through. It knocked down two big trees on campus, a fact that caused me to reflect and give thanks for the fact that in the nine years we have been here, we have not had a tree fall on anyone or even on any major building – which is quite an “act of God,” considering the number of large and beautiful trees on campus.

The wetness continued into Sunday morning. I woke up to the sound of steady rain, thinking, “Oh this will not be good for attendance at church services, especially with so many people having to walk.” I was wrong for us at least: Nkoyoyo Hall was full to overflowing and the generator lighted us up, even though the power had been knocked out by the storm.

The student choirs were in good form, with relevant contemporary numbers like “Celebrate Jesus” and “Alive, alive, alive for evermore” and “Because he lives.” When they are not singing contemporary music or vernacular choruses, Ugandan choirs draw on Victorian hymnody, in part a throwback, I suspect, to the missionary past. This was particularly true on Good Friday (“There is a green hill far away,” “In the Garden”). Could do a lot worse. For Easter one favorite that somehow escaped the Episcopal Hymnals is “Low in the Grave He Lay” (http://nethymnal.org/htm/l/i/lintgrav.htm).

The Victorian hymn that always touches me on Easter is “Thine Be the Glory,” which also managed to elude the Episcopal hymn editors, even with the pedigree of Handel’s score. In particular, I like the lines:

No more we doubt Thee,
Glorious Prince of Life.
Life is naught without Thee,
Aid us in our strife.

Which brings me to what I consider the particular message of Easter Day itself: the factuality of the Resurrection as the foundation of our faith. I have written on this subject a couple times (http://www.stephenswitness.com/2008/03/jesus-greatest-miracle.html and http://www.stephenswitness.com/2007/08/empty-tomb-sacrament-of-material-god.html) and quoted Updike’s poem on the Resurrection (see below).

Last night in reading over some blogs, I came across a piece by A.S. Haley, “The Anglican Curmudgeon” writing on the Shroud of Turin (see http://accurmudgeon.blogspot.com/2009/04/playing-back-resurrection.html). I have not followed the debate closely for the past thirty years over this mysterious piece of linen, which many have claimed to be the very burial cloth of Jesus. I think I may have been influenced by the “assured results” of some carbon dating in the late 80s that placed the Shroud as a forgery of the late Middle Ages. But Haley, who is a stickler for legal evidence, suggests that there is now new evidence that the carbon dating was in error and a new discovery in the Vatican archives indicates that the Shroud can be traced to Constantinople in an earlier century.

I do not know where the renewed investigation of the Shroud will end up, but I do want to make one simple point. There once was a Shroud of Jesus. Peter and John saw it (John 20:5-7), and there is good reason to think the disciples and church would have treasured it. Similarly, we can’t know for certain where the Empty Tomb of Jesus was located. In the Holy Land, the “Garden Tomb” attracts tourists because of its ambiance, but the incense-soaked shrine at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the more likely place. Once again, the fact remains: Joseph of Arimathea had a real stone tomb, and Jesus’ body was placed there (John 19:38). But on Easter Day, the tomb was empty, and there were multiple witnesses to this fact.

Christian faith cannot be proven by facts, but it could be disproven by facts. The Jews knew this when they called for a guard on the tomb (Matthew 27:63-64), and modern doubters have offered various theories, all of them quite unconvincing apart from the mere assertion: “We know that miracles do not happen; therefore there must be some explanation.” The fact of the resurrection is the foundation of our personal confidence in Jesus’ risen life, even though that confidence goes far beyond the bare fact. Nevertheless, the foundation is important. The Handel hymn verse moves from doubt to life and life to strife. As a former doubter, I can attest to the change which faith in Christ brings and the life in the Spirit flows from God into our hearts. But I can also attest that doubt is never far from us, and to aid us in our strife, we need all the ammunition we can get, and this includes the apostolic witness to the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection.

In his Easter Sermon at UCU, Chaplain Frederick Baalwa made the point that the question “Who will roll the stone away?” reminds us that we do not need to worry about many things that might happen (“Will I find a husband?” “Will I get a job after Graduation?”) because God knows our need beforehand and will roll the stone away when the time comes. Again, factuality trumps fears and fantasies.

In another Easter Sermon (http://www.kendallharmon.net/t19/index.php/t19/article/21804/), Abp. Rowan Williams states: “St Paul in today's epistle [1 Corinthians 15] makes it clear that to speak of Jesus' resurrection is also to say something crucial about who and where we are, not just to make a claim about the past.” Fair enough, but Paul also makes clear that Jesus’ Resurrection is a fact witnessed by more than 500 and that if they were wrong, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).

Abp. Williams’ point is similar to that made in the pietistic hymn, “He lives!”

He lives, he lives,
Christ Jesus lives today,
He walks with me and talks with me
Along life’s narrow way.
He lives, he lives,
Salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know he lives?
He lives within my heart.

I do not for a moment doubt that to appropriate the power of the Resurrection, a person must receive Jesus into his heart. Indeed this is the message of Pentecost and the Pentecost season of the church year. But for one day, let us stop and relish the factuality, the materiality of the Resurrection. To return to Updike’s stanzas (would that he had heeded them!):

Seven Stanza at Easter
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell's dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That--pierced--died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.


Have a Happy Easter Week!

Stephen

I wrote the following blog post for our UCU listserve.

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