How do we know that the new life of Easter is coming?
Because Peeps and chocolate bunnies and pretty butterflies – our cultural symbols of new life – pop up in every store, right?
The Peeps stand in for chicks, which emerge from their shells in the spring. Bunnies begin to have their babies in spring also. And butterflies emerge from the chrysalis that the caterpillars formed as they died.
Our reaction to these charming and colorful, predictable symbols is usually positive. Contrast that with the dramatic, emotionally laden response to new life in the story of Jesus.
In the Gospel of Mark, in spite of the encouragement of the angel that they not act out of their fear, the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus run away in terror. This is hardly surprising, as the raising of Jesus was entirely unexpected and there is a strange man in his tomb. When I go to the cemeteries to visit our beloved dead, they are where we left them and there are no white-robed angels hanging around.
Why is there a disconnect between the human response to the symbols of new life and our actual experience of encountering new life? There seem to be both practical and theological roots for this.
Predictable and pretty things are perceived as unthreatening. Human beings seem to be hard-wired to resist new things. Even good new things like new life. We shy away from surprises because they are different, a residual of an ancient survival mechanism in our brains that treats difference or newness as dangerous. Blame the amygdala and hippocampus.
In its entirety, the Gospel of Mark offers the reader an urgent and nearly breathless account of the mission and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. It also provides us with a surprisingly honest portrayal of the first disciples, who seem to be unfathomably dense and insensitive even as they stand in the presence of the Messiah. Throughout all sixteen chapters of this story of the good news of the salvific intervention of the Holy One in the dismal shadows of human life, everything depends on the proactive ministry of Jesus for any sort of satisfactory resolution. From the first call of the apostles at the Sea of Galilee to the final chapter, it is Jesus who is the initiator, the organizer, the strategist. The resurrection story is consistent with the rest of the Gospel. No one gets it and they run away in fear.
In defense of the women at the tomb, and perhaps of us because this is a difficult teaching, the disconnect is understandable. We know that the biology is impossible. In theological terms, resurrection is not the same as resuscitation. When Jesus is raised out of death into new life, he does not return to what he was before. Not only does he look different – his friends do not recognize him at first and finally do when they see the scarring from his wounds – he is different. The risen Christ initiates a different reality for humanity. Death is no longer the final arbiter of human life.
Peeps, and chocolate bunnies and alleluia butterflies are lovely, charming, benign symbols of a frightening reality. It is so much easier to embrace these simple and controllable symbols than it is to wrap our heads around the impossible truth that the dead man rose again into new life.
Make no mistake, Jesus was dead and buried. He was wrapped in linen and laid in a tomb hewn out of rock. His friends and followers knew the terror and finality of death when they saw it.
The ancients also knew the shocking reality of a crucified man who inexplicably had new life, his flesh knit back together, his strength renewed, his voice recognizable. This is an inconvenient and frightening event, because if Jesus, the man of Nazareth, rose from his grave, so shall we, and how we live matters. In his poem Seven Stanzas for Easter, John Updike demands that we not mock God by describing this as a metaphor or analogy.
If the resurrection is bunk, then we can return to our cynical and sinful ways without fear of penalty. If the resurrection is real – and let’s be honest with ourselves, we are here because we need it to be real, we are here because we long for it to be real, and on some deep level we know that the power of Love is the only thing that is stronger than death – then the power of the Almighty is greater than we had even dreamed, life has more profound meaning than we had assumed, and there is a new reality that governs human existence. It is not about Peeps and bunnies and butterflies. It is sweeter and better.
Alleluia! the Lord is risen! Happy Easter!