Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Break in the Cellar Wall

Lenten discipline, I was once told, is something like cleaning out your cellar.  If you do it every year, it’s usually manageable.  If you let it go for a few years, there’s no telling what may turn up. 

The themes of Lent are dark.  We look to that within ourselves that contributes to the darkness of the world, and some years that darkness is nearer and more palpable than usual.  In times of war and economic uncertainty the cellar of the soul may be especially daunting.  The darkness is thick, and the clutter threatens to overwhelm.  We fear that there is no exit.

But that too is something like cleaning the cellar.  There have been times when I have wavered between giving up and calling a trash disposal company, and just plain giving up.  The difference between Lent and cellar cleaning is that in the end the only way to clean the cellar is to stay with it.  Lent has another kind of ending altogether.

If Lent is like fumbling about in the closed-off cellar of the soul, Easter is blinking and reeling in the blaze of sudden dawn.  First a pinprick of light in the darkest corner of the cellar attracts our curiosity.  It shows through cracks, where we believe there is only earth, but we no sooner approach the spot than some force from beyond the wall topples the stones to reveal a rich landscape bathed in sunrise.

So Easter greeted the disciples of Jesus, and so in moments when we are off our guard, can the experience of Easter greet us.  It is joy-filled, it is confusing and, unless our imaginations fail us, it is frightening.

Whatever the disciples were expecting on that Sunday morning, it was not the resurrection of Jesus.  If anything stands out in the varied New Testament accounts it is that.  They were not merely skeptical; they exhausted every other possible explanation before the evidence of their eyes, ears and hands compelled their belief.

In the space of several weeks, repeated encounters with the risen Christ transformed a small group of humble, grieving, guilt-ridden and frightened men and women into a spiritual powerhouse that transformed the religious, spiritual and intellectual character of the Mediterranean Basin in their lifetimes.

 It is small wonder that the fifty days beginning on Easter and ending on Pentecost are the oldest, most universal and most joyous period of celebration in the liturgical year.  In the early Church, Easter was the day for baptisms, with the immersion in water and rising to the surface taken as a re-enactment of Christ’s death and resurrection

The theme of remembering Christ’s suffering, even while proclaiming his resurrection, has roots in the experiences of the disciples themselves.  Thomas, often maligned for his skepticism on Easter Sunday, declared that unless he saw and handled Jesus’ wounds he would not believe the reports of the others.  Far from despising his tough-mindedness, the risen Christ made a special point of appearing to him, and offering to let him touch the wounds.  This was no small matter, for Christianity has always insisted that the experiences of the men and women who witnessed the resurrection were not in any way ghostly or ephemeral, but were many, varied, generally quite down-to-earth, and for the most part happened to groups of followers together.

This tying together of passion and resurrection is central to the earliest of our accounts.  Indeed, Paul tells us it is of “first importance” that we understand that the dying Jesus and the risen Christ are the same.  The words of Jesus himself, though not fully grasped by the disciples when first spoken, make it clear that the two events are inseparable.  As Anglican Archbishop William Temple wrote, “The wounds of Christ are his credentials to the suffering race of men.”  The American Protestant Harry Emerson Fosdick put it tersely, “No cross, no Christ.”

What the disciples must have first seen as a tragic miscalculation on the part of Jesus is shown to reveal a wisdom capable of changing the world.  Easter validates the redemptive power of the suffering of Jesus, and that of all who are willing to follow him on the path of sacrificial love.

The landscape revealed in the surprising collapse of the cellar wall has a beauty possible only where tragedy is redeemed, where sin is forgiven and brokenness restored to wholeness.  It is not, be it noted, a land where all questions are answered, all fears dispersed or all doubts resolved - at least not yet.  Rather it is a space of spirit and soul in which enough is answered, assured and resolved that we have room to grow, a direction to go and a Companion to accompany us.  This is as it should be, for at this stage God’s purpose is to lead us in the process of growing up, as Paul had it, to full maturity measured by nothing less than the fullness of Christ himself.  May the Holy Spirit work such changes in our hearts as we enter the Easter season.

Howard MacMullen
© April, 2011

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