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The Reality of Easter:
It's not about lillies, bunnies and eggs. It's about your life now.

I have a friend, the minister of a large, suburban congregation, who one said: "It doesn't really matter what you say on Easter Sunday, they're so caught up in the festivity of the day, it doesn't really matter what you say."

I would take the exact opposite position. Whether one is speaking to the larger number who show up on Easter Sunday, or the lesser few who come back the following week for what we refer to as low Sunday, it matters a great deal what we say during this great season. If we don't have anything to say during this season of Easter, we probably ought to keep silent throughout the year. For the resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith. As the apostle put it in his letter to the Corinthians: "If Christ had not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain, and we are of all people most to be pitied."

It's not just the spring weather, or the chance to show off the latest fashions on parade on Easter Sunday. Easter is about the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus and our own. Butit's important that we press on toward a deeper understanding of Easter because its message is clouded with myth and obscured by misunderstanding. The most popular myth one encounters in any discussion of the resurrection is that death itself is unreal. There is a popular notion, more Greek than Christian, that the soul flies up and out of the body at the very moment of our death. If you've seen the Academy award winning movie, "Ghosts," you'll get what I mean. In that film, one sees the soul rising up out ofa deceased body, and one then follows the disembodied spirit of the lead character in the movie, as he tires to communicate with the living. Lacking a physical body, the deceased must rely upon the reluctant cooperation of a spiritualist to communicate withhis girl friend whom he has left behind. Whoopi Goldberg makes a most convincing spiritualist, of course, but there is still a world of difference between the spiritualism of this film and the Christian notion of the bodily resurrection. This very Greek idea of an immortal soul represents a very understandable, very human attempt to deny the reality of death. Because the soul flies up and out of the body at the moment of our death, we are somehow rescued from the reality of our own dying. And so we are saved at the very last second from the darkness of our dying.

Christian Scientists, believe that death, like all human suffering, is simply a bad idea in the human mind. It's merely an illusion, so they say. Others suggest that death is defeated because the memory of the deceased lives on in the minds of friends and loved ones.But we cannot solve the riddle of our own mortality, we cannot understand the hope of resurrection, if we persist in this very human proclivity of denying the reality of death. Having walked with any number of people through the stages of dying, having seen the deterioration of the body, the wasting away, the suffering and pain that are sometimes involved, I know that death cannot be so easily spirited away. When a person dies, there's something irrevocably lost, and all the wishful thinking in the world will not cancel out that simple fact.

Despite our wishful thinking, death is very real

When we affirm the resurrection, we do not overlook the reality of our dying. Nor do we pin our hopes on the process of regeneration now going on in the natural world. The fresh air, the blooming flowers, the birds and the bees, wonderful in their own right, have very little to do with the true hope of resurrection. For remember that the birds and the flowers born today are also doomed to die. That's the basic flaw in popular understandings of this season. That's why the poet T.S. Eliot said: "April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with Spring rain. What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish? Son of Man, you cannot say or guess for you only know a heap of broken images."

As the poet reminds us, the Easter celebration which goes on out there in the secular world is but a rattling of dead bones: chocolate candies and jelly beans, fancy fashions and cotton tail rabbits, the Bugs Bunny Easter Parade! These are but passing shadows, a heap of broken images.Remember the words which the messengers of God said to the women who came to the empty tomb on Easter morning, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" Why indeed. There's a realism in the childhood nursery rhyme: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; humpty dumpty had a great fall. All the kings horses and all the kings men couldn't put humpty together again.There's a realism in this rhyme which is part of the resurrection story.

The disciples thought that Jesus was immortal; nail him to the cross and he would rise up straight away to demonstrate his power over death and sin. The disciples wanted a Messiah who could put all the broken pieces of their lives back together, just like that. Even when Jesus warned them that it would not work out that way, they still continued to see him as a superman, immortal and invincible.That's why they were so deeply and so bitterly disappointed when he was crucified. "We had hoped that he was the one to set us free," they said.

On Good Friday the disciples were thrown into deep disillusionment. They had placed all their hopes on him, and now all their hopes were shattered. All of their dreams had been broken in pieces, and no one could put them back together again. The process of disillusionment is the first step all of us must take if we are to see clearly the meaning of resurrection. Only when our illusions are shattered; only when our wishful thinking is brought to an end, are we prepared for a deeper understanding. Only when we are fully aware that death is real are we prepared for that new reality which is the resurrection.

On the road to Emmaus

So, in the days following the death of Jesus the disciples walked toward the village of Emmaus. And as they were walking along that road, Jesus himself draws near. That's the way Luke puts it. Remember my friend who said that it doesn't really matter what we preach on Easter Sunday? At that moment the disciples were so caught up on their disillusionment that it didn't really matter that Jesus himself walked with them. He spoke to them, but it didn't really matter what he said because they were overwhelmed with images of death.

When, later, he sat down with them, broke break and drank wine with them, suddenly they saw for the first time a blinding image of the light. Rembrandt captures the magic of that moment in his famous etching, The Risen Christ at Emmaus. It was a dark room, quiet, almost empty just as their lives were empty when they sat down at table with him. But as they broke bread, and drank wine, the room was bathed in a mysterious light. And in that very moment, to those untutored people, the doors of the future opened. 

We do not have a precise, scientific description of what happened in that little room. The disciples were convinced that they saw him. The same Jesus whom they had known and loved was with them. He was as real as the smell of fresh bread and the taste of new wine. He did not need the later day Whoopi Goldberg to mediate between the spirit and the flesh. Christ was there; undeniably, physically present. And yet he was not the same. Jesus had not been lifted out of the grave, his body patched up, put together like Humpty Dumpty come back to life. He had been transformed, transformed and transfigured. What the disciples saw in that lonely room was an utterly new creation. 

As we look down the long corridors of the future, we but dimly perceive that moment when time itself is swallowed up into infinity. We reflect upon the moment when this whole cosmos is transformed: galaxies spinning into galaxies, planet into planet, energy and matter turning in upon itself. In that little room, so long ago, the disciples saw such a glimmer of the far distant future. Somehow, in Jesus, the portals of time were opened, and the light came flooding in.

They did not have words to describe the experience and neither do we. After literally centuries of searching for words adequate to tell what happened, the church settled upon these: "On the third day he rose and ascended into heaven." Taken at face value, these words make little sense. Unless you take time to discover that reality they represent, all the verbal assurances of Christ's resurrection are in vain. The popular impression seems to be that Jesus rose from the grave outside the city of Jerusalem and ascended to a place somewhere up there in the realm of angels and spirit, somewhere called heaven. He ascended and sits at the right hand of God. But where is God?

Clearly God does not reside on a throne in outer space. The resurrection does not place Jesus in the category of astronauts moving on a cosmic space shuttle from earth to heaven and from heaven back to earth. Christ is everywhere. He is present in the world. He is here, now. The disciples found him in the breaking of the break. He appeared to them and said: "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there. Know that I am with you always, even to the end of the world."

It's happening now

There will always be a controversy over what happened to the body of Jesus. But in the resurrection appearances, our attention shifts from his physical condition, to the presence of God in the world. That in the end is the resurrection. The resurrection is the resurgence of God in our lives. This is the most  important thing we can say about it, during this season of Easter, or at any other time. As an event which happened 2000 years ago in an underdeveloped country in the middle east, the resurrection has very little significance. But when it happens to people we know in this place and at this time, that is all the proof we need. "Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the world." said Jesus. 

We know the resurrection is real because it is recapitulated in our lives. We follow Jesus through that open door that leads to the future. We move through the trials of this hour, to the joy the disciples shared. We emerge from our boredom and lethargy to find the same enthusiasm which captured the early Christian church. We confront sickness and physical exhaustion and come through that valley of darkness. We share in the struggle for a better world. We follow Christ himself in this pilgrimage from death to life confident that God opens the way before us. 

The resurrection is the resurgence of God as the life giving power in our lives. And as we share each other's burdens, as we identify with each others joys and sorrows, as we wrestle with the problems of our local communities, our nation and our world, we are Christ's risen body. Like a mirror we reflect an image of the risen Christ, for he is here, within us and among us. This is the message of Easter. The same today as it was 2000 years ago. "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.