by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin
Easter Sunday, 2019
Language, like religion, can be tricky.
What we mean to say is not always well communicated.
What we hear is not always what was intended.
Nicholas Lash often remarked
that a theologian is someone
who watches their language in the presence of God.
(The Beginning and End of ‘Religion’, 59)
I would add that thoughtful theologians
also watches their language
in the presence of God’s people.
The celebrated English author Virginia Woolf
has one of her characters announce
in her novel Jacob’s Room, that
“Language is wine upon the lips.”(London: Hogarth Press, 1922, 40)
There is a certain intoxication about well-crafted language.
A few weeks ago I was invited by friends
to attend my first performance of the Improvised Shakespeare Company
in which these Elizabethan wannabes
birthed a 90 minute tragic-comedy, “Fruit of the month,”
from a single phrase offered by the audience.
The language was brilliant, often bawdy,
and clearly intoxicating for the enthralled audience –
but intoxication by nature always teeters on the edge of danger.
What prompts my linguistic musings this morning
is the conventional greeting so ubiquitous these days:
the ever cheerful “Happy Easter.”
At the other great feast of the year we don’t wish each other
a “happy” but a “merry” Christmas.
Merry, meaning pleasing or agreeable,
… so have a “Pleasant Christmas.”
But hidden in the linguistic core of “Happy”
is much more than a wish of merriment.
For many Christians, Easter is a kind of
ecclesial sigh of relief,
now that suffering and death have been dispatched,
the ordeal of fasting and abstinence has been endured,
and the slight spiritual depression
that Lent sometimes evokes
It is time to go back to the chocolate and the chardonnay,
to savor a metaphorical and literal springtime,
and, to give ourselves permission to go back
to being our old unredeemed selves again.
That certainly makes a “Merry Easter.”
But we don’t wish each other merriment on this Easter feast.
We instead proffer a wish of “happy.”
A little linguistic ambush
that whispers, “not so fast,”
as we dive into those Cadbury eggs and marshmallow peeps,
for danger yet lurks.
Happy in its origins is not about merriment.
Rather, this word with Scandinavian roots
is about the chance or fortune that befalls us,
be that good or evil.
Thus, a tongue in cheek translation of “Happy Easter”
could be, “have a chancy Easter,” or
enjoy “a capricious celebration,”
or, my favorite, relish a “risky resurrection.”
Now you might be thinking to yourself
that the old priest has lost it
and needs to take his medication.
OK, but these musings are not simply feeding my dark side.
Rather, I believe they actually respect
today’s gospel proclamation.
While we have read this Gospel every Easter Sunday
for almost the last 50 years,
and I have scrutinized so many aspects of the text,
yet I’ve never seriously pondered the opening line,
Early in the morning on the first day of the week
while it was still dark …
So despite the fact that ecclesial electric bills around the world
go up this day as we flood our churches with light
and bedeck our sanctuaries with swaths of color,
the mystery of resurrection not only begins in,
but is rooted in the dark.
That’s where Easter really begins. It begins in darkness. It begins with fear, bewilderment, pain, and a profound loss of certainty. The creeds and clarifications we cherish nowadays came later. What came first were many variations on the same theme … hope in the midst of struggle.
One thoughtful commentator played that theme out
in a reflection on Mary Magdalene.
Mary had been with Jesus all the way. She had seen lives made new, bodies healed, and eyes opened. She had heard the complaining of the disciples and the criticism of the religious leaders. She saw how the crowds adored him and the rulers hated him. She stood under the cross as they killed him, and her heart was broken. She had seen the adoration of the people when they entered the city on Sunday and their hostility when they stood before Pilate at the end of the week. Now it was all over. She may have thought, “The least I can do is anoint the body with spices. Everyone deserves a proper burial. Her heart was heavy and in her soul, “…it was still dark.”
This darkened gospel opening reminds us that
Good Friday was not just a bad dream.
Rather, it sounded the birth pangs of the church.
For as early church mystics frequently taught,
when Jesus hung on the cross,
and blood and water flowed from his side,
the church was born.
Christianity was birthed
not just on a bad day,
but on a nightmarish Friday we dare to call good.
Shockingly, the spirit of good Friday still lingers today.
For resurrection cannot occur
unless there has been previous destruction, even death.
This past Monday, the jewel of the Isle de France,
the Lady of the Seine, the Notre Dame,
was engulfed by an inferno
that illumined the Paris night.
the worlds of government & philanthropy have spoken,
assuring us that Notre Dame will inevitably rise again,
as did so many ancient cathedrals before,
as did the world trade center after the tragedy of 9/11.
A Notre Dame – or even 9/11 – reflection
asserts that resurrection is not only fueled by disaster,
but requires it.
As sages remind us: there is no phoenix without ashes.
Every road to resurrection runs through a cemetery.
But does that mean that the fundamental meaning of Easter
is that when things can’t get any worse,
when the only direction is up,
when darkness envelopes us like a shroud,
then dawn and new life are inevitable?
While a perennial optimist,
my image of resurrection is yet not so Pollyannaish,
because it seems devoid of mission –
a fundamental Christian litmus test for me.
Resurrection, as I understand it,
does not just happen when we hit bottom.
It happens when, under the inspiration of God’s spirit, we choose
to change, and to act for ourselves and for others.
In a word: resurrection takes work.
It requires wagering on an unclear future.
It requires embracing a unique form of hope.
A hope, in the words of the poet Václav Havel, that
“is not the same as joy(Disturbing the Peace [New York: Vintage Books, 1991], 181-2.)
that things are going well,
or that willingness to invest in enterprises that are
obviously headed for early success,
but rather an ability to work for something because it is good,
not because it stands a chance to succeed …
[It is] not the same thing as optimism.
It is not the conviction that something will turn out well,
But the certainty that something makes sense
regardless of how it turns out.”
My imagination is that Jesus understood this risky form of hope,
and so maybe those three days in the tomb
were not the time needed to recover from the cross,
but the time God needed to decide
whether or not resurrection was going to occur,
if Christ’s resurrection was worth the divine risk.
In his rising, would his detractors line up again
to confront, to abuse, to reject and to punish him?
Would he have to face more wayward disciples,
more rejections and betrayals from one-time followers?
Was the divinity pondering all of those
who would use this story for their own advantage,
like, as a justification for persecuting the Jews,
or declaring a holy war on Islam,
or on the LGBTQ community?
If God is all-knowing and knew the things
that Jesus’ followers would do in his name,
it is wholly miraculous to me
that God chose to love us not only unto death,
but to love us even when threatened by resurrection.
And part of the God-risk here,
the Jesus-mission through the empty tomb,
is that just as Jesus entered that tomb so as to be able
to bequeath us the gift of resurrection.
So his followers have to be willing to go into such emptiness,
that we might find resurrection for ourselves,
and lovingly hand it on to others.
25 years ago I witnessed such a tomb event
through the eyes of my father
who had served in the Navy during World War II.
It was on the day we visited Pearl Harbor.
On the launch out to the Arizona memorial,
I noticed Dad growing more and more agitated.
When I inquired what was bothering him,
he could only say, “Why are all of them here?”
The “them” were the Japanese tourists,
most of them my father’s age,
men I imagined he had fought against in the Pacific.
There is not much to the Arizona memorial –
a small platform perched on the roof of a tomb,
with a simple inner sanctum where the names of those
who rest in the waters below are inscribed.
Separating that wall from a row of benches
were a few waist-high crowd control poles
linked one to the other with a red velvet rope.
As we sat there in silence, staring at the wall of names,
an unexpected ritual unfolded
as one elderly Japanese woman stepped forward,
took the flowered lei from around her neck,
and laid it over one of the poles.
… another woman followed
.. and then another … and another …
Within minutes the poles and connecting ropes
were weighed down in an explosion of orchids.
Suddenly Dad stood up, whispered something to my mother,
who removed the lei she was wearing from around her neck.
He stepped into the flow of Asian women whom he towered above,
made his way towards the front,
and placed the delicate flowers on this makeshift shrine.
As he returned to his seat, head bowed,
I was aware that these Japanese women, this ancient enemy,
had entered into his holy of holies and taught him reverence.
They had entered this tomb and
offered glimpses of resurrection under the guise of reconciliation.
But the teaching was not quite over,
for in a final ritual inversion,
when the flower procession had ended and silence settled,
one elderly Japanese man stood,
walked deliberately toward the same post Dad had approached,
removed the ring of orchids from around his neck,
placed them carefully on top of those my mother had worn,
then turned, facing my father seated before him,
and without ceremony or flourish,
bowed to the honored gentleman who gave me life.
I became aware that this tomb, at least for a moment,
had been emptied of old prejudices and long enmities,
momentarily filled with transformation, even resurrection.
not simply for ourselves, but for others …
reminds the world that the Easter is not simply a memory
of past mythologies,
but an encounter with the God of life in whatever tomb,
whatever darkness surrounds us.
But only if we are willing to risk in a generous hope
that plunges us into the heart of our faith,
where resurrection awaits those who wager,
on God’s mission,
through Christ our Lord.