Examining the Meaning of Resurrection, Part VI: Seeing Through a Glass Darkly
Something happened at the first Easter. Some insist that it was an event that occurred on a single day. Others suggest that an experience was identified with that day making it a symbol of a breakthrough to a new consciousness. Theologians and biblical scholars alike still debate whether it was an internal or external happening, the result of sight or insight, but something clearly happened. We can measure the results even if we cannot identify the cause. Enormous shifts in attitudes are discernible, even measurable. We learn from Mark, the earliest gospel, that when Jesus was arrested, “all the disciples forsook him and fled” (Mark 14:50). In view of the fact that the disciples were heroes by the time this gospel was written, the inclusion of this negative report on their behavior in a time of crisis rings as an authentic memory that simply could not be expunged from the public record. The disciples clearly deserted Jesus. The gospels even developed a biblical rationale for this desertion, something that does not happen unless the charge was real. At some point, however, something brought them back and, more than that, they were brought back with convictions that were so unshakable that the Christian movement was born. If the tradition is correct, its leaders were willing to die for the reality of their new vision. What can account for so dramatic a change?
The disciples were Jews, taught from the crib to recite the Shema: There is one God, nothing other than God can be called holy or worshiped without idolatry becoming their reality. Something in their experience with Jesus of Nazareth, however, convinced them that this Jesus was somehow related in a powerful way to what they called God. What does it take to create so vast a shift in the deepest religious convictions of these Jewish people?
Whatever the Easter moment was, it came within one generation to be identified with the first day of the week. Jewish people for whom the observance of the Sabbath was a defining characteristic, found themselves gathering on a new day for worship identified with this Jesus. The Sabbath was not abandoned so much as a new holy day was added alongside it. What does it take to create a new holy day or to relativize in that creation the most unique, defining practice of one’s ancestral faith tradition? Something must account for that, but what was it?
None of this demonstrates that a literal resurrection occurred, but it does suggest that an experience, which could not be denied, called Jesus’ followers into a new place, a new understanding of God, a new consciousness and a new sense of the presence of the divine. When they tried of necessity to place that experience into human words, they called it “resurrection.” The Greek word, which they chose to stand for “resurrection,” however, was an inadequate word, for it literally means only “to stand up” (anastasis). That was as close as human language could take them to what they were trying to describe. They looked for other words. They called it overcoming death. They symbolized what they were trying to describe by suggesting that the veil in the Temple, which separated the faithful from the Holy One, had been split from the top down. One gospel writer, Matthew, likened it to the experience of an earthquake. Paul saw it as the breaking of those barriers that inhibit our full humanity from developing. Mark said that the impact of the life was so great that even a Gentile soldier at the foot of the cross pronounced him “Son of God.” Matthew tells us that all he heard the risen Christ say was: “Go into all the world.” Go, beyond your fears, your insecurities and your xenophobia. Go to those you have defined as different, as subhuman, and tell them that the love of God embraces all people regardless of how diverse. Out of Jew and Gentile, male and female, bond and free, there has been created a new humanity. Luke hears this death-conquering Christ tell them they must be witnesses to his life-changing power in their homes, i.e. Jerusalem; in their immediate countryside, i.e. Judea; in the land of their deepest prejudices, i.e. Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth where a universal humanity will be known. People filled with the spirit, says Luke, will discover that there is no barrier of language or ethnicity that will divide them. John tells us that the death of this Jesus was his moment of glorification and that in the powerlessness of death in which the human drive for survival is at last escaped, God will be revealed and eternal life will be entered.
The biblical writers tried in a wide variety of ways to find adequate words to make sense of their life-changing experience. As the years went by words that the original users knew were inadequate came to be regarded as literal and objective descriptions of reality and in time these descriptions became more and more miraculous and less and less transformative or real.
When Paul wrote between the years 51-64, it is of interest to note that he left not a single narrative detail of what resurrection meant or how it dawned. He gave us only a list of “witnesses” who were, he said, the ones who “saw,” however, he never tells us what it was that they “saw.” The earliest Gospel, Mark, written in the early seventies, relates no story of Jesus appearing to anyone. There was for them just a promise that it would be in their homes in Galilee, among the familiar things of their lives that they would “see’ him. When Matthew wrote in the mid eighties he became the first to describe Jesus appearing to the disciples after Easter, but he did so in terms of a Jesus who was transformed and newly clothed in the image of the heavenly Son of Man, borrowed from the book of Daniel, one of the most highly developed images of the Jewish messiah found in the Hebrew scriptures. Next Luke, who wrote in the late ninth decade or maybe in the early tenth decade and John, who wrote near the end of the tenth decade, both made the risen Jesus quite physical, making it hard not to think of what happened to him as a bodily resuscitation. Here was, they said, a physically deceased body reversing the death process, restoring destroyed cells to life and destroyed brains to thinking. These last two gospels make the resurrected Jesus eat to make obvious a functioning gastrointestinal system, to speak to make obvious a functioning larynx and vocal chords, to walk, to make obvious a functioning skeletal system, and to interpret scripture, to make obvious a functioning brain. Yet as crude as theses literalizations are, both writers also attached to these descriptions of the raised Jesus the power to materialize out of thin air and to dematerialize into thin air, to walk into a room where the doors are barred, to breathe on the disciples in an act that imparted the Holy Spirit and even to ascend into the sky of a three-tiered universe in order to return to where God was thought to be. Such language is literal nonsense, but it pointed to a real experience that words could never embrace.
In this series of columns exploring the resurrection, I have tried to isolate the evidence that points to the reality of the experience. The meaning of Easter dawned in Peter, who then opened the eyes of others so that they too might see what he had seen. It happened in Galilee in places that were part of the memory of Jesus. The dawning of this reality did not occur all at once, but rather it grew slowly over a period of time, perhaps as long as a year. It was more like the birth of a new consciousness than it was a sighting or a vision. It is noteworthy that in the gospel narratives no one sees the risen Christ except believers. Surely there was an internal, subjective quality to Easter that must have been more real than any possible external, objective quality. Does this mean that Easter was not real, but merely a figment of someone’s imagination? I do not think so for reality is so much more to me than objective data.
The impact of Jesus’ life on his followers was so intense it simply did not fade after his death. They kept awaking to new dimensions of what he meant. No act of human cruelty could destroy his life, no barriers could withstand his love. Jesus embraced the outcasts, whether lepers, Samaritans, Gentiles or the woman caught in adultery. His life could not be contained within the boundaries of religion. He allowed the touch of the woman with the chronic menstrual flow; he proclaimed that all religious rules had no value unless they enhanced human life. His followers found in him a life that reflected the Source of Life, a love that reflected the Source of Love and the being that reflected the Ground of Being and so they said “all that we mean by the word “God” we have experienced in him.
His call was to enter a new consciousness, to become free of the boundaries inside which we feel we must live if we want to be secure; to recognize that beyond self-consciousness, there is a universal consciousness that we can enter and experience what Paul called “The glorious liberty of the children of God.” There we escape the uniquely human struggle to become and simply begin to be. That was resurrection. That was Easter and it was Jesus who opened this new dimension of life to them. In the power of his example, undiminished by his death, they entered that vision and experienced resurrection. In that moment, they began to see that God lived in them and that they lived in God and nothing was ever the same thereafter.
None of this happened on the third day. That time measure is not to be literalized. The dawning of a new insight never occurs quickly. Jesus was the door, the way into life, they said, and they followed him into an unending new consciousness. Of course it was real. Of course it cannot be reduced to words. Of course in time the inadequate words they employed were literalized in an attempt to preserve them forever. Literalizing truth, however, always destroys truth, compromises truth and even falsifies truth. “Behold I show you a mystery,” Paul exclaimed. I wonder why we cannot allow the mystery to remain a mystery. “We see through a glass darkly,” Paul also said, but we do see and what we see is that when we have the courage to walk beyond the limits of life, we walk simultaneously into the mystery of God. That is where Easter begins.
~John Shelby Spong