I saw a movie about the events of Jesus' life when I was a young kid not too tiny but young enough to be very impressionable. I remember one scene in particular, which appears in John's gospel and only in that gospel. It's a miracle moment, and what happens is that Jesus shows up at the house of his friends Mary and Martha to find that their brother and his good friend Lazarus has died. He's been dead for four days. Mary and Martha are totally distraught, of course, and they yell at Jesus: if you had been here this wouldn't have happened! The response comes in the shortest verse in the entire Bible. Two words: "Jesus wept." Because he loved Lazarus too.
So the next thing we know (and I'm still remembering the movie version right now), Jesus has worked a miracle and we see this tall, gaunt figure walking slowly out of the tomb. He's still wrapped in cotton winding cloths, and he's really pale and blinking into the sun and walking unsteadily and this is what really affected me he doesn't look like he's really sure he's happy about being alive again. Everyone around him is crying with joy and rejoicing and it's almost as if, if he was in private with Jesus, he might have said, "Hey buddy, you didn't do me any favors just then." At best, he seems ambivalent to be among the living.
And aren't we all. Aren't we all, at times, ambivalent to be among the living? Aren't we all occasional resisters of new life, rebirth, all of which requires more courage than we sometimes think we've got?
In general, human beings love resurrection stories. We live for them. When painful realities slash into our lives, we trade resurrection stories as medicine: "My friend had this kind of cancer, too, and she got incredibly sick and we feared the worst, but today she's been in remission for six years and has all the energy she ever had." Or, "We lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and we got ourselves to Baton Rouge with nothing but the clothes on our backs, and it was a horrible time but we're doing very well now, we have a house and jobs again, and the kids are going to a good school."
We love resurrection stories. We cling to them as evidence of reason to hope, we store them in our minds the way a chipmunk stores nuts in his cheeks, so we can nibble on them for nourishment on emotionally hungry days.
Easter is a marvelous resurrection story told for thousands of years about a spiritual teacher and man of peace who was executed by crucifixion for the crime of trying to change the worldview of his community. It is told that he died on a Friday and that his tomb was empty on Sunday morning. His best friends and disciples had a shared experience of his living presence after his death that changed their hearts from fear to the fire of faith. They went forth to spread his worldview all over the place, thereby founding the religion we call Christianity.
The Easter resurrection story is of the WOW, knock-your-socks-off variety the kind designed to persuade folks that no matter how ugly the world may seem to be, love is among us as a power far greater than violence, and love will have the last word. In my grandparents' Russian orthodox church, on Easter morning the priest would say "Christos voskres!" (Christ is risen!) And the people would respond, "Voistenos voskres!" (He is risen indeed!) It is the cry of exultation, of celebration, of mighty wonders, in praise of knock-your-socks off miracles that turn tears of sorrow to tears of joy. For believers, it is occasion to say, "God is good, God will bring garlands instead of ashes, blessed are those who mourn, for they SHALL BE COMFORTED! Alleluiah!"
The drama of the story is wonderful. And yet we live lives that are not Biblical in scale but mostly far smaller and more ordinary. Our Easters can be small, and our resurrections come far more slowly.
I was talking about this with a friend last night and he said, "I was unemployed for seven months last year. I know all about the slow resurrection." So does the contractor with the chronic back pain who suffers for years and finally has a surgery to heal him he knows about the small Easter and the slow resurrection, too. Cancer survivors, those with depression and anxiety disorders that finally abate and give them desperately longed-for relief of mind and soul, they know too.
On Good Friday I attended services at the Episcopal Cathedral Church in Boston and a priest there told another story of a slow resurrection that came after a very hard loss. "I had four good friends in seminary," he said. "Two of us went into the priesthood. Two are dead. They both died young. Four years after my friend John's death, I married his widow. And so it came to pass that my godson became my stepson." He said this in a tone full of wonderment, like he still couldn't believe his bad luck and then his good luck, and how life is so funny that way. You imagine him blinking in the sun, mourning his friend but coming to realize that he is in love with his friend's wife.
This happened to my distant cousin, too: he married his best friend's widow after knowing and loving both of them for over fifty years. That's not an easy resurrection experience. I imagine these men thinking, "Do I deserve this? Can I adapt to this challenge? Can I rise from my solitary life to embrace relationship? Do I want to?" I think of Ed Mosher, our friend Ed, whose wife died several years back after a series of health crises that left her paralyzed. You remember how Ed cared for her, and how we all grieved. Today he's out in Arizona with Carol Altschuler, a long-time friend whose husband David (also a friend of Ed's for over twenty years) died two years ago. Those two crazy kids are in love and Ed drove out to get Carol, to assist her with the tying up of her affairs in AZ so he can bring her to live with him here. Godspeed to them.
New life is a blessing. But it is also new, and newness means change. Change, even change for the better, can be a real strain on our emotions and our spirits. How does the addict, newly sober, come out of the darkness of alcoholism and into the light of sobriety? Some come rejoicing and grateful, some come dragging their heels and full of argument.
How does the young middle-aged single woman, after a twenty-year history of disastrous romances and literally hundreds of bad first dates, respond from the bitterness of her lonely tomb when fate finally drops a trustworthy and good man into her life? Part of her wants to say "Hallelujah, thank God" and part of her wants to say, "That might have been a lonely tomb, but it was my tomb, and I had it fixed up just the way I liked it." Resurrection is hard work. Resurrection says, "Here is life. What you do with it is up to you."
New life. A new baby to the single mother. She says, "Oh my God," in excitement and then, "Oh my God" in awe at the responsibility that she knows is now hers. New life. The blind young man who has surgery to repair his sight and who initially finds the world too disorienting to navigate. He is shocked to discover that all people have completely unique faces; something he had not expected. Small Easter stories experienced by people like you and me, waking us up, casting sunlight on our shadow, leaving us blinking into the light unsure of where next to step.
The poet Mary Oliver lost her beloved partner of over 40 years in 2005. Her book of poems, Thirst, chronicles her slow resurrection from speechless grief to gratitude for each new day even a day without Molly in it. I will close with these words from her poem, "On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Mediate (Psalm 145)":
Every morning I want to kneel down on the golden
cloth of the sand and say
some kind of musical thanks for
the world that is happening again another day
from the shawl of the wind coming out of the
west to the firm green
flesh of the melon lately sliced open and
eaten, its chill and ample body
flavored with mercy. I want
to be worthy of what? Glory? Yes, unimaginable glory.
O Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am
not ready, not worthy, I am climbing toward you.
My friends, Easter with its attendant new life is not something that comes as planned. Therefore, we are never really ready, and who is to say whether or not we are worthy? New life and resurrections occur constantly; the gift of the resilience of the human spirit and its tenacious longing to be whole, and awake and fully plugged into unimaginable glory. May this glory be yours whether in fleeting moments or in long beauty and hope-drenched stretches of time. And when it comes to you, for however long new life does, share the joy of it, share whatever bit of Easter perches in your heart and makes its home there.
You are the resurrection and the life.