Last Sunday, Western Christians celebrated Easter, and in a few days Eastern churches will observe Pascha. Over the course of eight days, most of the world’s two billion Christians will have sung of Jesus’s resurrection, listened again as the glad apostles see their Lord, and heard bold talk of new life and new creation.
Meanwhile, back in the real world: Fighters from Somalia’s al-Shabab attack a college in Garissa, Kenya, killing 146 Christian students. A Germanwings co-pilot accelerates a plane into the side of a mountain in the French Alps, instantly killing himself and 149 others. In Syria, the slaughter has become so numbingly massive, so horrific, that we’ve collectively determined to avert our gaze.
Death, death, more death. And most of the world’s ruin is too puny and petty to get any more press than Facebook can offer. Ten minutes on Google, and anyone can assemble a pageant of mayhem to rival Ivan Karamazov’s.
The skeptic should be permitted his question: Where in hell is the evidence of Easter? That’s not a curse, but a precisely formed theological inquiry: Where in this hellish world is the evidence that Easter has made any difference?
We can tell the skeptic that resurrection works slowly, like leaven in dough. Or that Jesus’s is a kingdom not of this world. Or that the new life will come in some future, perhaps imminent, perhaps distant. Or that resurrection is a matter of faith not sight. We might generalize the habit of gaze-aversion: Sure, bad things happen, but don’t ignore all the nice–happy.
These answers, some true in their way, keep us singing. They don’t convince the skeptic.
Perhaps we’re looking at it the wrong way. Maybe the cheery gilded spots aren’t the place to look for Easter’s afterglow.
John’s account of the resurrection points elsewhere. When Peter and John enter the cave on Easter morning, they discover Jesus’s discarded grave clothes, neatly rolled. When Mary Magdalene peers into the tomb later that morning, she sees two angels seated at opposite ends of the slab where Jesus’s body had lain.
It’s a scene of haunting half–familiarity, like the misty memory of a dream. The discarded garments hint at the day of atonement when the high priest performed the rites wearing linen garments, then took them off and left them behind in a holy place. The slab resembles the ark of the covenant, the two angels reminiscent of the cherubim flanking the ark’s footstool.
John doubtless intends to announce that Jesus made final atonement, once for all, but there’s something subtler in the grotesque inversions of the scene. If you diagrammed the spectrum of holiness in ancient Israel, the most holy place would be at one pole, tombs at the far end. The rites of Yom Kippur were enacted in the holiest space on earth, where the glory of Yahweh was enthroned. A graveyard is the last place anyone expects to find the ark.
The synoptic Gospels tell us that the veil of the temple was torn at Jesus’s death, opening a way in because the Lord had burst out. John’s account is more startling. It’s not just that the border between holy and profane becomes porous. The whole map is turned inside out. Yahweh’s holy ark now consecrates a tomb.
This is a fitting climax to a book that upends expectations again and again. The Word of the Creator comes to us in a tabernacle of flesh. Jesus equates death with exaltation. The Son of Man will be “lifted up” on the cross to heal, like the serpent in the wilderness (John 3). “Lifted up,” Jesus will draw all men to himself. The cross is the seat of Jesus the judge: “Now is the judgment of this world, now is the ruler of this world cast out” (John 12). Arrest, trial, and sentencing form a stately procession toward a cruci-throne.
Humiliation is exaltation. The cross is victory. The way up is the way down. The Lord of life becomes Lord of death. God’s throne in a tomb. This is new creation, Johannine style. Transvaluation of all values? Nietzsche didn’t know the half of it.
Where in hell is the evidence of Easter? This is exactly the right question, and it answers itself. Any old god could put up a throne in a temple. The true God must reign also in the midst of hell, among the ruins, or he doesn’t reign at all. He is no living God if he isn’t the living One among the dead.
Want to see Easter in the ruins? Go to the trash–heap churches around the world, where Christians sing their thanks to their Creator amid the steamy stink of garbage. Check out the graveyards where the early Christians celebrated Eucharist at the graves of martyrs. Remember the martyr women and children who so impressed Athanasius with their defiance of death, and the Kenyan martyrs who still impress today.
Peer into the darkness where there are dead men’s bones. Like Mary, you’ll see the ghostly outlines of a throne.