The False Dichotomy of Easter
John Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction not once but twice, joining William Faulkner in being given that distinction. His work is catalogued in the genre of literary realism. Updike himself describes his style as an attempt “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” Updike used the main protagonist of his Pulitzer winning novels, Rabbit Angstrom, to elaborate on the concerns, passions, and suffering of average Americans. Rabbit has entered a notable pantheon of American fictional characters alongside Huckleberry Finn, Jay Gatsby, and Holden Caulfield. The New Yorker magazine and Updike had a sort of symbiotic relationship in the latter half of the 20th century and its arguable which contributed more to the other’s success. Updike thought of himself as the magazine’s “token Christian.” They published his work throughout his career. You may be more familiar with Updike from his popular novel “The Witches of Eastwick,” which was made into a major motion picture starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon.
Updike married a Unitarian, Mary Pennington, while in college, and the couple attended a Congregational church as a sort of mixed-marriage compromise. They were married for 21 years. Then in the mid-1980s, after divorce and remarriage, Updike began to identify himself as “a card carrying Episcopalian.”
Updike was also an acclaimed poet. It is his most famous poem that I want to turn my attention to this morning. It’s called “Seven Stanzas at Easter.”
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
If any of you have Christian friends on facebook, then you might recently have seen this poem feed across their facebook page as click bait. It seems to gain a new life of its own every Easter among more literal Christians.
I’ve only recently come across the poem (I live a rather sheltered life.) My initial response to it was, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “The man doth protest too much, methinks.”
Say what you will about the poem, disagree with it if you like – as I do, by the way – there’s no getting around it. It’s a powerful piece of writing. Updike uses the language of quantum physics, biology, and medicine. He clearly draws a line in the sand about what he thinks happened on that first Easter morning some 2000 years ago.
This morning I want to turn a critical eye toward John Updike’s take on Easter. I do this with some degree of fear and trembling. After all, wouldn’t I be considered rather audacious to even attempt criticism of such a talented and decorated writer? I FREELY concede his talent. Updike demonstrates a mastery of the King’s English seen on the literary landscape only once every century or so. I admire it. My jealousy rivals that of Saliere’s toward Mozart for those of you that have seen the movie Amadeus.
But at the same time, I feel compelled to question why the universe would bestow such a gift for words on someone so hell bent on a literal interpretation of scripture. I’m always interrogating life in this way as I try to make sense of the way talent and genius get doled out. As a serious student of history and anthropology, I have to give some credence to the idea that the evolutionary arc of the human evolution is bending toward improvement. But if so, why does it seem that great talent and genius is so often put in the service of women and men with such limited capacity to transcend the hand me down, literal worldview of our forebears? Simply put, why are such gifts bestowed on people that are apparently incapable thinking outside the box? If any of you think you can help me with this question of personal angst, please do.
Even though, as I said, I disagree rather vehemently with Updike’s take on Easter, I do think there are some important things we can learn from a critical reflection on it.
To do so, I need to briefly review the biblical accounts of the resurrection and what evidence we can glean from them. All four gospels describe the circumstances around that event and no two of them agree in the details they furnish. They all say there was an empty tomb, and that Mary Magdalene and another Mary were there. Beyond those generalities, there are noticeable differences.
- that some of Jesus’s disciples found an empty tomb where they had expected to find his body;
- that Peter, along with some unknown number of other disciples, later genuinely believed they had encountered their executed Teacher alive and well;
- that in the years that followed, stories circulated in various early churches, to the effect that Jesus had supposedly appeared to as many as 500 of his followers; and
- that Saul believed he himself had personally encountered the risen Jesus.
That’s pretty much it. We know nothing of what happened in the tomb between Good Friday evening and Easter Sunday morning. It’s a mystery, and likely always will be.
I can’t understand how Updike can be so certain. We simply don’t know what happened on that Sunday so long ago.
That’s what’s missing from Updike’s poem. He’s so certain. “Make no mistake” he says. When we’re certain about something, we quit taking in information about it. It no longer arouses any curiosity in us. There’s no longer any mystery. And no need for faith.
You see, the opposite of faith is not doubt. Its certainty. Once we’re totally convinced of something and have intellectual certainty, there’s no need for faith, is there?
One of the most striking aspects of the Gospel narratives is that no two of them describe the resurrection and its aftermath in exactly the same way. This includes who we’re told was there at the empty tomb. In all four Gospels, Mary Magdalene discovers that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the first at the scene, and all four also mention another Mary who was with her. Otherwise, the list of women who found that Jesus was not in the tomb varies in small but still noticeable ways.
What happens after the two Marys and their fellow mourners arrive at the tomb is depicted very differently, depending on which narrative you are reading. In Matthew’s Gospel, an earthquake occurs and an “angel of the Lord” descends to roll away the stone that had closed the tomb, an angel who tells them not to fear, that Jesus was alive. In Mark’s Gospel, the stone seems to be removed when the Marys get there, and a “young man” in a long white garment is sitting in the tomb and he tells them the good news. Luke’s Gospel notes two men in “shining garments” who explain the empty tomb, at which point Mary Magdalene, a second Mary, and “other women” who were there to tend to Jesus’ body go back to tell the disciples what happened. One of the disciples, Peter, then goes to see for himself. The writer of the Gospel of John mentions only Mary Magdalene arriving at the tomb to find it already empty and the stone rolled back. She runs to inform the disciples, Peter and John race to the tomb to find out if it’s true, and when they get there they see the linens in which Jesus had been wrapped.
None of these irregularities in the details are new to anyone who has given more than glancing attention to the Gospel accounts. Thoughtful theologians have grappled with them since they were put in writing. If one reads these texts as a detective would, as eye witness accounts, the discrepancies are impossible to overcome. Were they meant to be read in that way? Considering the gospels were written anywhere from thirty to seventy years after the events they report, it would be surprising if they did not differ from and even contradict one another. Considering they likely come from second hand reports and, making allowances for the vagaries of memory, the varying perspectives of those who wrote them down, to me the variations in the texts actually make them seem more “real,” not less. But that’s just me. They’re just four tellings of the same powerful story, illustrating artistic individuality and artistic license.
The more arresting mystery of the resurrection narratives, way beyond these little details about who was at the empty tomb and what they saw, is the accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus himself. I can’t help but marvel at the way they are wrapped in strangeness and mystery. We’re supposed to buy into the idea that the men and women who followed Jesus—who traveled, lived, and listened to him for years—fail to recognize him after his resurrection. Mary Magdalene, in John’s Gospel, mistakes him for a gardener. Only after Jesus calls her by name does she realize who he is. In Luke’s Gospel, in the famous account of Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus walked and talked with them unrecognized. Only when they sat down for a meal, and Jesus blessed the bread they were about to eat did they come out of their brain fog and understand who was with them. In John’s gospel, the resurrected Jesus appears to a group of disciples just as they’re about to go fishing, giving them instructions on how to cast their nets. Yet again, they didn’t know who he was.
Later in the Gospel of Luke its author recounts Jesus appearing to the disciples in Jerusalem, seemingly out of nowhere. He then asks for some meat to eat, as if answering the question, “Is this really happening or is it an apparition?” The Gospel of John reports that Jesus apparently could walk through walls, rather pointedly noting that he showed up amidst the disciples in a room where the doors were shut.
The resurrected Jesus, then, walked and talked among his intimates and, once again, they knew him not. He ate solid food but also could pass through solid walls. He appeared in unexpected times and places. His body rose from the dead, yet still bore the scars from his crucifixion—wounds that doubting Thomas could touch and feel. Whatever the resurrection means, the texts do not allow us to interpret it simply as a restoration of the status quo, with Jesus being exactly as he was before. Taking the resurrection literally would necessitate that we take the accounts we are given of it literally, but if we do, the reknitting of the molecules of his body, the rekindling of the amino acids, and the reversal of his cell’s dissolution seems to have happened in some rather inconsistent ways. Jesus is the same, yet also different. He is himself, but somehow more than that.
It is this sense of wonder at the sheer perplexity of what Jesus was like after his resurrection that seems to be missing from Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” The problem is not that Updike challenges us to consider the strange idea that a man rose from the dead; it’s that what he holds before us isn’t strange enough. Whatever is going on in the Gospels, it seems to resist the efforts those who want to assimilate the Easter story either through a literalism uncomfortable with paradox or by turning it into a somewhat embarrassing myth meant to inspire hope.
For all his theological sophistication, and despite my admiration for his literary gifts, Updike’s poem leaves me unsatisfied. Updike asks us to leave aside figurative language and interrogate the Gospel accounts of the resurrection for their literal truth, if it really happened or not. To reduce mystery to a simple, binary question. Did it happen or didn’t it? Reduced to such a simple dichotomy, I’m afraid I’d have to come down on the opposite side of Updike. But fortunately, I don’t think that’s the point of the story.
To me, the bigger question about the resurrection is, to put it bluntly: so what?
Whether you want to believe that it was physical, or metaphorical, or mythical: what does it mean? A story about someone someone who was dead and now they are alive again and the correct interpretation of the event is?
What do events like walking on water, changing water to wine, and coming back from the dead do to change people’s lives today? Isn’t this really the question these stories are meant to evoke in us?
Easter is, and should remain, a deep source of affirmation for people of all faiths. Not just card carrying Christians. That affirmation could and should ultimately lead to awe at the great mystery that is life. And death. And constructing meaning out of this existence. Celebrating Jesus’ resurrection should make us ask if we have tamed him into a creature of our own imaginations, or – if we remain open to surprise and uncertainty, to the mysteries of living and dying, of love and hope, that he embodied. If the latter, Easter can be for us, like the disciples walking to Emmaus, the occasion to really see Jesus again, as if for the first time. I hope, whether you identify as Christian or not, Easter can in some way be that for you. May it be so. Amen.
[i] Did Updike Sell the Resurrection Short? Matthew Sitman, Daily Beast, 04.15.15.
[i][i] On Easter and Updike. David E. Anderson, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, April 7, 2009.