The Monstrosity of Easter
I remember a few years ago I was hunting around for some music to listen to while preparing my Easter sermon. It was Holy week, so I thought I should try to find something a bit more inspirational than my usual fare. Perhaps some classical music. I surveyed the options on my streaming service. I was presented with two choices for Holy Week. How delightful! I read the description of each.
Classical Easter: Music for Reflection — Enhance your spiritual journey, reflect on life, meditate with a peaceful mind. Let some of history’s greatest classical works soothe you
Easter Classical: Music for Celebration — Fill your heart with a joyous aural celebration. The musical expression of sun breaking through clouds, flowers arriving in spring, and fireworks lighting up the night
I started to experience a few cynical rumblings in my soul. I halfheartedly clicked on the first one. I listened for about four minutes before I gave up, my spiritual journey not feeling particularly enhanced. It wasn’t just my lack of cultural sophistication that led to my lukewarm appreciation of the musical fare. It was those descriptions. I couldn’t get past them. It seemed to me that they were a depressingly accurate barometer for how many people in our culture think about Easter. Outside the church, this is obviously true. We live in a secular age that at times seems to retain only the wispiest strands of Christian residue. But I think it’s true inside the church, too.
There are many Christians who approach Easter thinking roughly in these terms. It’s a pleasant enhancement to our spiritual journey. Or an opportunity to meditate. It gives us peace of mind. It’s a nice metaphor for new life and flowers and sunshine and the warmth of the possibilities of springtime. We often hear poetic language about how Jesus was raised “in the hearts of his disciples” but we really shouldn’t take these things so literally. The resurrection has become something we either reduce to an inoffensive springtime metaphor or consign to the dusty attic of our faith, tucked away, no longer able to astonish us as it ought to.
I have nothing against springtime or peace of mind or meditation or flowers. I like flowers! I can even (barely) tolerate language about “enhancing our spiritual journey.” But these things are manifestly not what Easter is about. Or not what it ought to be about. Easter is about the jaw dropping, reality altering, terrifying, bewildering, disrupting, disorienting, shattering shock of the resurrection of the crucified Son of God.
There is very little that is peaceful or soothing about the story of this week, whether the events that led up to Easter or the story of the resurrection itself!
On Palm Sunday, glad hosannas eerily portend the shattering of misplaced expectations.
On Maundy Thursday, we hear of the washing of feet and the sharing of a meal, of betrayal and inevitable violence. We extinguish candles as the light of the world is gradually snuffed out. We take bread and wine and remind ourselves of the price of peace. We locate our “spiritual journeys” in a story of betrayal and confusion and dismay.
On Good Friday, many churches walk through the gospel of John’s narration of Jesus’ “trial” and crucifixion. Often, the congregation is instructed to stand up and assume the part of the “people” in the story. And so, good upstanding Christians periodically have to yell out things like, “Away with him!” and “We have no king but Caesar!” and “We have a law and according to our law he must die!” and, of course, “Crucify him!”
I have only done this a handful of times in my life, but each time it is painful to say these things out loud. I feel a heavy sadness as the words descend from my lips. It is supposed to be painful and it is supposed to be sad. We need to be reminded that it wasn’t just “those people back then” that nailed Jesus to the cross but us.
Good Friday services often also include the famous reading from Isaiah 53, which describes the “servant of God” in utterly gut-wrenching terms:
- We were appalled at him
- His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
- He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him
- He was despised and rejected… a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces
- He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth
- He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
- He was cut off from the land of the living though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth
- It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer
As human beings, we threw our absolute worst at God. And God took it.
And on Easter Sunday, there is nothing particularly tranquil or spiritually enhancing or flowery about the resurrection stories. In Matthew’s account, to focus on just one version, there are earthquakes both when Jesus dies and when the stone is rolled away revealing an empty tomb. The cross and empty tomb shake the foundations of the world. It was like worlds were colliding. Law and grace. Justice and mercy. Betrayal and forgiveness. Humanity and God. Evil and good. Violence and peace. Misplaced expectations and the shocking fulfillment of God’s promises. Despair and hope. Sorrow and joy. Death and life.
It was like tectonic plates were shifting and colliding when Jesus breathed his last and gave up his spirit on a Roman cross. And then, three days later, the tomb is empty. The guards shook and became “like dead men” at the sight of the angel at the tomb. Two times, the angel says: “do not be afraid”—the implication being that fear is probably the most natural response to the idea that the man whose body you had witnessed wracked with pain, nails ripped through his flesh, heaving and groaning on a Roman cross three days prior was now alive! It wasn’t a “spiritual journey” but a very physical one that had the first witnesses terrified and confused!
So, from the confused expectations of Palm Sunday to the betrayal and injustice of Maundy Thursday to the anguish and horror of Good Friday to the stunned, fearful surprise of Easter Sunday, we must acknowledge that as Christians, the story we tell is a thoroughly jarring one, at every turn. I say often that the church of Jesus Christ was literally shocked into existence. And it was.
Easter was God’s vindication of the one upon whom we could barely stand to look, the one who had no beauty that should attract us to him, the one that was ground under the wheels of religious zeal and political expediency, the one that we preferred to crucify rather than follow.
Everything about who Jesus was—what he taught, how he healed and forgave and judged and restored, every false path and temptation to violence that he refused, and of course the way he suffered unto death—all of this receives a loud and decisive and holy “amen” on Easter Sunday.
We are a long, long way from Easter being about metaphors for the organic life of spring and peace and tranquility and soothing sounds and enhanced spiritual journeys. Easter Sunday should be the culmination of a story where we have been shocked into silence at how horribly earth received her King and stunned into joyful worship at the lengths God has gone to reconcile us to himself.
John Updike’s famous poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” says it perhaps best:
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…
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.
The image above is called “Second Adam” and is a creation of Bruce Herman. It is taken from the 2011-12 Christian Seasons Calendar.