We Love a Resurrection
We talk about resurrection because we can’t bear for crucifixion to be the end of the story. Imagine if the Christian scriptures closed with the image of a broken and beaten Jesus, gasping his last breath in a torment of pain? Who would want to read about that? Even the minimalist gospel of Mark shows us the empty tomb.
Of course, Jesus didn’t have a monopoly on suffering. Every day someone in the world dies in agony. Maybe they aren’t hanging on a piece of wood, their hands and feet thrust through with nails, but there are many kinds of torture. Some people suffer for years before they die.
Because life can be so miserable, our stories need to have some purpose to them. We want to know that pain is not the end, that meaning can be found in suffering. We seek hope. It’s part of our nature.
We Hate a Prophet
Jesus offered a lot of hope. He was charismatic, compassionate, tender, assertive, and he spoke back to those in power, to the ones who bullied, scorned, and oppressed the poor and vulnerable. The outcast and the rejected were welcome at his table.
Who wouldn’t love such a man?
The ones in power, of course. Pontius Pilate, for instance, had a city to run, and Jesus was causing turmoil. As Jon Meacham explains in his book, Hope of Glory, Jesus not only threatened the proper order of things in general, but by returning to Jerusalem during the crowded season of Passover and preaching against the empire, he spread unrest among the people. Fearing an insurrection, Pilate he condemned Jesus to death on the cross. In this way, he reminded the populace of what happened to those who challenged Rome. 
If things had ended there, the story would have been one of despair and powerlessness. Jesus would have become like any other whistleblower or journalist or activist or artist who is fired, imprisoned, hounded, murdered, humiliated, or otherwise rendered helpless. Remembered by some, but mostly forgotten. For millennia, bullies and autocrats have used lies, coercion, extortion, and violence to silence us. They use them today, even in our own country. Especially for prophets, life is grim and cruel.
Yet we cannot give up. We cannot silence ourselves. So we tell stories that end with hope rather than death. We talk about resurrection.
The Myths We Weave
Resurrection stories take many forms. With magic and determination, the Egyptian goddess Isis brought her slain husband and son back to life.  A Sumerian myth tells of the goddess Inanna who died while in the underworld and was reborn after being fed the food and water of life.  Using prayer, the Hebrew prophets Elijah and Elisha each convinced God to return life to young men who had breathed their last (1 Kings 17:17-24 and 2 Kings 4:18-37). Aztec warriors who died in battle or as part of a sacrifice lived on for four blissful years in a glorious realm, then returned to the world as hummingbirds or orioles. 
As Adam Ericksen points out in his article about rebirth stories, the Christian story of the resurrection is different. Jesus doesn’t fly up to heaven and leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves. Nor does he stay on earth to rule. Unlike Isis’s son and husband, he doesn’t seek vengeance on his murderer.  Jesus dies, is brought back to life, and goes to heaven, but he never forgets us. He communicates with us, he guides us, and he longs for us to be in relationship with him. The resurrection tells of a god who is intimately connected with us.
Eastern Orthodox and Western teachings differ, however. In the West, Jesus is swept up to heaven in triumph, where he holds court over us sinners. In the East, when Jesus rises out of Hades, he brings with him all the souls who have ever been there. In this way, the resurrection becomes the story of a community made whole.
The Insight of the Crossans
At least, this is what John Dominic Crossan concluded. For years, he and his wife, Sarah, traveled the world studying Catholic iconography. They began to see a fundamental difference between the Western and Eastern interpretation of the resurrection. Westerners revere independence, individual success, and freedom. Thus, the Roman Catholic paintings of Jesus after the resurrection show him alone, separated from the rest of humanity.
In Eastern Orthodox cathedrals and churches, Jesus is surrounded by a multitude. He grasps the hands of Adam and Eve, who symbolize every person, and lifts them out of the Underworld. All are welcome at his table.
As Crossan writes in a blog post in News and Pews, “Christ reaches out physically to grasp all of humanity with him in a corporate and communal Resurrection for our entire species.”  In an article about Crossan’s insight, Richard Rohr suggests that Jesus is doing more raising up our species. He is also “pulling creation out of hell.”  Everyone and everything is saved, back to the beginning of time. We are born again. Death is no more. It’s a Universalist message of hope for “society, humanity, and history itself.” 
In the Eastern tradition, everyone matters. By living, dying, and descending into Hell, Jesus healed every rift and soothed every wound. Though we suffer and die, death does not sting. As the Buddhists might say, it is all an illusion.
But Is It True?
Many believe Jesus’s transformation into the risen Christ is a literal event, but we don’t to think so before we can find hope in its message. Regardless of its veracity, like every story, the resurrection tale has the power to transform us and our world. We need only listen to it. Its scientific accuracy is unimportant.
In an interview with James Halstead, Crossan gives a good example of why this is so. Halstead asks him if he believes, for instance, in the virgin birth.
Crossan explains that in ancient Rome, a similar story was told about the birth of Caesar Augustus. Apparently Atia, his mother, fell asleep during a service in the temple of Apollo. While she slept, Apollo clothed himself in the guise of a serpent and got her pregnant. At the same time, her husband, Octavius, dreamt that the sun was rising from her womb.
What does this tell us? That Augustus is divine.
Most citizens of his day probably didn’t believe this actually happened, but, according to Crossan, “they took it very seriously.” They honored Augustus as a peacemaker and treated him as divine. He was, in effect, their god. 
The Real Question
When we look at the gospels, we see a similar, magical pregnancy. Like with Augustus, though, the point was not to convince us that this thing really happened. In fact, the gospel writers would have been confused by our modern-day insistence that a story is either “true” or is not. They were trying to explain something about the nature of God, not about how girls end up with child.
Being a Christian who believes in Jesus, not Augustus, Crossan accepts Mary’s virgin pregnancy because the story helps him answer the question, “Where do I find God?” he doesn’t find God “in a Palatine palace with imperial pomp.” For him, God was a humble, peasant child who could understand and care about the poor. 
I like Crossan’s question. “Where do I find God?” What myths speak to me? What do they tell me about God’s nature, about human nature, about how God acts in the world, or how God would have us act? These are other questions that matter.
What Does It Mean?
Fact or fiction, the resurrection story contains truth. Suffering and death are not the end. If we don’t rise up again as individuals, we do rise up as a society. There will always be oppressive regimes, cruel dictators. Our lust for power and control, our greed for wealth, and our fear of scarcity fuel anger, bitterness, selfishness, corruption, and revenge. We see this not just in governments, but in institutions of all kinds, in communities, and in families.
But the spirit of the people is never crushed forever. There will always be resistance. We will always sing, laugh, dance, and live with love in our hearts. That is the message of the resurrection. Even if we can’t seem to create that Kin-dom of God Jesus preached about, we can continue to love one another.
Now, some think that when Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love our neighbors, he meant that Christians should love other Christians, and we don’t need to bother loving anyone else. Yet if Crossan and Rohr are right, then the Eastern Orthodox vision of resurrection as a communal and complete salvation is what Jesus was talking about. He was saying that we should love everyone.
Even if we believe that, though, we sometimes disagree on what it means to love. When we love people, we see the holiness within them, we accept them for who they are, and we forgive them. We don’t judge, shame, or damn anyone.
That doesn’t means we can’t hold people responsible for what they do, but we don’t exact revenge, and we don’t try to force compliance through punishment or manipulation. That’s not love. Love leaves people free to make their own choices. We can invite them into community, help them transform their hearts, but some people will never come to the party, no matter how many times we ask.
Power of Love
In this way, love is powerless. At the same time, it is the greatest power there is. Love can enter into the murky realm of Hades and rise up, not only unscathed, but carrying with it the entire universe of dead souls.
That’s the most important thing about the resurrection. It tells of a deep, abiding love that will not forsake a single soul. It proclaims that there’s something more wonderful than all the power in an emperor’s fist. In the end, there will be an eternal life lived in a realm where everything is blessed with divine love. Everything.
It’s a nice fantasy, like the ending to a fairy tale. Yet factual or not, it teaches us that survival isn’t everything, that sometimes we have to die before we can live. When all we care about is material wealth and individual survival, we end up losing our true self. Most of the time, we don’t even notice. With the buffeting of life, we become wounded and inured to our pain.
But no matter how far we stray from our essential humanity, there will always be a piece of us that remembers faithfulness, that recalls love. Our task is to feed that part of us. Recognize the ways we fool ourselves, hide our truth, betray our hearts. We are here to live out of love, a fierce and tender love that can change everything.
Dying isn’t the worst thing in the world. That’s what the resurrection is saying. If we live as if the story were true, we will find healing. We will come to love and respect all humanity, and compassion and peace will reign in our hearts. One day, perhaps our hearth and homeland will be transformed, as well.
In faith and fondness,
- John Meacham, Hope of Glory: Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, New York: Convergent, 2020, 18.
- Wikipedia, “Isis,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isis, accessed 3/11/20.
- Wikipedia, “Inanna,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inanna#Sumerian_version, accessed 3/11/20.
- Lee, Jongsoo. Allure of Nezahualcoyotl: Pre-Hispanic History, Religion, and Nahua Poetics, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2009, 160.
- Ericksen, Adam, “Ancient Resurrection Stories: How Jesus Is Transforming the World,” Patheos, April 22, 2019, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/teachingnonviolentatonement/2019/04/ancient-resurrection-stories-how-jesus-is-transforming-the-world/, accessed 3/11/20.
- Crossan, John Dominic, “Resurrecting Easter,” News and Pews, February 9, 2018, https://newsandpews.com/resurrecting-easter-by-john-dominic-crossan/, accessed 3/11/20.
- Rohr, Richard, “The Death of Death,” Center for Action and Contemplation, April 21, 2019, https://cac.org/the-death-of-death-2019-04-21/, accessed 3/11/20.
- Halstead, James, and John Dominic Crossan. “The Orthodox Unorthodoxy of John Dominic Crossan: An Interview.” CrossCurrents, vol. 45, no. 4, 1995, pp. 510–530. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24460240. Accessed 11 Apr. 2020, 519.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved