Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Trembling and Astonishment

Here we present excerpts from Father Abbot's homily for Easter:
            The tomb is empty. He is risen, and we rejoice. It is also important to realize that untroubled elation does not capture the whole of the original Easter experience. What happened on that first Easter morn? According to Mark, Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James and Salome went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Upon arriving, they see the stone rolled away. A “young man” announces that Jesus has risen and instructs the women to tell Peter and the disciples that they will find Jesus in Galilee. The response of the women is crucial here. In the wake of the news that their friend and teacher has risen from death, what do they do? Mark tells us that “they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” Why fear and not joy? Again, why is there fear on Easter and not just unmitigated joy? The significance of this initial reaction is important for us to grasp if we really want to be taken up into the fullness of the Easter grace.
This initial reaction of fear has been powerfully described by the theologian James Alison in his book, Raising Abel. According to Alison, “The stone put aside and the absence of the corpse were not in the first instance a motive for rejoicing, but for terror. Terror because what had happened was quite outside anything that could be expected…Terror because now there was no security, no rules, nothing normal could be trusted in….Whatever Christian hope is, it begins in terror and utter disorientation in the face of the collapse of all that is familiar and well known.” Shock, fear and silence, these are the primal emotions that greet the breaking forth of eternal life.
            There is fear on Easter because God did not kill Jesus. We did. And according to the moral calculus of the world- “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” -our own lives are now in the balance. Vengeance is now the order of the day. Because of our sin, our lives are now under a death sentence. A life for a life, the calculus goes. Remember the story of Cain and Abel. After Cain slew Abel, God asks him, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain replies, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord responds, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
            Easter according to the world’s moral calculus is not good news for the guilty. It is not good news to find out that your victim is alive. We know what’s coming. If Jesus is alive, if the victim has come back, we better high tail it in fear, just like the women in the gospel. I wonder if this fear has something to do with why the disciples hid themselves behind locked doors. This is how those who first heard of the resurrection expect the story to go. The victim has been wronged, and is now back and we’re in for it! Everything in human psychology and moral history---and even in the Bible up to this point---suggests that Easter shouldn’t be good news for the perpetrators, the ones who betrayed, fled, stood at a distance, washed their hands, called out for his death. All these, and you and I, are now going to face the victim. And we don’t expect it to go well for us. After all, we have blood on our hands. We are guilty!
            In a way we cannot comprehend, and whenever there is incomprehension in the Bible, that’s a sure sign that grace is breaking in, the story goes in a different direction. The blood of Jesus does not cry out for vengeance as the blood of Abel does. The Letter to the Hebrews says that the blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” What is this better word? Where Abel’s blood cries out “Vengeance;” the blood of Jesus cries “Peace!” Where Abel’s blood cries “Guilty,” the blood of Jesus cries, “Forgiveness.” Nothing will ever be the same again. It is a whole new creation. There is a whole new moral calculus. Or rather, there is no calculus. For a calculus entails limit, computation and measurement. Mercy knows no limit. It is immeasurable. This is not the judgment day we were expecting. The victim returns to us and shows us the wounds we inflicted, yet brings to us not hate, blood lust, condemnation or revenge, but only love, forgiveness, grace and peace. The joy of Easter, it seems, requires a first wave of fear. A first wave of fear is part of Easter, because Easter joy is the joy of relief, a joy of finding ourselves inexplicably, surprisingly forgiven. There is no explanation for it. It is totally surprising to the point of being disconcerting. And in accepting this forgiveness we step into a whole new story, a whole new way of being, a new heaven and a new earth.
            Today is Easter! Today we proclaim that our victim has come back from the dead and is now looking for us. It is news that makes us want to hide in fear and cry out, “What shall we do?” By any human reckoning Easter should not be Good News. But it is! Our Easter celebration invites us once again to come out of hiding and allow our victim who is seeking us to find us and to taste once again the incomprehensible relief of being immeasurably, incalculably loved and forgiven.