Holy Week


Somehow Holy Week gets lost in our calendars. We decorate eggs, color pictures of chicks and bunnies, rake the leaves (and snow) out of our flower beds, and start seed packets in small indoor containers. It’s finally spring, and after our 260 inches of snow this winter, I find joy in all those activities. However, each year, I reread the gospel accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection and often pull out John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter.”  Updike makes the case for the reality of the crucifixion and the resurrection as biological and historical fact, not metaphor or analogy to emerging spring flowers or baby ewes.

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-mache,
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.

Start with the LAST five lines of the poem and consider the horrors of Good Friday and the implication for the church. We cannot make “it,” the crucifixion, less monstrous. The Romans had elevated crucifixion to a gruesome science, a way to destroy a victim slowly and also provide a graphic lesson to all who would opposed Roman rule. Typically, death by crucifixion took three days before the victim succumbed. Terror, and gut-wrenching sickness led even experienced centurions to turn away. Some opted for throwing dice or any other form of diversion to avoid facing the ghastly brutality of execution duty. One soldier, Scripture notes, looked up and proclaimed, “Surely, this was the Son of God.”  If we will not face the monstrous cruelty of the cross, Updike says we’ll be “crushed by remonstrance.” That word carries a story. The Remonstrance was a document drawn up in 1610 by the Arminians of the Dutch Reformed Church, presenting the differences between their doctrines and those of the strict Calvinists.Today the word means an angry or forcefully reproachful protest. Strong word, but an important one for the stance the church must take if it is to survive. Updike states this in line five and then closes his poem with the same strong argument.

Still reading from the end of the poem, consider the garden scene on Easter morning. Look at the solidity of the stone, several tons in actual weight. Remember that the women went without knowing how they’d get the stone rolled away to allow them entrance to the tomb. Next, allow the power of the light to flood both eyes and mind, for Jesus comes as the Light of the world, the One who died for us. And about the angels. Resist the Renaissance painters’  angels or the papier-mache variety, in favor of the details of the Matthew’s gospel. “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.'”

Finally, consider the specifics of Jesus’ resurrected body described in the poem’s opening lines: reknit molecules and rekindled amino acids, flesh like ours, hinged digits, a valved heart. No wraith appears on Easter morning! And  resplendent yellow daffodils don’t begin to catch what rebirth means. Even the eyewitness accounts of His 11 disciples, signs painted, or parables spoken cannot support the risen Christ. To diminish the crucifixion and the resurrection in any way will dishonor the living Christ and leave our faith subject to every wave of doctrine or philosophy that swirls about in our culture.

So this Easter, may we each make no mistake about the reality of the risen Lord. He’s alive. Hallelujah!

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