Ministerial Musings: On Easter
Remember Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ? The movie was controversial due to its graphic violence and the belief, in some quarters, that it was highly anti-Semitic. There are some, such as Dr. S. Mark Heim of Andover Newton Theological School, who challenged the theological concept of blood-atonement that lies at the center of the movie. I saw the film in the theatre when it was released, and felt that the anti-Semitism was a reflection of the complex anti-Semitic tenor that appears throughout the Gospels. Without getting too far into it, it is clear that the Pharisees and the Sadducees are portrayed as “the bad guys” in the Gospel narrative. They are Jesus’ foil. Are they representative of the entire Jewish community in first century Palestine or Jews in general? I do not think so. Remember, Jesus and his disciples were Jewish.
In any event, I was overcome by the violence that pervades the film. It borders on pornographic. By the time they reached the crucifixion scene, I was numb. It didn’t matter what Gibson portrayed or how he portrayed it at that point. I had seen enough and my nerves had shut down.
What did trouble me more than anything else, though, was the resurrection scene, strangely enough. First of all, the movie is a little over two hours long and the filmmakers spent about two minutes on the resurrection. Second of all, whereas the film’s cinematography is spectacular, the resurrection scene seemed shoddy to me. It was as if it was filmed quickly with some bad special effects and spliced onto the end of the movie to offer a glimmer of hope to shell-shocked audiences. It seemed to cheapen the whole thing. But then again, the film is entitled The Passion of the Christ, not The Resurrection of the Christ.
We also cheapen the resurrection of Christ in our theology and practice. I am thinking about two realities here.
The first is that many of the conversations we have about the empty tomb in contemporary theology have to do with whether or not the resurrection actually occurred as a historical event. Some argue that it did; others that it didn’t. Still others, such as the twentieth century German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, claim that the resurrection is an event that occurred in the experience of the disciples. I believe it was Marcus Borg who said that he believes that everything in the Bible is true…and some of it really happened. In other words, there is a big difference between truth and fact. Something may or may not have occurred as an actual historical event, but the meaning behind it—or the myth surrounding it—is more important than historical accuracy.
Personally, I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, but even if it did not occur, it is filled with much truth. What does the resurrection say about God? What does it say about us? What does it say about this life and the life that is to come? Ask yourself these questions, instead of arguing over the historical accuracy of Easter.
And speaking of Easter, that brings us to my second point. Do you know why Lent is only forty days long, even though it covers a forty-six day period? The six Sundays in Lent do not really count as part of Lent. Some think of it as a respite: six oases amid our introspective wilderness trek. Maybe, but there is more of a theological reason for this. Sunday is always the day that we celebrate the resurrection, therefore, every Sunday is sort of a mini-Easter. We stand before the Risen Christ each Sabbath. That is why the Protestant cross is an empty cross, as opposed to the Catholic crucifix: it is the Easter cross.
So what is my point? It is simply that we do not have to get dressed up and come to church at the end of Holy Week to experience the Risen Christ in our midst. We find him there on the first morning of each week as well.
Maybe this edition of my Ministerial Musings is more of a Ministerial Rambling. but there is a point to all of this: the resurrection is much bigger than our understanding or experience of it. Regardless of what actually happened in Jerusalem around 30 CE, and whether or not we feel as if we experience those events more fully on one Sunday in the spring, the empty tomb forms, informs, and transforms who we are (and whose we are) as a Christian community. Death does not have the final word. Sin cannot separate us from God, even though it attempts to temporarily. Salvation, however you define it, does not culminate in the cross. It is ultimately about the new life that comes after it. That new life is available for you and for me. It shoots from tired soil like new spring blooms. Embrace that life, my friends, because it is poured out for all people, and it is good.
John Tamilio III is the Senior Pastor of Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ in the Tremont neighborhood and a nationally published author and musician, as well as religion columnist for the Lakewood Observer.