A Progressive Take on Resurrection: “Which Resurrection?”

Rev Dr Cliff Hospital

[This was the subject of a seminar presentation to the Merthyr Road, New Farm Explorers Group recently]

It will be clear that in sending out an introduction asking the question, “Which Resurrection?” and then adding this long list of possibilities, I began with something of a red herring.  For the point of my list was, first, to make clear that what Christians usually mean when we talk of the resurrection is the idea that Jesus rose from or transcended death; and, extrapolated from this, that because he rose we too shall be raised at the last day.  But, second, what those who came up with this apparently simple picture understood by it is not clear, for it reflects a composite of disparate strands of tradition available to us in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Quran, etc.

It is helpful, I think, to look at how these various elements I mentioned fit together.   And a good starting point is to see that they all are a product of thinking, in the form of stories, but also more abstract and systematic ideas, about certain aspects of the human condition—and behind that speculation are profound existential questions.  The questions are rarely there in the texts.  Indeed it is helpful to note that in the earliest stages of our evolution as human beings, it is likely that the questions were not articulated verbally at all, but felt emotionally; for example, as grief, the grief a product of love and expressed in the shedding of tears and in the performing of actions that we call burial.

My mentor at Harvard, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, in 1962 considered what he regarded as evidence of the earliest expressions of religion or faith, a skeleton buried near the biblical Mt Carmel dating from perhaps a hundred to two hundred thousand years BCE.  He makes the point that some scholars have seen this as indicating a belief in immortality.  But he does not find this cogent: “Immortality is a somewhat sophisticated doctrine, a rather late endeavour to express in the form of ideas (human) attitudes to life, death, and the human spirit….I think it would be safer to take this early burial as indicating at the very dawn of human existence, humans, in the presence of the death of their comrade, felt—or, saw: or shall we say, experienced—something more profound  than the animal world for a hundred million years earlier had ever experienced.”

The only example in the Hebrew Bible of this kind of division between the good and the bad is in Daniel 12: 2: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.  Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever.”  This is clearly similar to the Zoroastrian picture, but in the book of Daniel, instead of happening immediately following death, it happens at a culminating point of history as the previous verse makes clear: “At that time, Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people shall arise.  There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book.”

However, to complicate the scenario a bit, it should be noted that in later Zoroastrian texts there is evidence of a further development rather like that of Daniel. As the scholar Mary Boyce describes it: “…the last days will be marked by increasing wretchedness and cosmic calamities.  Then, it is generally believed, the World Saviour, the Saoshyant, will come in glory.   There will be a great battle between …good people and bad, ending in victory for the good.  The bodies of those who have died earlier will be resurrected and united with their souls, and the Last Judgment will take place through a fiery ordeal. Metals in the mountains will melt to form a burning torrent, which will destroy the wicked. …The saved will be given ambrosia to eat, and their bodies will become as immortal as their souls.  The kingdom of Ahura Mazda will come on an earth made perfect again, and the blessed will rejoice everlastingly in his presence.” (Hinnells, 244)

It is almost certain that this later Zoroastrian development precedes that of Daniel; and in general Biblical scholars have surmised that these ideas were taken over by the Jews, directly or indirectly, from the Persians, who were Zoroastrians.

There is, however, another strand of Hebrew thinking that feeds into the general picture of the Hebrew Bible and subsequently the New Testament.  If there is this Zoroastrian development of the division, a punishing of evil and a rewarding of good individuals, the Biblical writers tackle the issue of good and evil deeds in another way.  The great prophets whose proclamations are recorded there interpret the devastating invasions by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE and the Babylonians in the 6th century, as God’s judgment upon the people for their unfaithfulness to their covenant with God.  In this scenario, God made the people of Israel his chosen ones, but being favoured in this way involves a responsibility to be a light to the nations, in keeping the specific laws of the Torah, or more generally, in lives of justice and righteousness, caring for the poor–orphans and widows—and welcoming strangers.  But the warnings of God’s judgment before the Babylonian invasion and the exile in Babylon, are followed by a promise to those in exile of a glorious return to the land.   In Ezekiel 37, there is an account of a vision by the prophet of the people in exile as a valley full of dry bones, which then are brought to life–bone to bone, sinew to sinew, clothed in skin, and then finally “breath came into them and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”  But this vision of a “resurrection” of the people is just one of a set of visions of the return of the people to the land, the rebirth as a second Exodus, Jerusalem and the temple restored, a new Eden.  (e.g, Isaiah 35, 40; Ezekiel 47)

However, although there was a return of the people to the land, the glorious promise was not fulfilled.  Indeed, in subsequent centuries the land of Israel was overrun by the Greeks and then the Romans.  But the hope does not die, and eventually it is focussed in the idea of the Messiah,God’s anointed one, a great King, who will come and rule over God’s kingdom.

What is clear in this strand of tradition initiated by the great prophets is that the vision of human fulfilment is not of individual survival for the good in a paradisal heaven, but in the ultimate destiny of the people collectively, a remnant restored to God in a new covenant.

But by the time of Daniel—probably written around the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Greek ruler, Antiochus IV in the second century BCE–and then in various other books, written later than those included in the Hebrew Bible, but before the time of Jesus–the vision of hope given by the prophets is combined with details that originated from the later Zoroastrians–in particular, that things will get worse, calamities will abound, but eventually there will be the final triumph of good, God’s kingdom will be established, and the good will be raised from death and go to be with God in heaven.

We don’t know precisely how these various scenarios of what happens after death, and of a final triumphant culmination, may have fitted together by the time of Jesus and his followers.  But if we ask specifically what his followers thought about what happened to Jesus after his death by crucifixion, the evidence suggests that there were a variety of stories being told.  And it is best to think of them not as accounts where historical accuracy is the predominant concern, but as stories bearing a message, stories conveying good news.  And they inevitably used elements of these various speculative scenarios—though they did not use them in the same way, and they did not even use the same elements.

To me one of the most telling examples of this is in Luke’s account of the crucifixion, where there are two thieves crucified with Jesus, and a clear division of good and evil occurs.  One of the thieves rails at Jesus in a mocking tone: “If you are the son of God, save yourself and us.”  The other recognizes that an injustice is being committed, and eventually acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah, and asks that Jesus will remember him when he comes into his kingdom.   Jesus’ response suggests a frame quite different from the resurrection story that Luke tells in the bigger picture: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  What this suggests is that one version of the kingdom is of Jesus in heaven—the word paradise,  a garden, is often used in Jewish and Christian sources to refer to heaven–to which both Jesus and the “good” thief will go when they die later in the day.

(This idea that good people go to heaven when they die has been, and remains, a widespread view in the Christian and post-Christian world.  The great celebration for Shane Warne afforded us several expressions of the view that Shane was looking down from heaven and thoroughly enjoying the whole magnificent show at the MCG.  I doubt that any of those who evoked this picture thought about how ridiculous it was, given our modern view of the universe.  As I used to point out to my students in Canada, the idea that Jesus ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives or Bethany is bit problematic: if at any point in time you ascended into the heavens from Jerusalem, you would arrive at a vastly different part of the universe from where you would be if you ascended from Toronto or from Brisbane.  But our funeral conventions depend on a simple, naïve immersion in the world, not on the results of critical thinking.  And I certainly wouldn’t want to deprive Shane’s children of the intimacy and tenderness made possible by the conventional vision.)

The earliest major Christian accounts we have of the idea of resurrection are from letters of Paul—in 1 Thessalonians 4 and in 1 Corinthians 15.   In the former he is addressing the concern that some Christians who have died will not be part of the promised kingdom.  Obviously, there is a view in place by this time that Jesus will come again and both those who are still living and those who have died will be part of it: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air: and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

In 1 Corinthians 15 we have a much fuller and more complex argument, though the picture of the final resurrection is similar, but now much more poetic in expression: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery. We will not die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. …  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But this is the glorious culmination of a long discussion of which two elements are of importance.  The first is that Jesus died for our sins, and was buried and was raised on the third day, and then appeared to a number of people: Peter, then the twelve—presumably the close disciples (but aren’t there now only eleven, following the betrayal of Judas?)—then to five hundred brothers and sisters, then to James, then to all the apostles.  Then finally to Paul himself.  But Paul would seem to be referring to his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.  And to include this among the other appearances—in what appears to be a list that largely accords with the detailed accounts that are given later in the gospels, all of which occurred, according to Luke, in the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension—suggests a different conceptualization from the resurrection-ascension scenario.  For the appearance to Paul is not, like the others, an assurance to his followers that he is alive, but rather the conversion experience of one who had fought against and persecuted those followers because they had been claiming that Jesus was the Messiah.  But here he is using all of these “appearances” as concrete evidence of Jesus’ being raised on the third day after his death, “in accordance with the scriptures” (this might be a reference to Hosea 6.2; or to Jonah’s spending three days in the belly of a large fish, used as a type of the death and resurrection).

The full import of this account of appearances comes later, in verses where he addresses the fact that some people are maintaining that there is no resurrection of the dead.  His rhetoric is powerful: If Christ is proclaimed as raised, how can some say there is no resurrection; if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised.

Part of what is going on here may relate to the fact that Corinth was a major centre of Greek culture.   And—to add a further complication to the picture I have given so far—sophisticated Greeks did not believe in a final resurrection of the dead, as did the Zoroastrians and some Jews; they believed is the immortality of the soul.  What this meant was that they thought of the essence of human personhood as the soul, not the perishable body; the soul survives the perishable body (this idea is still very much with us—almost certainly behind the Warnie examples I mentioned).  But for Jews, the human person is a body enlivened by the breath of life (and the basic Hebrew terminology equates the soul with the breath).  So salvation cannot be just a matter of the survival of the soul beyond death, it must be the salvation of the whole psycho-physical being.

And for Paul the consequences of “no resurrection” are serious: “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (v. 17); and “those who have died in Christ have perished” (v. 18).    Further, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (v. 19)   I grew up, of course, with the Authorised version translation this last verse: “…we are of all men most miserable.”  Which never quite made sense: why would we be more miserable—unhappy?–than all those other people who had rejected the gospel and were on the path to damnation?  But I think that “most to be pitied” gets the point.  The vision of a final, ultimate, cosmic victory in which we participate, in our full humanity, is one in which evil is overcome, the good triumphs.  (It takes a few years for Paul to be able to articulate this cosmic vision, fully and magnificently, in Romans 8: 18-28.)   If we have seen that—but then it is lost—we are indeed pitiable.  Put it in modern terms.  If we can no longer find profound meaning in the death of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and their commitment to justice and a non-violence; if we can no longer authentically express the hope and confidence that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it tends towards justice,” we are indeed to be pitied.  Or, to return to our beginning with Wilfred Smith: if we have seen and experienced the fulness of our humanity—the great values of love and joy and peace; beauty, truth and goodness—and then have lost that vision, become cynical, we are indeed to be pitied.

I am moving inadvertently to my Part B.   But there is still a bit more to my Part A.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 does go on to a complicated discussion of the resurrected body—both that of Jesus and our own.  It is not a physical but a spiritual body. The image of the sowing of a seed from which the fruit grows, is used for series of contrasts; sown a physical body, raised a spiritual body:  perishable/ imperishable; sown in dishonour/raised in glory; sown in weakness/raised in power; the man of dust/the man of heaven; in Adam all die/in Christ shall all be made alive; and so on.  Now this is difficult because it breaks through the normal contrasts of the Greek view of human being in which it is a given that the body is physical and perishable, while the soul is imperishable.  Note that Paul does not say that the soul is imperishable; what is imperishable is a new kind of being which defies the conventional Greek intellectual’s categories (which it must be said, are still widespread).   In Paul here the human speculative imagination is brilliant–and it is difficult.  But it starts with some sense that the vision he had of Jesus on the road to Damascus, like the appearances of Jesus to others, marked a new order of being.

Now it must emphasized that Paul does not really say a great deal about the resurrection.  And in terms of how he conceives of the nature of our salvation through the supreme gift of God’s grace, accepted by us in faith, there is much more in Galatians and Romans, and it is focussed on Jesus’ sacrificial death rather than on the resurrection.  And in terms of the practical vision of what it is to be Christian, surely the paean to love in 1 Corinthians 13, and the portrayal in 1 Corinthians 14 of the church as the body of Christ, with the  members as parts of the body, each contributing his or her own special gift to the functioning of the whole body and to its service to the world—a truly magnificent vision of koinonia as not just some pleasant feeling of fellowship but a deep mutuality of active service.  In their significance for authentic Christian life these chapters far outshine the 15th chapter!

I should still say something about the accounts in the gospels—Mark, Matthew, Luke and John–of appearances of Jesus following his death.   What is most noticeable about these is that the only scene they have in common is of some women coming to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid early on Sunday morning and finding the stone that blocked the entrance had been rolled away.  There are many discrepancies: in Mark the women are Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome; in Matthew they are Mary Magdalene, and “the other Mary”; in Luke, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “the other women who were with them;” in John, it’s just Mary Magdalene.   Within the tomb they see according to Mark, “a young man, dressed in white robe, sitting on the right side;” according to Matthew “an angel of the Lord…(whose) appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow;” in Luke, “two men in dazzling clothes;” in John, no mention of any such persons.  As well, although in the first three gospels, there is substantial agreement on what is recorded of Jesus’ life of teaching and healing, in these accounts of post-death appearances, apart from the beginning with the women at the tomb, and a final reference to the sending of the disciples to preach the good news, the major narratives are quite different.

The overall emphasis in all these gospel accounts is that the appearances confirm that Jesus really is alive.  The disciples at first are sceptical, but eventually they are convinced and accept the mission of carrying the gospel to all the world.  But the contrast with Paul is notable.  In these accounts Jesus appears and disappears, but he is not a ghost from the world of the dead, sheol, like Samuel; rather he has a body which can still eat, and where the marks of his suffering are retained.  But also his body is not a new “spiritual body,” the harbinger of a new age, as in Paul.  The categories of the discourse are quite different.

The really big problem for people who live with a modern consciousness–a worldview radically changed by the combination of the theories of Copernicus and the astronomical confirmations of Galileo’s telescope, and the further extrapolations afforded by the empiricism of the Enlightenment (Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc.)—is that we have great difficulty relating to the categories that comprise the various worldviews of the Biblical writers, and their counterparts in other religious communities of their times.  The person who was most influential on my thinking about all this was the German theologian, Rudolf Bultmann.  I was introduced to his work by Norman Young, who taught us theology at King’s College from 1960 to 1963, and who in his Ph.D. thesis at Drew University wrote what was probably the first treatment in English of Bultmann’s project that he called “demythologizing.”  Bultmann contrasted what he called the ancient mythological worldview and the modern scientific worldview.  He made the point that if we live in the modern world as formed by science, we no longer believe in angels and demons, and heaven up there—and the ascension–and hell down there.  Bultmann is often misunderstood to be saying that we must toss out the Biblical myths and their trappings, and just accept what accords with modern science.  And it is true that Bultmann’s contrast of mythological and scientific is itself a bit simplistic.  But let’s begin with his basic argument, which is that the gospel message in embedded in the thought categories and symbolism of the ancient world, and that modern people who accept the scientific view of the world are in danger of rejecting the gospel because the categories of the ancient world can no longer be sustained.   It is necessary, therefore, to remove this false stumbling-block so that the true stumbling block of the gospel—the powerful existential message; the radical, disturbing good news of God’s grace—can be revealed.  So by demythologizing he meant reformulating the message that is embedded in the mythological worldview in terms that accord with our modern worldview.

If we try to be more accurate in talking about the contrast of traditional views of the world and modern views, I think it is more helpful to talk about the ways in which the actual physical universe and our symbolic use of the universe, our projection of human values into the universe, are related.   Indigenous Australian culture, perhaps for as long as there have been humans here, has involves an experience of the Australian landscape in which a particular group sees not just physical waterholes and rivers, rocks and mountains, but depositories of the lives of their ancestors of the Dreamtime.  Aboriginal peoples tell stories—and re-enact or recreate the stories in dramatic performances–about the travels of the ancestors across the landscape so that the notable features of the land are charged with significance.  And it is likely that without this Dreamtime mapping, this immersion in the stories, the aboriginal peoples of this harsh environment would not have been able to survive.

The people of ancient Israel, the Christians of the New Testament, and the people of the other cultures we have been mentioning that contributed to the overall mix of the ancient world of the near East and the Mediterranean, all read the physical universe as we experience it naively, that is directly; but also simultaneously as a locus of powers and beings and places that carry symbolic value for human life.   And we still relate to this symbolism and use it, as I mentioned re Shane Warne.  But the crucial difference for us, if we are modern intellectuals, is that we cannot, in our serious thinking avoid the critical awareness that we are drawing on past conventions of the symbolic expression of significance.  We cannot but be aware that the symbols are symbols, the myths are myths.  This does not mean that we just throw away the symbols and myths; quite frankly we cannot live without them.   (If you are insistent that the stories and symbols must be literally true, you become a fundamentalist.)   But it is good to remind ourselves that the power of a historical play by Shakespeare does not depend on the literal accuracy with respect to “the facts,” what happened historically.  “Shakespeare” used sources that were accepted as historical accounts at the time, but which we now know were far from accurate.  But historical accuracy is not what matters.  What matters is the profundity of the exploration of the human condition that the writer evokes, via all the techniques of verbal creation.

All of which means that we can surely still relate to and use stories and symbolic elements.   We can recognize their power.  We wouldn’t want to reject them: don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.  We need to re-tell the stories in a way that they can speak to us.

There is still one major problem, however, that relates directly to the idea of resurrection.   All that we know about the evolution of living beings, and particularly the evolution of the human species, makes it very difficult to relate to the terminology of people who understood little of what we now know about the physical realities of human anatomy and physiology.  Most notably, traditional symbolic physiologies of the human body—even such categories as body or flesh, breath or soul, breath or spirit; but also such ideas as locating the emotions in the kidneys, and thinking in the heart—are impossible for us.  Paul’s speculative thinking about spiritual bodies, and the Gospels’ accounts of appearances of Jesus just do not make sense to us.  And even such an idea as singing God’s praises, or enjoying the bliss of heaven, in some non-physical body: we can no longer think of aesthetics without taking consideration of the evolution of ears and eyes and mouth and tongue, and the incredible complexity of electrical impulses in the brain.  We can perhaps think of some reality beyond our personal death, but we agree that we cannot know what it might be like, except that extrapolating from our current physical condition seems quite ludicrous.

So if we can no longer conceive of a resurrected body enjoying eternal life—or even immortality of the soul—can we nevertheless re-formulate what it is that the writers are trying to convey via their myths and the elements of their symbolic world.

I have already briefly suggested a way of thinking about Paul’s views in 1 Corinthians—of the power of the gospel vision, adding a new dimension to human life.   But let us try something more general.

Let’s start with the obvious point, but not often considered overtly, that the idea of resurrection is intimately related to the fact of death.  It has no meaning apart from death.  And the relation between them can be formulated in a variety of different ways.   For example, the stories of Jesus’ post-death appearances in the gospels are saying, at the most basic level: he died, but that wasn’t the end, it was just the beginning.

And what a beginning!  I sat listening on Good Friday to the presentation by the Canticum Chamber Choir of Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G Minor.   In the Credo (the Nicene Creed) there is a section which is sombre and intense and halting: “He was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, he suffered and was buried.”  Although Jesus’ death is not mentioned, the music almost comes to a full stop.  Then there is a massive burst of energy: Et resurrexit tertia die secundum Scripturas: “and on the third day he rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures.”  The Vaughan Williams is one of my favourite musical versions of the Latin Mass.  Another is Haydn’s Nelson Mass, and it has the same energy.  In both cases this section is presto, very fast, and vivace, lively, and it races on to the end of the Creed—a truly exhilarating and joyous vision of the message of the gospel in the life of the church.  You might think of the resurrection vision as a reversal of the vision of the passion; but the effect is more to give expression to the wonder of what Jesus’ death signifies.

But there is another dimension of this death-resurrection motif.  We have already mentioned the way in which the symbolism of the exile of the Jews in Babylon and the return to the land of Israel draws on the experience of slavery in Egypt and the Exodus to the Promised Land.  And in the developing Christian community the death-resurrection draws on this symbolism, so that the passing through the Red Sea is linked to Jesus’ journey through death, and thence to baptism.   In the letter to the Colossians, the writer says to his audience: “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God.”  (2: 12) He then goes on extensively to emphasize that in baptism, they died to the old life—hence they should actively reject the powers of the old life—and they were raised with Christ—hence they should clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, etc.  “Above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

So, whereas in 1 Corinthians the link is that because Jesus rose again, we too shall rise at the last day, in Colossians the emphasis is that in baptism Christians have died to the old life and are raised to the new life—with the exhortation that they live as those who are dead to sin, and alive in Christ.  It is no accident, then, that in the early church, baptisms were performed as a prelude to the Easter eucharistic liturgy; and this was still the case at St Peter’s in Rome in 2022, as I happened to witness on TV.  (See Together in Song, 384, for a hymn that picks up these themes.)

But the symbolism of death/resurrection is multivalent.   In John’s gospel the idea of Jesus as the word of God becoming human flesh and making manifest the divine glory, doxa, is a major theme introduced in the prologue.  Then the account of first miracle or sign, the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana, is given this interpretation: “This the first of his signs Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee, and manifested his glory, and his disciples had faith in him.”   But most notable for our purposes is that the idea of the revelation of the glory of God is linked to his being raised on the cross.  Christians have sometimes interpreted the cross as a defeat, Good Friday as Black Friday, and the resurrection as a glorious reversal, a victory.  The synoptic gospels tend to tell the story that way, and our movement psychologically through Lent to the dark days of torture and crucifixion and burial picks this up and accentuates it.   But in John’s gospel, from the time of the story the raising of Lazarus, and its accompanying assertion by Jesus “I am the resurrection and the life,” he continually points to his death.  As he says, the time has come “for the son of man to be glorified.”  And then, in explanation, “In truth, in very truth I tell you, a grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground: but if it dies it bears a rich harvest.”

Gradually one realizes that although the glory of God in Christ may be seen in the changing of water into wine and his other miracles, the full glory is seen in the crucifixion, in his being lifted up from the earth, in his death which becomes the basis of a rich harvest in the gathering together of the scattered children of God, in his drawing all people to himself, where people are one in him who is one with God, where people embrace each other in God’s love.

In John, there is no attempt, as in Paul’s writings, to theorize about the place of the cross in God’s gracious activity towards us.  Rather we are presented with a kind of impressionistic witness to what happens when people stand in the presence of the crucified Christ.  Jesus’ death is the full manifestation of God’s glory, an awesome vision into the very heart of God.  And the resurrection is not a reversal but an endorsement of that powerful insight.

There is yet another way we can look at all this, however.  As a youth every year on Easter morning I attended a Sunrise Service held on a hilltop, beside the city reservoir, in Rockhampton.  It was the culmination of the annual Christian Endeavour Convention held over the Easter holidays.  We stood together and sang “Lo in the grave he lay, Jesus my Saviour…;” and then the chorus, “Up from the grave he arose,” and we watched the sun rise in glory over the Berserker Range.  At West End Methodist Mission in the 1960s we walked through the early morning gloom to re-enact in the park on Highgate Hill the story of the women arriving at the tomb—a large papier-mache model was brought out of storage each year—the stone rolled away, the angels giving their message, the sun rising over Brisbane.  In Kingston, Ontario, Canada, I stood on a bitterly cold, early Spring morning on the shore of Lake Ontario, the winter ice still not completely thawed, and watched the sun rise over the St Lawrence River and Wolfe Island.   All different, but all the same in their refreshing power. For one of the features of this death-resurrection narrative is the way it evokes a response in us that accords with our experience of the rhythms of the natural world.  The most powerful exploration of this that I know is in the poem “Easter” by the seventeenth century English poet, George Herbert:

Rise heart: thy Lor is risen.  Sing his praise

Without delayes,

Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise

With him mayst rise:

That as his death calcined thee to dust,

His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.


Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part

With all they art.

The cross taught all wood to resound his name,

Who bore the same.

His stretched sinews taught al strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.


Consort both heart and lute, and raise a song

Pleasant and long:

Or, since all musick is but three parts vied

And multiplied,

O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,

And make up our defects with his sweet art.


I got me flowers to strew thy way;

I got thee boughs off many a tree:

But thou wast up by break of day,

And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.


The Sunne arising in the East,

Though he give light, and th’East perfume:

If they should offer to contest

With thy arising, they presume.


Can there be any day but this,

Thought many sunnes to shine endeavour?

We count three hundred, but we misse:

There is but one, and that one ever.

One aspect of this theme of a symbolism of natural resonance that in Australia we do not have is the northern hemispheric link with the arrival of spring (I have just touched upon it in mentioning Canada).   Chocolate Easter bunnies and Easter eggs are a relict of the link, but by now in Oz they do seem to be more about the irresistible pleasures of chocolate: they do not quite pick up the underlying theme of a rebirth of the natural world, with the bursting forth of new growth after the dead of winter.  Together in Song contains a hymn (382) that evokes this theme–“Now the green blade rises”—but in Oz, with Easter occurring in the midst of a natural transition of late summer-autumn-winter, nature does not provide psychological support for the rebirth narrative.  In Queensland, as long as I can remember, secular Easter has meant a last-of-summer rush to the beach. In North America, it has meant new clothes for Easter.  The natural and secular experience of death-rebirth are in accord and have behind them a long pre-history of spring festivals.  Many radical Protestant groups at the time of the Reformation rejected the celebration of Easter—and other festivals, such as Christmas—because they saw them as pagan, a worship of nature, part of the corruption of the Church of Rome.  But equally, of course, one could see Easter as providing via the ongoing seasonal variations a felt experience of transformation, a new birth.  To get the feel of it, we in the southern hemisphere must work our imaginations much harder.

Finally, one of the most profound pieces of contemplation of Resurrection is a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins: “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.”   Just a few comments.   Heraclitus is most famous for his statement: “you cannot step into the same river twice.”  If you take a second step, the river is not the same, it is already changed.  What he is emphasizing is that the physical world—or the psycho-physical world—is a process of perpetual change.  The Buddha begins his diagnosis of the problematic of the human condition–duhkha, suffering or pain, the painfulness of the human condition—as due to the fact of anitya, impermanence, radical impermanence, nothing stays the same.  (Someone has said that the Buddha’s version of the river would be: you cannot step into the same river once; for while you are stepping, micro-second by micro-second, it is changing).   And the Buddha’s point is that the painfulness for us in life is a product of our craving for, our clinging to that which by its very nature cannot be retained.  So the basic Buddhist wisdom is letting go, non-clinging, extinguishing the fire of craving: “The wise person is like a calm and peaceful lake.”

Hopkins spends about three-quarters of his poem in a verbal dazzle that replicates the incredible shimmer of perpetually changing world.  And it is important to emphasize that he does not reject this perpetually changing world.   Several other poems reveal his great love of the beauty and grandeur of the world—”God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover” are wonderful–and of human beings.   But his point is that the resurrection reveals another aspect or dimension.  The final section is as follows:

… Enough! The Resurrection,

A heart’ clarion!  Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.

Across my foundering deck shone

A beacon, an eternal beam.  Flesh fade, and mortal trash

Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal


Is immortal diamond.

“This Jack, joke…is immortal diamond.”  The perishable carbon of patch and matchwood is, in a process taking millions of years, radically transformed: diamond.  You can think about this in many ways, but most basically, diamonds are symbolic of immortality, of what ultimate endures, is of ultimate worth.  (In “Easter,” George Herbert makes a somewhat similar use of gold.)  Here the magnificent paradox: the joke that Jack is–that we are—is transformed, in the vision of love, shall we say—is rendered infinitely precious.  And for this life—let’s not even try to talk about what is beyond, since we really cannot know, we are all agnostics—that grace suffices.









Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *