Easter: Reset on Life

Much of this reflection is adapted from the Rev. Pam Driesell’s excellent sermon, “Beyond Bunnies and Jelly Beans” (Easter A, April 24, 2011) found at day1.org. Thank you!

Easter is fun. And like Christmas, we say that these holidays are for the children.

Anticipation brightens our mood. Lilies and new clothes and family visits and Easter dinner preparations consume our attention.

But there’s a reason for the fun. So, I sympathize with the Mother who tried with very little success to convey to her four-year old daughter the meaning of Easter. It went something like this:

“Mommy, will the Easter bunny bring me purple jelly beans?”

“I am sure he will bring you jelly beans, love. But, remember, Easter isn’t about the bunny. It’s about Jesus.”

“But will they be purple?”

“Yes, honey, I am sure there will be some purple ones in there. Honey, the important thing about Easter isn’t the bunny. Easter is about how much Jesus loves you and me and the whole world.”

“Mommy, HOW MANY purple jelly beans will the Easter Bunny bring me?”

“Sweat heart, I think he will probably bring plenty of purple jellybeans. Do you know how much Jesus loves you?”

“Mommy ….”

“Yes, dear?”

“Will he bring me tootsie rolls, too?”

For a four-year old, Easter bunnies and purple jelly beans and tootsie rolls are just way more interesting than JESUS, and they are enough to make Easter fun. And fun is, for a four-year old, enough!

But my guess is that, unless you are four, you are also looking for something beyond candy-coated cliches added to the assortment of jellybeans we consume, purple or otherwise. We want to know something of what poor Mommy was trying to convey to her daughter.

Because Mom knows that her daughter won’t always be four, and sooner-AND-later all of us will encounter those changes in life that challenge us and often bring us to our knees. Life happens: In addition to all the joys and satisfaction and blessings of life, we encounter the dark night of heart-wrenching grief, devastating disappointment or smothering guilt. And when we do, we will need MORE than bunnies and jelly beans.

The story from the bible we read every year during Easter is the single most important reason we ever get together. It is the heartbeat of the Christian community. It is the hope to which we cling and the promise upon which we stand. It is the very essence of the Christian faith. It is much more than cliche.

Easter is about life. And what is more, Easter is about putting meaning in our lives once again. The message of the resurrection of Jesus is about new life, and starting over. Easter is about being given the permission to press the reset button on life. And this is a great and valuable gift.

How valuable?

Scientists have studied the mineral and chemical composition of the human body. The chemical and mineral composition of the human body breaks down as follows: 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, 1.5% calcium, 1% phosphorous, and less than 1% of potassium, sulphur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium, iron and iodine; oh, and there are trace quantities of fluorine, silicon, manganese, zinc, copper, aluminum and arsenic.

If we took all those parts and sold them on the common market, it would be worth about a dollar (Canadian). Now, our skin, I read, is our most valuable physical asset; it’s worth about $4. So, added all up, we’re worth just over $5!

But take a moment now to place your hand on your wrist or on your lower neck on either side of your windpipe; go ahead. Let’s all be quiet and still together for a moment.

What do you feel? You feel your pulse. You feel the mystery of biological life beating through your $5 worth of chemicals and minerals. And that mystery is worth much, much more.

Easter is about the power and meaning of life — the power and meaning and purpose that makes $5 worth of elements, priceless. The gift of life, and its meaning for each of us, individually, is priceless.

The Brazilian writer, Paulo Coelho, used the image of a sword to describe the gift given to him as a mark of graduation. After all, he was graduating from a magical order and the sword would befit such an accomplishment.

At the last moment, alas!, it was snatched from him, and he was ordered to go on the road. “Somewhere on this journey,” he conceded, “I will find my sword.” Because he felt strongly that he deserved such as prize, he was determined. However, all along the sometimes tiresome, sometimes dangerous and ever-adventurous journey, the sword proved elusive. He couldn’t find it.

He arrived at his destination disappointed and dejected. He thought himself a failure. And then, in a moment of inspiration, the doors were flung open and the purpose of his pilgrimage came to light: The very reason he was called upon this journey was to make him ask the question: “What am I going to us my sword for?” He realized in this moment of epiphany that a sword is pointless unless you have asked, and answered, that question.

That point of destination was no ending, but only a new beginning. He knew he had to return home to discover the meaning and purpose of his prize — to know how he would use this very special gift. (Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey, p.188)

As followers of Christ, we have been given the gift of resurrection. Jesus is alive, today. That is what we celebrate: Not only the joy of that first Easter morning over two thousand years ago. But to reflect and get ready for a re-start in our lives today, wherever we are.

Easter addresses that human longing to start over, but this time with renewed vigour for life. Saint Augustine called the restart a longing for God, the restlessness that only finds rest in God. Paul Tillich called it the ground or the power of being itself. Kierkegaard called it the leap of faith that quells anxiety. Easter is the Christian answer to the desire to live life ever abundantly, as Jesus willed for us (John 10:10).

This is not an easy accomplishment.

Mary came to the tomb thinking that death was the end for Jesus. She goes in the dark, presumably to prepare Jesus’ $5 worth of minerals and chemicals for burial. She is resigned to the finality of the journey — death. She is grieving. At first she does not even recognize new life when it is in front of her. But when the Risen Christ speaks her name (John 20:16) she knows.

The Lenten journey is symbolic of our journey of life: It isn’t always easy to trod the path that Jesus made to the Cross — the Cross of personal self-reflection, the Cross of confessing our sins and our ultimate dependence on God, the Cross which symbolizes a profound letting go of all that inhibits life in us and in the world. It isn’t always easy to look at the suffering and dying Jesus in our midst.

Maybe you can relate to Mary? (Or the disciples who when they first hear the news from Mary, “they don’t believe” — Luke 24:11). Maybe on this Easter 2014 you are resigned to the futility of life and the awful pain of death, the finality of death: perhaps the death of a beloved friend or family member, perhaps the death that pervades our culture, tragic deaths that come as a result of war, terrorism, violence, natural disasters the world over; perhaps the death of a business, friendship, even the church.

Maybe even one or more of these things has convinced you that not much makes sense in this life and although you are breathing, your heart is beating, but it is also breaking. There’s been so much sorrow and loss in your life that you showed up here today not looking for life but expecting to find more of the same … Easter bunnies and jelly beans … some candy-coated cliches that do not touch the real questions of your life or bring comfort to your deep grief.

As Jesus called Mary’s name, so the Risen Christ calls each one of us by our name. We are called by name to stand up and receive the gift of his new life. We are called by name to stand up, and press the reset button on our lives. We are called, each of us by name, to stand up and embrace the deep meaning of what this gift of new life means to us: to live abundantly in Christ whose life breathes and lives in us, now. And, then, we are called to share that new life in the world.

The living Jesus is always one step ahead of us, beckoning us to the future. The angel in the tomb instructs Mary to go ahead to Galilee where they will see Jesus (Matthew 28:7). And when Jesus suddenly appears to his disciples behind locked doors, he instructs them to share the news that Jesus will meet with all the disciples in Galilee (Matthew 28:10). New life in Christ is forward-looking; Jesus awaits us in God’s good future. There is hope in the possibilities of God’s future for us.

And that, my friends, is better news than bunnies and jellybeans. It is the reason for all our alleluias!

So, let us in this Eastertide, press the re-set button on life. The life of Jesus is our precious gift. A journey may come to an end, in a sense. The journey of Lent is behind us; it is done, for now. The darkness has cleared.

But it is the dawn of the day. A new journey begins.

It is time to begin, again.

Hallelujah! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Bane and Blessing

In the popular Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “Rapunzel”, that was in recent years adapted for the big screen in the movie “Tangled”, the main character, Rapunzel, has extremely long hair. This is her gift, it would appear.

But the evil witch has locked her in a room at the top of a tall tower without any entrance or exit except a window near the top. The witch and the prince climb up to the room where Rapunzel lives, by calling for Rapunzel to let down her long hair; they use her hair like a rope ladder.

But Rapunzel never uses her gift of long hair to free herself from her entrapment. While others recognized the gift she had, for better or for worse, why couldn’t she just cut off her own hair? Why could Rapunzel not use her gift, especially if it meant freedom? She had what she needed to be free!

Was it her strong emotional attachment to her hair that prevented her from living life truly, freely? If only she could let go and surrender that which was most precious to her….

In the famous Beatitudes, Jesus described the ‘blessedness’ of those in the kingdom of God. How can we understand this ‘blessing’? This Sermon on the Mount does not read like a self-help manual for the successful, in the twenty-first century. There is something counter-cultural going on here; something paradoxical, even radical.

It seems to suggest to me that to be followers of Christ we must also be able to see in ourselves what we see in others: the bane and the blessing, the good and bad, both/and. It is, on the one hand, to recognize the sinner in ourselves, and to forgive – let go, surrender – ourselves of that sin. And not let it rule us.

To recognize, embrace and confess the poverty of spirit within us.

To explore and acknowledge places of grief and loss in our own lives.

To practice humility with others, a stance that recognizes God as the “source of our life” (1 Cor 1:30).

To identify and name our own hungers, longings and thirst for righteousness.

To be merciful unto ourselves, to begin with.

To search after the purity of our own heart.

To share the gift of peace that is within us.

And to endure the persecution and suffering we all encounter in whatever form, for Christ’s sake.

It’s easy to point the finger, and see it in others, and preserve our own sense of self. It’s easy to do nothing and ‘wait’ for someone to come and save you from your problems (like Rapunzel), without noticing the resources you have yourself to do the right thing, even it means starting by confessing your own sin.

The Gospel of Jesus, while being simple is not easy. Therefore, we need not shy away from seeking after the ‘blessing’ of God upon our lives in our honest, simple, vulnerable selves. We need not hold back from coming to God in all our sinfulness, because God won’t hold back his love to us.

“Consider your own call …: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not…” Paul writes (1 Cor 1:26-28).

Spiritual greats over the centuries have recognized this truth of God. St Augustine says, “In my deepest wound I see your glory and it dazzles me.” Julian of Norwich put it, “God sees the wounds, and sees them not as scars but as honors … God does not blame us for them.” Paul wrote elsewhere, defining God as one “who creates life out of death and calls into being what does not exist” (Romans 4:17).

On the cross, Jesus reconciled all these divisions in himself (Ephesians 2:10). It was, and is, the pattern of his life with us, as the Scriptures testify: Jesus himself was crucified between a good thief and a bad thief, hanging between heaven and earth, holding on to both his divinity and humanity, expelled as a problem for both religion and state.

His dying – his absolute letting go – upended any religious program that said, ‘You need to earn your worth and favour with God.’ Letting go is the nature of all true spirituality. Letting go is the nature of any genuine reconciliation. Letting go is the engine of meaningful and lasting transformation. And these are all, admittedly, a mystery – a paradox.

For Rapunzel, we cannot blame her for being attached to her hair; after all, it was a gift. Why would she want to cut it off – for any reason? Why would she want to give that up? It was such a deep part of her identity.

When we see Jesus on the cross, we see that our faith is about being ‘attached’ in love. Jesus instructs his followers in the Golden Rule to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27).

But there’s a price, a cost, to pay for it. When you love someone, and act out of love for them, there is always the risk of pain and we will suffer for it. If we love, we give ourselves to feel the pain of the world. Love will simply lead us to the cross.

Sometimes the worst possible circumstances in our lives turn out to be the greatest gift – and vice versa. Because our greatest gift can be the source of our downfall; or, at very least, keep us from become the people God called us to be. Yet, it is in the collision and letting go of these opposites, where the blessing is realized.

Listen to the witness of a Catholic priest who visited the Philippines:

“I saw so many shining eyes in the Philippines, yet these are souls who have been eaten up and spit out by life. The Filipinos are a people with so little. I celebrated a Sunday Mass in a squatter’s camp. Shacks all around. Yet they were so excited that ‘Fodder’ was coming. The kids met me to lead me into the barrio. Out of these shacks came kids in perfectly clean clothes. I don’t know how the mothers kept them so clean. They were all dressed up for Sunday Mass. The boys all got their guitars, and it was the big event of the week. They have something we have lost.

“I felt like telling them, ‘You live in a dump by our standards, but do you know what you have? You’re not cynical like we are. You’re all smiling. Why should you be smiling? You don’t have any reason to smile. You live in a shack! It smells like garbage. But you have father and mother and clear, simple identity.’”

Then, this priest confesses: “I don’t know who trained them to do this, but you constantly feel your hand taken by the little Filipino children. They take your hand and put it to their head. They don’t ask you to bless them. They take it from you. It made me weep. For they have their souls yet! They have light, they have hope. The little children call you ‘Fodder, Fodder,’ and I think when they pull blessings out of you, blessings really come forth.

“They are ready for the blessing. They believe in the blessing, and you are not really sure if it was there until they saw it, expected it, and demanded it. These are the blessed of the earth,” he concludes.

These are ones who don’t need to be taught the faith. They live it. They live the mystery of life and death, blessing and loss. They’re okay with paradox, even if they can’t articulate it as such. They don’t need everything explained to them. They just love. And bless. And are blessed.

They, indeed, have the light of Christ. And they know it, deep down, in their souls.

Apart from the reference to Rapunzel and the film, Tangled, most of this reflection is adapted from Chapter 6, “Return to the Sacred” in Richard Rohr’s book, “Everything Belongs”