Perhaps you’ve appreciated that somehow Easter has largely escaped numerous attempts to turn it into a massive excuse for more consumerism. (The article, “Holy Crossmas” in Slate does a good job of summing up some reasons.) So far, the commercial side is largely limited to the mildly pagan Easter eggs and bunnies that don’t really steal a great deal of our attention. Politicians even seem to resist exploiting this and whining about the War on Easter.In the absence of mass consumerism, two alternatives left are a quiet and passing nod to a somewhat confusing religious history (that we may or may not identify with) or a deep immersion into something that tries to wrench our attention away from the status quo – the way things are. And are we not all a little ambivalent about wanting this violent wrenching?
We usually think of tradition as equivalent to the status quo, but at Easter it seems different. Here, tradition, when we let it, attempts to draw our attention to how utterly disorienting Christian origins are. The point of the Easter story is not to remind us that “Jesus had some hard times too,” nor is it to make us a little glad that someone else went through something terrible so that we don’t have to; it is meant to throw us completely off balance, recalling that Jesus turned our perspectives upside down with a one-two punch.
Forget, at least for a minute, theological explanations of how the cross might (or might not) make sense, and remember that the first meaning of the cross was the crushing failure of the best glimpse of hope and love and forgiveness that had ever been seen. What the Hell was going on? Someone enters into the status quo and awakens the imagination, creating an amazing new possibility for understanding God, and then he quietly lets himself get brutally shamed and killed in an all-too-typical response from the dominating “Powers that Be.” (The main problem, in my opinion, with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is that the unique brutality is not the point – the point of the cross is the typical crushing of truth and love by the violence of Empires.)
The crucifixion shatters the status quo by demanding an emotional response when we truly face it. This is wrong! We must stop cooperating with the violent oppression of the weak and powerless. The Roman attempt was all about shaming Jesus, but the result was that the shame of the status quo was fully exposed. This is all wrong and it still is. Every time we see its modern echoes in the Latin American “disappearances,” the torturing of suspects, the “collateral damage” bombing of civilians and on and on, we see that the world is still far too like the old Roman status quo. If our eyes are open, we know that we can’t keep letting this be. Yet if we demand revenge (or, worse, “pre-emptive” attacks), we simply join the Romans in seeking peace with violence.
For the first punch, the cross, to lead to anything other than despair, there had to be a second, equally disconcerting, moment – the resurrection. The difficulty for our imaginations to “get” this shows up in the universally unsuccessful attempts at depicting the resurrection in the movie and TV versions of Jesus in a way that “feels true.” We’re best left with the mystery and the relative inconsistencies of the gospel accounts.
The proof of the resurrection was the early church. For at least a couple of hundred years, in spite of all kinds of messy struggles trying to get along with fellow Christians with different ideas, in spite of all kinds of mixed success with basic morality in the midst of wildly immoral cultures, in spite of the natural intrusion of many unhelpful ideas unworthy of Jesus, these churches were still largely characterized by the Spirit of Jesus – communities that practiced mutual forgiveness, radically practical love and the non-violent love of enemies, all made possible by having been won over by a new experience of what God was really like. They could keep heading down this upside-down path in spite of incredible suffering because that’s the way Jesus went.
To celebrate Easter is to let ourselves, and to help each other (because we’d often rather avoid it), be deeply and passionately thrown off balance again. To Hell with the status quo. We want a new way to live.