Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Long-Fingered Light

Easter lies too far beyond our experience for our imaginations to grasp much more than impressions of startling appearances of a beloved Lord and Master who is but isn’t dead, who is but isn’t a ghost, who is but isn’t the familiar figure his followers knew so well.  What was he like?  Well, flesh but not flesh as we know it, wounded but not with wounds as we know them, transformed but not in any we can really picture.  He appeared unannounced in locked rooms, walked incognito with puzzled and discouraged disciples, ate solid food but passed through solid walls.  Conceptual explanations of the resurrection don’t help much more than our flawed images do.  They make use of words we know, but they use them to expound a reality we don’t, not really. 

We’re in good company, to judge by the general confusion that seems to have left the first Easter Christians babbling contradictory of accounts of who saw what when and who believed whom—but quite often didn’t.  A stammer was probably the most honest way they could have described a reality into and over which they stumbled in happy but fearful discovery.  I sometimes feel as if all our Easter alleluia’s are our own contemporary way of stammering out a truth for which we have no really coherent words.

The risen Christ, transformed into the Fire hidden at the heart of human flesh which set Peter babbling on Tabor, sheds a light so bright it blinds us.  Paul could tell us something about that from his experience on the Damascus road.  But in fact, all the early believers could.  The gospel stories of Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection, and the Acts of the Apostles, which we read in its entirety during the Easter season during the liturgy, is the story of that light reaching out of an unimaginable future to touch one by one the dark places in which Christ’s early followers walked: the apostles’ fear, Mary Magdalene’s grief, Thomas’ angry doubt, Peter’s shame.  Those are consoling stories because the familiar and beloved Master, Teacher and Healer appears in person to cast light into experiences we too have known.  Fear, grief, doubt and shame are all shadows, sometimes consuming shadows, through which we all have walked.

But the story doesn’t stop with those personal encounters.  Jesus disappears from the scene at the Ascension, or seems to, but the Light does not.  We see a lame man condemned to a lifetime of begging at the Temple Gate spring up and walk at the sound of Jesus’ name invoked by Peter.  We hear of fights between Christians of differing ethnic origins settled by Peter’s creative wisdom.  Peter had learned a thing or two about humility by then and saw that no one could do everything that was needed, so he assigned some community members to be deacons who would care for practical needs the apostles couldn’t address.  Time management through delegation is not a new invention, just a new name for an old one.  We recoil at the sight of an angry mob driven by their religious beliefs to stone Stephen to death only to see Stephen himself walk through a horrible death with the courage inspired by the sight of the risen Christ, whom no one else, apparently, could see.  We see disciples jailed and freed, Paul held in suspicion by fellow Christians (for very good reason),  apostles arguing about what to require of Jewish converts, preachers thrown out of synagogues and cities, communities split in their loyalties to different leaders. We see, in other words, all the dark corners in which even Christians and Chrisitan communities sometimes find themselves even now, some two millennia after the resurrection.  We too know of crippling illness and injury, of jealousies that split families and communities, of offended believers casting killing stones—a story that appeared on this morning’s news, in fact—of Christian ministers jailed, of Church leaders held in suspicion, of Church leaders arguing policy and practice, of preachers fired or driven out of town, of communities divided by loyalties to opposing pastors.  The darkness of the New Testament church is far from outdated.

When we read Acts, we do not have the consolation of seeing the Jesus we’ve met in the gospels appear in these stories to solve all the problems.  What we see instead is what he promised:  the power of Spirit and Word at work illuminating flawed human beings like ourselves to see things in a new way, to discover suddenly what it means to “love your enemies as yourself,” to pick up pieces and find creative ways to put them back together so that the image of God can shine more clearly in a world still deeply held in the grip of darkness. 

The Light of the risen Christ still reaches long fingers from the hidden depths of God into our present shadows to pry us out of the dark grip of sin and death.  I cannot myself imagine the risen Christ, not really.  All my inner pictures seem unreal.  And I certainly cannot explain him.  But in the annals of the early Church, in the chronicle of the world, and indeed in the story of my own soul, I can see the Light at work.  And that Light is very real indeed.

Copyright 2014 Abbey of St. Walburga