What marvels the Lord worked for us; indeed we were glad
Reflection for Vespers during the Easter Octave 2019 by Sr Ann Swailes
Famously, Lent lasts for 40 days and 40 nights. Eastertide lasts for 50, and it’s interesting to speculate on the reason for this difference. It’s not, I think, simply that the Church in her kindness and wisdom gives us longer in which to feast than to fast, though that’s no bad, and - as we shall see - no trivial thing. There’s a less comfortable explanation also. Eastertide is given us so that we can begin to assimilate the marvels the Lord has done for us, to make our peace with a world made new. For that, we need all the time we can get.
Strange as it may seem, and notwithstanding our relief at being able once again to eat chocolate, drink gin, waste time on Facebook or whatever, if we are honest, there is something disturbing about Easter, something we might well, at least at first, want to keep at arms’ length; our eyes screwed up against the searing brightness of the dawn of resurrection. We need time to become accustomed to the light, time to learn to see, to get our bearings in an unimaginable landscape.
Before Easter, we are only too well aware of where we are. The traditional spiritual spring cleaning that we are encouraged to undertake during Lent, after all, has offered us the opportunity to take a close-up look at the all too familiar territory of our lives, with all our weakness, shame, and, yes, sin. And in Holy Week, we seek – and we are right to seek – consolation in the willingness of God to enter right into the heart of that territory; to be with us in even in the pain, loneliness and terror we sometimes dare not name to ourselves. In the garden the night before he dies he is with every one of us who has ever lain awake dreading what morning will bring, or who has ever known humiliation at the hands of those they love. Naked on the Cross, he is with everyone whose vulnerability is violated, everyone whose body is objectified as expendable collateral damage in someone else’s power struggle, or as a plaything in someone else’s quest for self-gratification. This is our world, the world we know. But Eastertide reverses all this, as God in the flesh rises from death, returns to his natural habitat of unending, irrepressible life, in order to take us with him. That ought to be good news; it is the ultimate good news, that oppression and rejection and fear will not be the last word in any of our lives, but we’re not used to it, not used to the atmosphere of the resurrection; we have to become acclimatized to a new environment, and one that at first makes no sense at all.
The accounts we have been reading all week, if we have been able to come to Mass, show us just this in the life of the first disciples. The women go to the tomb to honour the dead – and find it empty except for the grave clothes. That must have made a sickening kind of sense: the wounds of grief deepened by the outrage of a body desecrated: perhaps in a deep part of themselves they had been dreading something of the kind, given the hullaballoo that surrounded his show-trial and execution. But then, the voice: he is not here, he is risen. What is that all about? The disciples see Jesus risen from the tomb and they think he is a ghost; a moment of fear, certainly, but, again, not without a certain kind of deathly logic to it: Jesus died, and now his spirit walks, as spirits of the dead have haunted the imagination of the living from time out of time. But Jesus obstinately refuses to behave as a decent spectre should. There is nothing ethereal or conventionally spooky about his demeanour: rather than dissolving into immateriality at their approach, he asks to be fed with solid food, proffers his own wounded flesh to be touched and held. What is going on?
What is going on? Just what are these marvels that the Lord works for us, and why should it make us glad rather than simply terrified that we are losing our grip on meaning, adrift in incomprehension?
When the Lord delivered Zion from bondage, the psalmist tells us, it seemed like a dream. And there is a dreamlike quality to much that we hear of during Easter week, in the description the gospels give us of our deliverance from bondage by the Passover of Jesus from death to life. It’s important to be quite clear what this means. To say that Easter seems like a dream is most certainly not to say that the accounts of the empty tomb and the Risen Lord are descriptions of dreams, that these things did not really happen except in the disturbed psyches of the bereaved. The meal in the inn at Emmaus where the secrets of the prophets and the bread are both broken apart to reveal the Lord, the lakeside breakfast and Peter’s restoration to fellowship with the One he has denied, Thomas’s words of affirmation echoing down the centuries to us as we make them our own in greeting Christ in his Eucharistic body - My Lord and my God: these are not compensatory fantasies, in any sense unreal: these are events with a solidity compared with which all other events are, so to speak, thin and insubstantial, just as a body that can work through a wall is certainly less ethereal than one that cannot. And, while dreaming about a recently deceased loved one, which is indeed a common phenomenon among those who grieve, can bring a moment or two of consolation, such cold comfort, cruelly shattered on waking, could hardly have been what got Christianity going and established in the world of the hostile efficiency that engineered the Crucifixion. If this is all that happened between the first Good Friday and the first Easter Day, the survival of Christianity would be a miracle surely requiring at least as great faith as belief in the Resurrection itself.
No, the resurrection is no dream, no fantasy. But the resurrection story does have a dream like quality. Familiar figures are unrecognisable: Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener. Crazy inversions seem to make perfect sense: Peter puts his clothes on in order to go swimming. But, above all, it contains features that are literally significant: that symbolise, stand for and evoke realities beyond themselves. It is a commonplace, not only of modern psychotherapy, but of ancient wisdom, that dreams can be revelatory, can show us truths that are otherwise obscure, precisely in this way, by using the language of sign and symbol. And there are things in the resurrection accounts that are like those moments in our dreaming which seem especially freighted with mysterious meaning, that we know, when we wake, are important, even if we would be hard pressed to say why: details so specific and apparently insignificant that one wonders why they are otherwise mentioned: the 153 fish caught at Jesus’ command to let down the nets; the charcoal fire on the beach of Tiberias. To our ancestors in the faith, there would have seemed nothing surprising in suggesting that all these apparently arbitrary touches of local colour are full to bursting with a meaning they seem too small to carry: for them, the whole universe was meaningful, a vast shimmering network of signs whose very complexity pointed ultimately to the simplicity and the beauty of God. That is why they loved to play with allegory, asking, for instance whether the 153 fish stood for the nations of the world to whom the good news was to be preached. They saw nothing forced or quaint or naïve about reading the gospel like this because God is the mind behind it all, the author of one vast story which embraced and included their own experience, all their own stories. And perhaps in this they are wiser than we sometimes are with our realism. It is a curious fact, after all, that if we begin to pay attention to our dreams, we may find that our “real life”, our waking takes on a similar significant quality; we see patterns, we see connections between events, and memories, come to see our whole lives as the masterpiece of a story teller in which no detail, however apparently trivial, is out of place or meaningless. And hence, we can come to see the minor crucifixions and resurrections that come all our ways as part of this story too so that, though we may sow in tears, we may be sure that we shall sing as we reap.
And so back to where we started from, to the sense that feasting should be more dominant in our Christian life than fasting, that it is good, and appropriate, fitting, as the old theologians would say, for this reason too, therefore, that Eastertide, is longer than Lent. Several times in the course of the Easter story, Jesus is shown eating and drinking with his friends. He has a pub supper at Emmaus, a beach barbecue by the lakeside, and, when wishing to reassure the disciples that he is truly alive, and truly himself, he asks them for fish to eat. Why? Why is all this important? It is important because this too is a sign: a sign that shows us who this God is with whom we have to deal, and shows us too how great is our own dignity made in his image. If God was other than he is, if he had made us to be other than we are, God could just have sent the disciples a vague spiritual sense that all would be well, despite the destruction of Jesus’ earthly body; the tomb did not have to be empty if God was only concerned with the vague and the spiritual; if our bodies were expendable and of little worth. But it was empty, and that empty-ness, heart-stopping and heart-breaking as it must initially have seemed; vulnerable to misinterpretation like any other bit of history, is itself a sign; a sign of the goodness of the body that is not allowed to remain and dwindle to dust and decay but raised to imperishable glory. And because of this it is good, and appropriate, and fitting to feast that body as we celebrate its glory. Good, appropriate and fitting too, to hunger and thirst for justice for those whose bodies will go unfeasted, unfed, this Easter. Good and appropriate and fitting too to show the gentleness of the Risen Christ to those who fear their own bodies are far from glorious, those in the hell of addiction, or eating disorder or the irrational guilt and shame of the abuse survivor. That, too, is an honouring of the body’s glory that proceeds from the empty tomb.
What marvels the Lord worked for us. Indeed we are glad. We are delivered from bondage by Christ our Passover who has been sacrificed for us. Let us keep his feast. Alleluia, Amen.