Living resurrection

Harrowing of Hell, Christ's Descent into Limbo, Andrea Mantegna c. 1470The resurrection of Jesus, I confess, grows less interesting to me as I grow older. It’s not, I think, because my edge has grown dull in thirty-five years of trying to say something new and worthwhile about Easter. It’s because in this season of my life the issue of Easter has changed.

Today I’m less interested in whether there’s life after death than I am in whether there is life before death. It’s not the resurrection of Jesus that’s my primary concern (I’ve come to take that for granted); it’s my own. It’s not the body of the risen Christ I want to know about; it’s the power of resurrection in my life that draws my attention (Phil. 3:10-11). Like Paul, I want to know that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the power of God, I, too, might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4). I want to know that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to my mortal body also (Rom. 8:11).

It’s not that the resurrection of Jesus is unimportant. “For I would remind you,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:1, 3-5).

For the author of the earliest Christian scriptures in our Bible, it was of supreme importance. Without the resurrection of Jesus, we have no gospel, no faith, no hope. “If Christ has not been raised,” Paul wrote, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17, 19). There’s a reason why Easter Day is the most important day in the church’s calendar.

But if Easter is about only the resurrection of Jesus, then we’re like those women who took spices to the tomb to anoint a dead body, to care for the past, to preserve yesterday’s manifestation of God. And if Easter is about what happens to you and me after death, then we lose the heart of the Christian faith. For Paul and the writers of the gospels, the central message of Easter was not, “Jesus is alive, and here’s what that means for life after death.” For them and for us, the heart of the Easter proclamation and the heart of the Christian faith is, “Jesus is alive, and here’s what that means for life today.”

Yesterday, Holy Saturday, was the day marked by many Christians as the Harrowing of Hell. An ancient and respected tradition in the church holds that after Jesus was crucified, he descended into hell. Some versions of the Apostles’ Creed still refer to it. According to fifth-century patriarch Cyril of Alexandria, “When the gatekeepers of hell saw him, they fled; the bronze gates were broken open, and the iron chains were undone.”1 When Christ was set free from death, all the dead imprisoned in hell were also set free and returned to God. Several of our scriptures allude to this.

Can I – can you – accept a triumph so complete, a God of such grace, a Christ of such power? Something in me, I confess, cannot. Something in me wants to affirm the limitations that bind me, the grave that holds me fast, the judgment that consigns me to hell. For then nobody can expect as much of me, and I don’t have to expect as much of myself. Then I can say: I have weaknesses, therefore I cannot; I’m a sinner, therefore I’m not able; I have been judged, therefore I’m unworthy. Then I have a reason for settling for what I have always been.

Or maybe I don’t want to be set free because I have issues I’m not finished with. Maybe I have suffered injuries I’m not willing to forgive because I enjoy the power I have over others when they owe me something. Maybe I’ve grown comfortable with myself and with the little life that is mine because they’re familiar, and even familiar brokenness and suffering can seem better than unfamiliar wholeness. When my excuses are brushed aside, I have nowhere to hide. No wonder the first response to Jesus’ resurrection is terror, and one of the most frequent commandments in our scriptures is “Be not afraid.”

Be not afraid. “The voice of our Lord sounded into Hell,” a fourth-century theologian wrote, “and He cried aloud and burst the graves one by one. Tremblings took hold on Death; Hell that never of old had been lighted up, into it there flashed splendors, from the [angels] who entered in and brought out the dead to meet Him, who was dead and gives life to all.”2

“Sometimes we choose death-in-life,” Parker Palmer wrote, “– as in an unhealthy relationship, cynicism that shuts us down, non-stop negativity toward others, compulsive over-activity, work that compromises our integrity, substance abuse, etc. – because we’re afraid of what might come our way if we embraced resurrection-in-life.”3

I’m not talking about fear of spiders or of heights, of course. I’m talking about the fear that keeps me silent about Christ in an unfamiliar and maybe unfriendly crowd. I’m talking about the fear of being in need someday that makes me keep the real surplus I have instead of sharing it generously with someone who needs it. I’m talking about fearing to reveal my faults and failures for fear of feeling shame or setting myself up for rejection, instead of seeing them as empty cups to be filled with God’s grace, as thin places where new life might break through, as opportunities for a ministry of healing and growth with others (cf. 2 Cor. 1:3-7).

If I want more than to read about the resurrection of Jesus; if I really believe the Christian scriptures, that my resurrected life is not merely held in store for some day in the indeterminate future; if I want to know the power that comes with living resurrection today, then I’ll have to surrender my fear and risk living my faith not in theory but for real. I’ll have to strip off the terribly comfortable patterns of life that my culture and upbringing dictate.

The message of the risen Christ is, Be not afraid: Choose resurrection-in-life, unfamiliar and threatening as it may seem. Be not afraid: Choose resurrection-in-life, though you feel certain you’re not ready for it. For the Easter proclamation is, new life is ready for you. God has served it up and laid it before you, and all you have to do is feast on it.


notes — 1. Ancient Commentary of Scripture 11.107. ▪ 2. Ephraim the Syrian, Nisibene Hymns 36.11. ▪ 3. Facebook posting, 4 April 2015.

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