Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Highest Holy Day

Alleluia Alleluia Alleluia!

The strife is o'er, the battle done
The victory of life is won
The song of of triumph hath begun: Alleluia!

The powers of death have done their worst
But Christ their legions hath dispersed
Let shouts of holy joy outburst: Alleluia!

The three sad days are quickly sped
He rises glorious from the dead
All glory to our risen Head: Alleluia!

He closed the yawning gates of Hell
The bars from heaven's high portals fell
Let hymns of praise his triumphs tell: Alleluia!

Lord, by the stripes which wounded thee
From death's dread sting thy servants free
That we may live and sing to thee: Alleluia!

Alleluia Alleluia Alleluia!

The hymn, translated from Latin by Francis Pott and set to the tune VICTORY by Giovanni de Palestrina, was performed in the video by the choir, organ, and congregation of the incomparable Washington National Cathedral, a true flagship cathedral of liturgical Christianity and of American Protestantism.

This is the fourth in a series on Holy Week.  See previous posts for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

Easter is a wonderful day.  The idea behind it is so tempting, hopeful, and powerful: the triumph of life over death and light over darkness.  For many years when I was younger, I often felt sad and guilty celebrating Easter.  It was a glorious day, but there was one problem: I didn't believe in the literal, historical truth of the central miracle Easter proclaims: that God raised Jesus from the dead.  Don't blame my parents or Sunday school teachers.  I have no doubt that they dutifully taught me the Easter story.  They also taught me that a large white rabbit brought me (and every kid) a basket of candy and colored eggs.  If my belief in the historicity of the resurrection lasted longer than my belief in the Easter Bunny, it wasn't by much.  But I quickly and adeptly perceived which Easter miracle it was socially acceptable for a nice Methodist boy to admit his skepticism about.  From then on, I kept my mouth shut and tried to do what (in the words of Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers of Mayflower United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City) most Christians do: "Believe things they know aren't true in order to get rewards they doubt are even available."

To my great relief, I learned in college that there were, in fact, many strands of the Christian tradition that viewed the Bible's more unlikely stories through an interpretive lens that emphasized the meaning of the stories and the thrust of the entire biblical witness over the literal truth of a few supernatural phenomena.  Now, let me be clear: OBU was not one of those liberal-minded places.  Never has been, never will be, and that's fine.  But for me, just knowing that there might actually be some version of Protestantism that I could believe honestly and with integrity was a tremendous relief.  It provided some very thrilling intellectual and spiritual experiences for me that would propel me through college, graduate school, and a church vocation.

There are a lot of places you can go today to hear some guy's opinion about the meaning of Easter, so I'll spare you mine.  But I really do hope you will grapple with the hard issue that our eggs, baskets, bunnies, pastel clothes, and family dinners (my grandmother always made lamb) make it easy for us to dodge: most pastors and churches are asking you to believe something you may know in your heart is false.  And on that belief hangs plenty of other divine magic tricks of suspect historical validity, an entire theology based on the logic of scapegoating and the efficacy of slaughtered animal blood for situating people on the right side of God's wrath, and the implication that assent to all this is what ultimately defines whether you are "in" or "out" with respect to the church, God, and your own salvation and eternal destiny.

I would just like to submit for your consideration that Easter is about something more than what happened to Jesus' molecules.  Most of you will disagree, and that's fine.  I'm not trying to change your mind about whatever you believe.  But I do hope you will be fearlessly honest with yourself about what you actually believe and why.  (Surprising numbers of people, including born-again Christians, believe in ghosts, witches, UFOs, astrology, and reincarnation.)  Most people will concede that Jonah didn't really get eaten by a fish.  A smaller number will admit that Jesus' mother's pregnancy was started in the usual way.  But only a few will admit that, even though Jesus clearly was special/inspired/enlightened/divine, his molecules were not.  Once you come to terms with that realization, you will have crossed the Rubicon of faith.  It may be unpleasant to tell your pastor/mother/friends.  But on the other side awaits a life of faith that is more honest, searching, challenging, compelling, and meaningful.

A lot of people are concerned that there is a "slippery slope" between orthodoxy and atheism, as this 1922 cartoon depicts.  I would argue that the reverse is true.  If they can get you to believe one impossible, outlandish thing, they can get you to believe anything.  You'll have to stop caring what others think of your beliefs.  It's difficult at first but trust me, it gets easier.  During all those years I believed Easter was primarily about a divine magic trick, I never grasped the fullness of its true meaning.  I was so consumed by the obvious and overwhelming cognitive dissonance and distracted by the eggs, bunnies, pastel-colored ties, and lamb dinners.

Now, free from the burden of trying or pretending to believe in something I know isn't true, I have been able to approach Easter (and its truly glorious art, music, and liturgy) with an unmatched sense of wonder and excitement.  On Friday, I briefly discussed my reservations about the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.  That idea necessarily restricts one's view of the resurrection, whereas other theologies of atonement such as Moral Influence or Christus Victor (which the hymn above so beautifully expresses) emphasize the Resurrection more prominently.  I happen to believe that resurrection is literally a metaphor.  We celebrate Easter in the Spring of the year when the whole earth is experiencing a resurrection.  The azaleas, lilies, hydrangeas -- insert your favorite spring foliage and flowers here -- emerge from the cold ground and remind us that life triumphs over death.  The lengthening days following the spring equinox (after which the day is literally longer than the night) remind us of the triumph of light over darkness.  Whatever you believe happened to Jesus' molecules, I hope the grandeur, glory, majesty, and mystery of Easter fills you with joy and wonder today and always.

This I wish for you with all my heart.

Jacob Lupfer
Easter 2012
jlupfer [at]

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