The Easter Vigil occupies a tense time in the liturgical calendar, clinging to the cusp between adamantine grief over the death of Jesus and suppressed joy at his anticipated resurrection. The tension between finitude and death on the one hand and the transcendent joy of life above death on the other makes this a liturgical occasion like no other. Note that I am speaking about liturgical time here, not historical time. On the historical Saturday after the crucifixion the disciples knew only the death part and had no clue about resurrection. For all of Saturday they were immobilized by the restrictions of the Sabbath observance and could not move to bury Jesus properly until first-light on Sunday. Mark’s gospel says that the women on the way to the tomb were fretting about how to get the stone door moved so they could embalm his body. That was a depressing fretfulness, not a tension with hope. Heavy grief, heavy depression, heavy stone. When they arrived, they found the stone already moved and a young man looking for all the world like Legolas the Elf sitting in the tomb. He said Jesus had been raised and ordered them to tell the disciples to meet Jesus up north in Galilee. But the women were terrified, fled the tomb, and contrary to what they were told said nothing to anyone out of fear. Heavy. No tension. Just a world weighted down with ending and loss. Adamantine boundaries on everything finite and good—nothing crosses over into morning except another day like the last. This is historical time.
In the liturgical time of our Vigil we already know about the Easter outcome balancing the Good Friday. Liturgical time, with its yearly round, views historical time from the standpoint of eternity made time-like by repetition. Liturgical time is tense with the contrast between the immeasurable fullness of eternity and the limitations of finite life, which is as resurrection is to death. From the standpoint of liturgical time, every temporal moment is ripe with that tension and in the Christian liturgical calendar the Easter Vigil is the ripest of all.
Good Friday is emblematic of the limitations of finite life. Jesus was too young to die. He had a following filled with enthusiasm for the reform of his religion but they scattered and denied him when things got tough. And they weren’t very good as disciples anyway, especially in Mark’s estimation. Jesus was unjustly accused, mocked as a fake king, and executed as a criminal, naked in humiliation before his mother, her friends, and the disciple who was his beloved: Jesus was not a hero. His body was rushed without honor into a tomb before the Sabbath observance.
This is high drama, Jesus’ Passion story. Our own lives are usually not so extreme. But each of us has crosses to bear, even we favored ones gathered here. Imagine life in Darfur! Each of us has ambitions, many of which are fulfilled but others of which are frustrated, and nothing lasts. We have friends and enemies, successes and failures, victories and defeats, ambitions and compromises, health and sickness, a span of life and an adamantine end of that span one day.
The truth of historical time is that our lives are filled with good things and bad and then end. Within only historical time we face the weightiness of finitude with some courage and hope. Sometimes within historical time our hopes are justified. But when things are really bad, they are not. Think of African Americans who hope for the end of racism but know it will not be in their lifetime. Think of the gay, lesbian, and other sexual minority people who hope for full acceptance but know it will not be in their lifetime. Sometimes hope is foolish. Paul hoped for Jesus to return in his lifetime and it did not happen. By the measures of only historical time, Christianity is an empirical failure. In the despairs of historical time we hope for surprises and sometimes they simply do not come.
From the standpoint of the eternity of liturgical time we can accept all this. Life is this hard and Jesus’ crucifixion is a good emblem of this. But from the standpoint of the eternity of liturgical time, historical time is only a facet of the moments of our lives because we also live in the context of God’s creation in which our finitude, failures, and short spans are part of the immeasurable value of the created cosmos. In the Christian story, this is the resurrection theme of Easter balancing the death theme of Good Friday. The resurrection theme is articulated within the future tense of historical time: after death comes resurrection. After terrible Good Friday and heavy Holy Saturday comes joyful Easter. In common Christian symbolism we look for resurrection after death. We translate the eternal meaning of Jesus’ life into a story with past tense antecedents in the early history of Israel, with the liturgical re-presentations of Jesus actual life into the round of his present tense activities, and with the maneuvers of resurrection and ascension to get Jesus out of the way so that the Church can be Jesus’ future tense continuation. We have mythologized the historical Jesus so that the glorious eternity of real life within God’s creation can be expressed as if it were a matter of historical time. If the story of Jesus were not mythologized, if it were taken as existing in only historical time, it could not bear the tension of the historical and eternal. It would be a story only of failure. The heart of religion, any religion, including Christianity, is whatever sustains the tension in daily life between the adamantine failures of finitude and the joy of eternity that gives hope for carrying on despite historical hopelessness. Every religion has its myths that attempt to sustain that tension so that life in history can be lived with the joy of eternity.
The mythology of Jesus has sustained many traditions and pockets of authentic life in the direst of historical circumstances. But by and large the Jesus mythology has lost its ability to sustain the tension between the finite and infinite for many people in Western cultures, especially since the European wars among Christian nations in the early 20th century. Extraordinary attempts have been made to provide retellings of the Christian myth and I want to mention four of the most influential in order to illustrate how important mythic form is as the bearer of the truth of the eternal.
The original Star Wars trilogy was standard science fiction that affirmed God front and center as the Force that could be accessed through discipline but used for good or for evil. For the Star Wars mythology, life is a fight of well-intentioned people and fetching beasties against an evil will; but the course of that fight centers on reconciliation, first of brother and sister separated at birth and then of father and son, the latter being representatives respectively of the Dark Side and the Light. Standard religious themes of discipleship, mentoring, testing, courage, skill, and inventiveness were given delightful expression, much to the edification of a generation. The good guys win, of course. Most strikingly, the follow-up Star Wars movies were prequels, not a sequel mirroring the Church living in ambiguous resurrection time. Instead the prequels explored the fall, the development of the evil Darth Vader out of the best and brightest, and told a story of failed mentoring. Alas, the victory of the good over the evil in Star Wars seemed too easily fore-ordained to be an emblem of our lives.
Easy victory is not the problem in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I asked a recent class whether they received their moral and spiritual orientation from the Bible or the Lord of the Rings and the Rings won by at least three to one. Gandalf is a Jesus figure for them, rising from the dead. Mostly, however, the books display the noble virtues of friendship across unlikely differences, fierce loyalty through protracted failure, patience and true grit, sacrifice for the success of others, and reluctant devotion to the duties of your watch. The little people win. Unlike the Jesus story, resurrection is a tactical step toward leading one’s party to victory. No one important and good dies except in ennobling circumstances. Although Frodo’s early wound never quite heals, it does not keep him from physical and emotional heroism and he gets to sail off into the happy land of the elves at the end. Gollum seems an interestingly ambiguous character but his murderous greed in the end nails down the victory for the righteous. For all the apparently desperate struggles, victory is complete in launching the glorious new Age of Men within history. The lessons of the Lord of the Rings are that serious redemption does not happen, that only true grit wins the victory, and that there is nothing like a Church that has to translate with great difficulty an eternal victory into the ongoing affairs of time. This myth is not the Christian one, despite its intent.
The Chronicles of Narnia by Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis draws the opposite lesson from that of the Rings. It has its share of martial derring-due and a sacrificial hero, Aslan, who dies to redeem someone else and rises again. But in the concluding Narnia novel, The Last Battle, the good side loses in a slaughter and the forces of evil are victorious until Aslan destroys the world and time. In dying, the good people and animals retreat through a stable door into a heavenly land beyond history. History is a lost cause. But the good people run higher and higher up, farther and farther in, and at each stage the colors get brighter, the sounds clearer, and their vision broader. In a most remarkable rendition of heaven, Lewis depicts the transition to greater eternal reality, more intense, more deeply real. Narnia and its history are not half so real as the world in eternal perspective. But by and large there is not much moral ambiguity in Narnia, as there is not in the Rings. Good people have straight doubled-edged swords like the English and bad ones have scimitars and worship an evil god from Tashkent.
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is far more sophisticated about moral ambiguity, starting from the childish dualism of evil, as in the murder of Harry’s parents, vs. the good of those who support him. As he ages Harry takes on the increasingly complicated issues of ambiguous heritage, competitive friendship, and the dark side of his best intentions. Whereas in the Rings, the bad guys are ugly and the good ones beautiful (or at least cute like Gimli and the hobbits), in Rowling’s saga the deformed and ugly are the virtuous ones and the evil humans, the Malfoys, are classically beautiful, like Legolas. Professor Snape, bitter in his heart because of unrequited love, oscillates in seeming a villain or a hero, again and again, and generally is hated by Harry and his friends. But Snape summons the courage to kill Dumbledore, his only friend, out of love and loyalty for Dumbledore and he ultimately brings Harry to his duty, dying himself in defense of Harry whom he also hates. Harry learns, as he matures, that he has a piece of the evil Voldemort within himself accounting for his own evil intentions and, ironically, sets out on a quest to murder Voldemort by destroying all the things that contain the guarantees of Voldemort’s life. Harry’s penultimate lesson is that he himself has to die in order for Voldemort to be killed. This is not like Gandalf’s or Aslan’s sacrifice where their own virtues cheat death. Harry’s death is because of the evil in Harry himself. Harry has to die to his own evil. Then his ultimate lesson is that he has the choice to remain out of the world as a pure spirit or to re-enter and finish the combat, which he does. For Rowling’s version of the Christian mythology, we have to die to the evil within us before we can face the evil powers outside. And then we have to choose again to face those evils of finite life before we find the proper tensions of finite life and transcendent victory. For Rowling the end of the story is not heaven, not reconciliation, not a new age, but carrying on the next generation which might have to face the same perils at Hogwarts that Harry did when he first went. As a re-mythologizer, Rowling alone of these four knows that baptism into Christ means than we too must die in order to bear the eternity of resurrection in the midst of daily life.
The liturgy of the Easter Vigil displaces onto the story of Jesus the tenseness of the lives we all live, balancing the heaviness of our lives considered only historically with the levity of our lives considered eternally within the life of God. Each moment of our historical lives is lived also in eternity, together with our past and future, together with the companions of our youth and maturity, together with the saints and others, together with a cosmos so vast we barely can imagine it. Each of our moments bears eternity and so we always live in resurrection from the adamantine limits of the situation. But each of our moments also has to be lived on its own account in historical time, with its choices, hopes, frustrations, and pains. The Easter Vigil calls us to enter into our moments with full participation, engaged to the fullest, vulnerable to suffering and joy. If we can see ahead to accomplishment and fulfillment, so much the better. But if all we see is the need to complete an embalming, that is still our place and we can see that as part of eternal life.
A few weeks ago I fell into a diabetic coma and would have died if it weren’t for my wife’s quick action. Happily I was quickly rebalanced and back at work but for several days the sky was bluer and the colors were brighter than I ever remember, as if I were higher up and further in. Christians shouldn’t need shocks like that. Day by day we live in tensed historical time, relating to the past, to the future, and to the present circumstances that might be as joyful as the wedding in Cana or as grave as the Saturday after crucifixion. Having been baptized to death and life with Jesus, we should know that there is more to being in God’s creative life than living with the tenses of past, present, and future. In every moment we are lifted with those tenses into the eternal life of God in which the living verbs are in the infinitive form. The tension of this Vigil’s drama confronts us, like waking from a coma, with the shock that living in time is also living in eternity, that the tensed historical time of past, present, and future is also the eternal time of resurrection. Jesus was mythologized into a story of eternity in time that can be our story. Because of that, we are resurrection people day by day.
~Dean Robert Neville