Jesus’ birth, ministry, and death are accounted for by eyewitnesses, and, even if they weren’t as much eyewitness accounts as they were narrative imperatives, the gospel writers obliged themselves to memorialize these happenings. That’s not to say they did it uniformly. While Matthew tells of kings and Luke notes shepherds, Mark skips the whole birth narrative entirely to bring us into the mind of a locust-eating, cameled-hair-clothed baptizer. John, on the other hand, introduces Jesus as the Word, and whatever else that might be, it near trivializes shepherds and kings by comparison. Luke shares the good Samaritan; Matthew gifts us with the beatitudes; John makes everything poetic and mystical. Matthew and Luke start their gospels like a student writing a late-night-due-tomorrow essay, and John is cosmically braggadocios. Mark, on the other hand, composes a great first sentence, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God. (Where’s the verb in that sentence?) With their varied styles and interest, sometimes reaching a lyrical eminence, the gospel writers have bequeathed the story of Jesus to endless generations. The Church, in relatively quick fashion, articulated the most important elements of Jesus’ life in the Christological articles of the creed: …conceived by the Holy Spirit/born of the virgin Mary/suffered under Pontius Pilate/ was crucified, dead, and buried/ the third day he rose from the dead…
Isn’t it odd then that there is no explicit account of the resurrection in any of the gospels? For all their poetic leisure and historical waffling, no one mentions the actual resurrection; it is only after-the-fact events that are recorded. Even stranger still, the entire thrust of the gospel story rises towards the crucifixion. On that hill, nailed to a tree, naked, jeered until dead: that is the gospels’ climax, the end of the ladder where the tension is at the highest. The resurrection, though, isn’t.
Can you imagine how the gospels would look if the climax was building towards a resurrected Jesus rather than a crucified Jesus? He could pop-in on Pilate and tell him exactly what truth is. Or he could surprise the chief priest and scribes, those half-scholar Pharisees, the whole cursed lot of them, and drag them off to Gehenna. The uncuffed, run-rampant Roman army could be mitigated to beagle-brained drifters. The resurrected Jesus could lasso up death like a cowboy-sheriff and pull the Reaper to the city square of verdicts and ropes. The crowds gathered could taunt and cajole death, “Where is your sting now, death.”
A good writer could never run out of great resurrected stories of Jesus, phantasmic or palpable. Instead, all we get is a confused narrative from Matthew who didn’t so much account for the resurrection as he told of the guards having a panic attack. And that wasn’t even about the resurrection; it was an angel who somehow seemed to roll the stone away after Jesus had been resurrection. Except for a couple of sentences that insinuate resurrection, Mark skips right over, leaving later writers to finish the work. In other gospels, there are a few appearances to the disciples fishing and others walking to Emmaus and that doubting Thomas thing, but no actual account of the resurrection itself.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the resurrection isn’t important. It is, maybe you could say, the greatest promise fulfilled while also being the greatest promise left to anticipate. Measured by the absence of the event itself and the sheer brevity of post-resurrection stories, it is the mere denouement in an otherwise epic biography. Put another way, the first few chapters of Chronicles devote more page space to a genealogical treadmill than the gospel writers have to say about the resurrection. So, what do we make of this?
Today, in this glorious season of Easter, when we decorate our sanctuaries with flowers and cry out hallelujah, Christ is Risen, we must contextualize our exuberance, the grandeur of Easter, with the prerequisites the gospel writers put such an emphasis on: the suffering Christ, the dead God. Without knowing the suffering, you don’t have the eyes to recognize the risen savior. What does this mean? What mind can fathom God’s sublimity? No one can say it means this or it means that; for as soon as a hand picks a meaning, as it would pick a lovely flower, three or four more equal meanings appear. I do think, however, we can get closer to the resurrection’s meaning by saying what it does not mean. Given the brevity of the resurrection and the longevity of Christ’s suffering, the resurrection is not intended to serve as an earthly escape plan. The resurrection doesn’t point to a cloud-drifting afterlife, as though our earthly existences were nothing more than a bus station for the heaven-bound Greyhound. In fact, it seems the resurrection narrative points not to golden streets and pearly gates. It points to suffering. And without the marks of suffering, resurrection can scarcely be recognized.
Perhaps this is why Mary Magdalene didn’t know Jesus at the tomb. Maybe this is why, in the Gospel of John, after appearing to the disciples he first shows them his scars; only then does the scriptures say, they saw the Lord. And again, poor Thomas, he doesn’t say, until I see Jesus I’m not buying it. He says until I touch his wounds, until I witness the brokenness of Jesus’ body, I will not believe. And when Jesus appears to the disciples in the gospel of Luke, he asks, “Why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Then he instructs the disciples to look at his wounds; the evidence of past suffering validates life renewed.
How different we are from the disciples. Instead of looking for signs of suffering on Easter, we enjoy higher church attendance, wear our Sunday best, and eat ham and other assortments – Peeps, Cadbury Eggs, chocolate bunnies, stowaway-Easter basket contracting blasphemies like a syphilis epidemic. Am I being too cynical to suggest that we even attempt to hid the cross with flowers on Easter morning? Stack Easter lilies to the ceiling and if that doesn’t work, chicken wire the cross and stuff it full of carnations. And if we aren’t exactly hiding the cross, we are conceivably camouflaging it. Maybe, I don’t know, but it seems to me that an equally appropriate use of the cross on Easter season would be not to hide the nail marks and crown of thorns, but to bring them out, display them, touch and feel them as the disciples did. Easter isn’t a time to forget about our suffering, Easter is the best time to look at it, run your fingers over the most tender spots of our soul, and tell the story of how the life within us has been crushed and ruined. Easter isn’t about a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. It isn’t about a baby chick pecking through an eggshell. Easter isn’t about new life. Easter is about the renewal of life destroyed. It is a time to show off our scars, a time to be honest about how bad it got, a time to remember what it was like living without hope. That old gospel song gets it right, “Because he lives/I can face tomorrow.” It is nothing so bombastic, just tomorrow. And when the world is slinging all kinds of bat-shit craziness, facing-down tomorrow exceeds our expectations.
The Easter season is the greatest time to show the world how broken our lives have gotten. Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. The resurrection isn’t meant for us to pretend like our wounds and brokenness have been erased from our identity. As Jesus uses his wounds to show his identity, our wounds will always be with us; they are a part of who we are. But the Easter season reminds us that our brokenness identifies not so much who we are as much as whose good company we enjoy. The hurt and disrepair of our bodies and souls, through the glory of Christ resurrected, is enough to face tomorrow.
The images I shot for this blog, I hope, bring together the idea of suffering and renewal, and the possibility of them standing in one place. For the camera enthusiast, these are all single images, edited only slightly in Lightroom. I didn't use Photoshop or any other software.
As always if you found this meaningful or if you enjoyed the images, please feel free to share.