It’s funny how an idea gets in your head…how it takes root and then turns into a bigger idea until it changes the way you see things. A couple of weeks ago, as part of a casual scroll through Facebook, my attention was drawn to a cartoon posted by a clergy friend of mine. The cartoon has the tagline “what if they had cell phones at the resurrection”. It shows Jesus stepping out of the tomb to a small crowd recording this miraculous moment. One person has their back turned to the glorious appearance, texting a friend the details no doubt.
While this carton may give us a good chuckle, and makes a claim about how we use, or are used by technology today, it does raise a very important theological question: what if someone was standing outside the tomb that first Easter morning with their cell phone camera clicking or recording away at the moment of resurrection – what would they have seen?
For most of the earliest Christian tradition there was little or no paintings, pictures or carvings of the resurrection. It was thought to be too mysterious, too incomprehensible to replicate. Later artwork simply showed an empty tomb, stunned guards or radiant angels to represent the resurrection. Later on in the Western Church Jesus began to be shown stepping out of the tomb alone, maybe with an angel or two close by as witnesses, and often with him carrying a white banner or flag. The banner is symbolic of his victory or death – Jesus has conquered death, and so we, too, will be raised to new life after we die. Jesus is the personal saviour, and faith in him holds out the promise of resurrection, understood as life after death, to individuals.
But is that all that the resurrection of Jesus is or does? Is it just life returning to a dead body? Is it final proof that Jesus is indeed the son of God? Is it just a singular event or does it have more of a communal application?
In the Eastern Church they have always had a different view of Jesus’ resurrection. In their art, Jesus never rises alone. He’s always pictured rising with others, Adam and Eve especially. Jesus rises carrying with him the first ancestors of the human species. The symbolism is unmistakable: when Jesus is raised we are all raised.
But before I get too far ahead of myself, back to my original question: if someone was standing outside the tomb that first Easter morning what would they have seen? Contemporary Franciscan writer Richard Rohr says that what they would have seen is light, beams of light shooting out in all directions, like the warping of time and space. The bruised and bloody body of Jesus, laid on cold stone, immersed in the smell of decay and fresh dug earth, explodes in light, becoming the glorified body of Christ. The dead become alive. From the darkness comes light. Then and there becomes universal, eternal.
This is not an outrageous idea. The first act of creation, the very first word, is light. All throughout the Hebrew Scriptures light is a powerful metaphor of the unseen God, whether it’s the smoking fire pot, the burning bush, the pillar of fire, the sacrificial flame or the consuming fire of the coming Day of the Lord. Yahweh is light!
The Christians take up this theology of divine light and freely apply it to Jesus. He is the light that shines in the darkness, on those who live in darkness (Matt 4:16; Luke 1: 79; Isa 9:2). In John’s gospel Jesus refers to himself as the light of the world (8:12). All throughout the synoptic gospels Jesus heals those who are blind and helps others to see clearly the truth of the Kingdom of God. Early Christians had no problem applying the language of God’s light to Jesus. The writer of the letter of John says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5) and that in Jesus that light of love is seen in a new and radiant way.
In their liturgy, too, they made great sacramental use of light to express Jesus and his theological significance. Our liturgy this evening is a perfect example. The ancient celebration of the Great Vigil of Easter not only aims to tell the great story of salvation from creation through to resurrection by the reading of scripture, but it also uses light to tell this story. And it tells us how that light, the divine light, the light of Christ, the light of that first Easter morning, now burns in each one of us.
We begin with the light of the new fire, symbolic of the eternal light of God. From it we light the Paschal or Christ candle, the light of resurrection, the new creation, coming into the world. From it we light our own candles, symbolic of the spread of that first resurrection light out into the world. Jesus is the first fruits of the resurrection, but it spreads in every human life in which the light is allowed to shine. Then in baptism we pass this light to the newly baptized, to Amy and Alexa. Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in Heaven.
This is something that both the fundamentalist atheists and Christians get wrong about the resurrection. They waste incredible amounts of time arguing about whether or not Jesus was physically raised from the grave, whether resurrection is a historical, factual event. They miss the point entirely. The resurrection is an unfolding, all-encompassing reality. It is the new creation light of God, that all of us, all of creation is being caught up in, participating in.
That’s why I think light is such an appropriate way to describe resurrection. We have all experienced it, felt it and know it to be true. Perhaps it was at a bedside as we held the hand of a loved one, whose faith and courage in the face of death filled us with light, a light the lingers still. Or perhaps it was as you held your child for the first time – especially for mothers – and you know that such beautiful light has come from such long waiting, pain and suffering. Maybe it was as you sit beside an ocean or mountain or the great wide expanse of the prairies, and your senses drink in the vastness of creation, the immensity of something bigger than you. Or perhaps you have caught a glimpse of it with your hands in the soil of your garden, as green shoots of life spring from the decomposing soil and subterranean creepy-crawlies scatter in the summer sunlight.
Yes, for those who have eyes to see it, resurrection is everywhere, even in everyone. We who follow Jesus should know that better than anyone. Like sparks from a great fire, resurrection is springing up everywhere. To quote the great Ricard Rohr again: “Resurrection is contagious, and free for the taking. It is everywhere, visible and available for those who have learned how to see, how to rejoice, and how to neither hoard nor limit God’s ubiquitous gift.” So perhaps if we could get this idea, the new way of seeing into our heads and hearts, we would find a new way of following Jesus, a new way of being his church, a new way to proclaim and live that Christ is risen indeed.
Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s.