Easter Term 2013, Robinson College Chapel
Throughout history, philosophers have implored us to take death seriously. Being aware that our own death approaches, of the horrifically, inescapable, inevitably – and yet this approach of death somehow gives shape to our life. It has the capacity to reach into who we are, instilling within us a dark appreciation of the preciousness of each moment we live, before that moment slips from us forever. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, seize the day.
So when you look at Christian belief in resurrection, it can seem worse than naïve: Surely, resurrection is the refusal to take death seriously, ill adjusted to the cold realities of the world as it is – Christians dance through a fairytale universe, with a fingers-in-my-ears and blinkers-over-my-eyes unwillingness to face our sheer mortality. How can you take death seriously, if you believe in resurrection?
Well, strictly speaking, Christians believe principally in the resurrection of Christ which is celebrated today – and to any sensible, morally upright, religious person – the crucifixion of Christ was a sensible, judicious, necessary act.
In most ancient cultures, with a sacred view of the cosmos – including Greek and Roman cultures - Construct legal, political, social systems around negotions with death… in Roman law, (and leviticus) someone sentenced to death by the state, is a sacrifice. You are put to death as a sacrifice in order to restore proper piety to the gods and restore order to the empire. Every judicious use of death works this way.
Pilate is consecrated to the emperor, consecrated to the gods of the empire. And Jesus is effectively not just a xenos, not just an outsider, not just a foreigner who nevertheless worships the same gods as us. But Jesus is more of a barbarian, destabilizing the entire social order of the empire and inviting others to do likewise. How does he do that? With the Lord’s prayer – which we’ll be considering throughout this term. And when Jesus invites colonial peasants to pray to the ultimate Father – he is lobbing two fingers up at the empire. The Roman order was a patriarchal order, which each household run by a father, in a hierarchy of fathers, and at the top of the human tree, is of course the emperor. When Jesus invites nobodies to pray to a father in heaven, he short-circuits the entire social order on which the Patriarchal empire runs.
As the local representative of the empire, Pilate has to keep chaos at a safe distance, and uses death to maintain order. He has to use death in order to enable life to function well, and Jesus threatens that order. In fact, this is the theological foundation of grace – something from outside the order that brings disruption to the order.
So the death of Christ would be a total act of justice, preserving the order of the world from external instability. It is not a question of whether Jesus deserved to die, whether he was personally innocent or guilty, but the larger fact that his presence, his charisma, his grace is a threat looming large on the borders of the empire. Jesus is put to death justly. The crucifixion is regrettable collateral damage necessary to preserve order.
So, had Jesus simply died, and that been an end of it – his death could be positively interpreted in a religious way. It was inevitable that he would come to a sticky end at the hands of a nasty empire, he would live on through his teaching, he would become a renowned sage, tragic fullness, and end has been given, death gives us an end to the story that bestows meaning upon it.
And then comes Easter, and it ruins everything. The sheer ineptitude of this Christ returning from the grave subverts the sacred order of the universe. The sane, responsible, prudent decisions that had been made, to maintain the social order. God reversed them. Jesus did not disappear into divine mystery, did not accept a well rounded story with a tragic conclusion – instead, this god shatters the power of death.
Pagan religions, including – in this instance – that of Rome, were noble religions, reconciled to death – and the entire rationality of this noble order is destroyed with resurrection. No longer – claims the Christian – can we be reconciled to death. Death does not bring completion, it does not confer upon us the grim assurance of finality, because – ultimately – death is open ended.
And so Christian belief in resurrection, is not simply a refusal to take death seriously. It is to follow Christ into the abyss, into the sheer horror of death, into the world-ending, life-ending, abysmal, stateless, agonising nothing – and to be confronted with something.
Christianity is not the refusal to be reconciled with the reality of death, but having been reconciled to death, to go through that reconciliation and to be robbed of it. To discover that the finality even of death, is taken from us. The order, the stability, the preciousness of life that death can affirm – resurrection shatters it all.
Resurrection says that the nothingness into which we make our final descent, is not quite empty.
Resurrection says that the finality and order for which we strive, are illusions that will always evade our grasp.
Resurrection says that you cannot seize the day, because it’s not yours to seize.