Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Holy Week began with snow in Chicago this year. It was a good, though not particularly pleasant reminder of the perils of confusing the message of Easter with the annual rites of spring. While warmth and blossoms will eventually come to the windy city, they do not arrive on a predictable timetable that we control. In any given year we’re as likely to be scooping up Easter eggs from under a blanket of snow as we are to be strolling sundrenched down Michigan Avenue in our latest Easter bonnet. In northern climes we may symbolize Easter with bunnies and chicks – or Peeps! – and brightly colored eggs, but in fact Easter is not a natural event.
Left to its own devices the world is not automatically programmed toward spring. At best we experience life in cycles of happiness and sorrow, optimism and discouragement, success and failure. “It does get better” was a wonderful and honest theme for You-tube videos offering encouragement to gay and lesbian youth facing bullying, but in many dimensions of life things don’t always get better. The “Arab Spring” of recent months is a good example. Amid the incredible hope seemingly realized in its early weeks, the cold harsh realities of tyranny have not melted away in places like Yemen, Syria, or Libya. Hope, like Easter, defies the evidence. It is unnatural.
My New Yorker magazine arrived this week with a cartoon of two little girls in Easter frocks carrying their Easter baskets. One says to the other, “I like the Easter Bunny – I find him less judgmental than Santa Claus.” This may be good news, I suppose, for those who are uncertain about whether they’ve made the cut in the naughty or nice competition. But Easter does imply a judgment. It is a judgment on the natural order of things which accommodates itself to poverty and violence and grows resigned in the face of oppression and injustice. Easter is a resounding yes to life, but it is also a disturbing and disruptive no to the powers of death that have done and will do their worst, as they Easter hymn reminds us. Easter may accompany the annual rebirth of the earth’s flora and fauna, but it is more than just a marking of cyclical renewal. It is a celebration of an unnatural intrusion of God’s holy love into our natural ways with all of their self-aggrandizing and ultimately self-destructive tendencies. It is not about waking up again from a long sleep. It is about resurrection from the personal and corporate death and dying for which there is no natural waking.
I love chocolate bunnies and gaily colored eggs. And I won’t complain if a warm breeze blows across Lake Michigan on Sunday. But bunnies and eggs are, in the end, attempts to explain a deep and inexplicable mystery with the analogs of nature. Inevitably such attempts come up short at best, and at worst can only diminish and domesticate that mystery. Mary didn’t run to the disciples with an Easter basket on her arm. She ran with news that they could only assume was the idle tale of a sadly deranged woman. An empty tomb? How unnatural is that? Which is precisely the point. Alleluia!
John H. Thomas
Holy Week, 2011