Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008
“The Wonder of It All
Rev. Catherine Torpey
Not so long ago, it was still quite common in many of our Unitarian and Universalist churches for the Sunday School students to perform a full-scale Easter pageant at this time of year. Peter Raible was a minister at the Unitarian Church in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1950’s. As a young minister, he was in charge of organizing the Easter Pageant, which the children were to perform before the entire congregation as part of the Sunday service. They read the scriptures, where Jesus is crucified on Friday by the Romans. His body is placed in the cave-tomb and a huge rock is rolled over the entrance. The children act out all of these crucial elements of the story. Dressed in the cloths typical of peasants in the first century, the actors playing disciples go to the tomb on Easter Sunday to tend to the body, only to find a child in an angel costume asking them, “Why are you looking for him here?” All was going smoothly through each twist in the story. Each child delivered their lines just right. It had reached the dramatic climax; the whole pageant had led up to the critical moment when the amazing, miraculous Good News was to be proclaimed. Little Saint Peter rushed onstage to deliver the line he’d practiced for weeks. At the top of his lungs, he shouted his discovery to the congregation: "The Rock has risen, Christ has rolled away!" 1
It’s a wonderful image, and apt in many ways. I can just see Jesus rolling away, “Wheeeeeeeee!!!!” and the rock rising into the heavens. For those Unitarian Universalists who prefer naturalism to supernaturalism, this may be your Easter image: the Rock has risen, Christ has rolled away. The earth has risen, spring has risen, flowers are rising, buds are rising, and the human beings who had been spiritually dead are frollicking among the bunnies, hunting in the bushes for colored eggs, rolling away from their tombs shouting, “Wheeeee!!!!”
This is the holiday of new life. Of course, we all know that the eggs and the bunnies and even the name of the holiday, “Easter” are evidence that the spring equinox was a time to celebrate new life and new beginnings long before the Christian era. It is no coincidence that the Jewish spring ritual of Passover contains similar elements in the seder plate, where the egg and the lamb and the sprig of green give evidence of earlier, earth-based celebrations. It is a time to remember the essential truth of life: that death is both truly an end but is also not the end. And the image of the cross of Good Friday is an image of true despair, like the barren landscape of winter—but it is a part of a story that moves inexorably toward springtime, toward resurrection.
One day, a friend and I were sharing prayer time. He had arranged a table with a candle, some spiritual books, a marble Buddha, a Native American smudge stick, a painting of the Hindu god Krishna, a Greek icon of the virgin and child—in other words, a menagerie of religious symbols. This friend and I have been meeting regularly for several years to share what is happening in our lives and then to pray for one another. I was sharing with him the pain of a particular situation that was bothering me. I was feeling mistreated by others—feeling a bit sorry for myself, truth be told. Abruptly, my friend said, “Ah!—there’s one religious symbol which I failed to put on the table.” He walked to a bookshelf nearby, picked something up and laid it on the table next to the Buddha. It was a cross. “You’re being nailed to that,” he said.
His remark struck me powerfully. Whatever my friend’s intention was in relating my suffering to the suffering of Jesus on the cross, the message I received was that the pain of my situation was not only not unique—it was deeply, quintessentially human. The pain that any one of us suffers at the hands of others, when we are misunderstood or mistreated or hurt by the actions of cruel or ignorant humanity—that pain has been suffered by the best of us. That pain has been suffered even by those, like Jesus, who have had the purest of intentions and the deepest spiritual resources. What’s more, the cross is a most ironic symbol. Though it is the instrument of cruelty, it is where the greatest of all miracles takes place. When my friend related my suffering to the suffering on the cross, he presupposed that I would arise from that place of pain to a new state—a state of being that felt unimaginable in that moment. Just as the followers of Jesus could not have imagined a glorious outcome to the ignominious death their leader had suffered, so we often cannot imagine the victory on the other side of our current troubles. The pain of our personal Good Fridays cannot be separated from the glory of our Easter resurrections.
When my friend put that small metal cross down in front of me on the table and said, “You’re being nailed to that,” I began to see my own petty difficulties in my life as being the middle of the story. We are so often mired in the difficulties of our present predicaments that we lose sight of the fact that we are only in the middle of our stories—no matter what our age, no matter how settled the matter seems to be. Our stories are not over yet. We cannot predict how they will end. The greatest hardship now might possibly be the precursor to an amazing transformation, an astonishing resurrection in only a day, or two, or three.
In the book Death by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a hospital chaplain tells the story of a 68 year old woman, Miss Martin, who experienced a resurrection just before her death. He wrote that Miss Martin
[had become] one of [his] hospital “parishioners” [of sorts] as the result of an urgent request for a chaplain from the day nurse of her unit. The charge nurse gave [him] the scoop on Miss Martin. It was the first time that [he] had heard any patient referred to with such colorful [and unrepeatable] epithets.
Miss Martin was recovering from rather extensive abdominal surgery for cancer. The more she healed, the more demanding, abusive, foul-mouthed, and cantankerous she became. The chaplain’s office was called in as a last ditch effort to sweeten her up a little for the staff’s sake until she was well enough to be sent to a nursing home. The chaplain writes that:
Miss Martin was everything the nurse had promised, in triplicate… a very graceless old lady [in his words]. [The] first visit dislodged an unending stream of complaints about her treatment, the nursing service, her pain, ministers, religion, her doctor—everything and everyone that came to her mind. But, somehow, [the chaplain] had the feeling that she was afraid to stop talking—afraid that if she did, she might go crazy. Her voice was angry and violent, but her eyes read panic. [He] told her that [he] would be back the next day. [The chaplain and his mentor, Dr. Kubler-Ross,] took her on as [their] special project. It took four weeks, but Miss Martin began to smile. She began to grow, at the age of 68. With terminal cancer, she was becoming a new person.
[During that month,] Miss Martin unfolded the power and pain of her 68 frustrating years. She had struggled to become a success in business. He and Dr. Kubler-Ross listened to the hardships and loneliness facing a single woman making her own way in the man’s domain of business in the 1930’s. She had succeeded, but she belonged to no one. She had no friends. Her only surviving family were a brother and sister, who didn’t live far, but would not visit her. And no wonder. She had built up very little credit in the bank of affection with them or anyone else.
The staff [of the hospital] became all the family and friends [Miss Martin had]. And she began to change. She began to smile, to appreciate more and to complain less. She actually became a joy to visit. In those few months she built a new life. She wrestled with her new identity as a woman dying alone, without anyone to care. She struggled through her grief and anger at losing all that she had in her barren world, which was now becoming enriched by others. Her angry attacks became less destructive in tone. As she accepted her illness, she became more able to accept the human contact that was still available to her.
A month before she died, [she gave a talk to students at the hospital about the experience of a terminal illness]. Miss Martin looked serene and soft in her blue nightgown. Her quiet voice, so different in tone from its loud stridency of months past, raised thoughtfully the regrets and pains of her past.
At one point, her voice trailed to a stop. Her head tilted a little to one side and her eyes seemed to focus on some vision, some thought far into the deep recesses of her being. She then looked up and said, “I have lived more in the past three months than I have during my whole life.” 2
Miss Martin, who had been up on a cross for 68 years—long past the time that anyone would hope for resurrection. And yet, just before she died, there she was: transformed. It was, according to the chaplain, a cross of her own making. But it was cross nonetheless; she had nailed herself there, but the pain and the spiritual death were just as real, no matter the source of her misery. Something touched her in the companionship of the hospital staff, and when all seemed lost—long lost—she was resurrected.
Earlier, we heard how Carl Scovel sees all the losses of life—big or small—as little deaths which will have their own resurrections. We experience Good Fridays in many ways—and so we can experience resurrections in so many ways. 3
Resurrection, though, is not resuscitation. It is not something which was dead coming back to life the way it was. The promise of Easter is not, “Things will be restored to the way they were.” No, Carl Scovel knew that when his son returned, he would be a new person. Our losses are real losses. The death on Good Friday was a real death. The resurrection did not restore things to the way they were. Rather, the resurrection was the moment when all of life was transformed; when whole new possibilities were born.
The rock has risen! Christ has rolled away! The rock—the heaviest, most unliftable of objects—the rock can be and will be lifted from us. The earth is renewed once again, and so may our hearts be lifted, and so may we roll away: “Wheeee!!!!”
We shall rise, alleluia.
2 From Death by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. This story is substantially edited and re-arranged chronologically from how it is written in the book.
3 The reading was “So Many Little Deaths” by Rev. Carl Scovel, published in Quest, the publication of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, April 2004.