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Death, Resurrection and Hope - Reflections for Easter 2021
1. Death, Resurrection and Hope
‘This glorious Eastertide, away with sin and sorrow!’ This is one of my favourite Easter hymns, but there’s a gulf between my belief in the resurrection, and how I am feeling. Sorrow hasn’t been easy to banish in 2021. I’ve been searching the Gospel accounts to try and locate myself. This year I’m not Mary, hearing the gardener call my name, and with a cry of joyful recognition, hurling myself into the arms of my risen Lord. I feel more like the disciples trudging along the weary road out of Jerusalem, saying ‘But we had hoped…’ I had hoped I’d be feeling different this week. Why am I so sad? After all, I believe I know how the story ends.
Our faith in the resurrection is easy to mock. We saw this in Holy Week, in a Tweet from Prof Alice Roberts: ‘Just a little reminder today. Dead people – don’t come back to life.’ Rather oddly punctuated, I thought. Like an instruction to dead people anywhere, in case they were planning on waking up to party in the park over the Easter break in defiance of Covid restrictions. Human intellect can’t gain any traction on the resurrection. We can only extrapolate from what we know, and picture a kind of radical resuscitation, a jump-starting of a body dead for three days—and we know that can’t happen.
All sorts of hopes have died in the last year. This milestone of the second pandemic Easter has felt to me like an anniversary of all that we’ve lost. We had hoped it would be over by now, that church wouldn’t still mean sitting in masks, few and far between, unable to receive the cup, share the Peace, or sing ‘This glorious Eastertide’ together. We had hoped we’d be back to normal by now, that we’d have got our old life back. Our old life resuscitated, jump-started, turned off and on again. As you were, everybody.
We will never be as we were. Resurrection points ahead, to what we will be. What we will be has not yet been revealed. But we are God’s children now. Right now, even if we are trudging along a weary road, with the wild rumours of angels gaining no traction on our intellect, darkness coming and our hopes dead and abandoned. I conclude this journey is purposeful, that there’s no shortcut to Easter joy this year for me. My eyes have been kept from recognising the stranger who draws alongside and keeps me company as I weep, and listens to me saying But I had hoped… Until the moment comes—and I believe it will—when I recognise my little hopes transformed beyond all recognition into my one Hope, standing before me breaking the bread of heaven. ”
2. I'm Going Fishing
‘Judging by the Gospel accounts, it was bafflingly hard to recognise the risen Jesus. Living as we do on this side of the miracle, it’s difficult for us to imagine what it must have felt like not to know who the stranger was. We read through the lens of the angelic spoiler, ‘He is not here, he is risen.’ Our hindsight smothers doubt. We are those apocryphal Sunday School children who know the answer must be Jesus, even though the description sounds like a squirrel. ‘No more we doubt thee, glorious prince of life!’
Here’s a confession: I’ve never liked ‘Thine be the glory’. It’s not that I doubt the Prince of Life, more that I doubt my ability to recognise him. Just because it turned out to be Jesus the last time I was wavering, doesn’t mean it isn’t a squirrel now. How can I be certain, when the light is dodgy, and my perceptions are so skewed by self-interest?
Maybe this is why I rather like this strange limbo season between Easter Sunday and Ascension Day. It resonates with my sense of the life I’m living now. Waiting, with crushing sorrow and dread never far away. Hopes deferred, and all plans provisional. I think about the disciples just following the last order they heard: go to Galilee and wait. In the meantime—what? May as well go fishing. Fall back on what’s old and familiar, and find some consolation there.
Sometimes the old ways don’t work, though. We fish all night and catch nothing. Hasn’t this last lockdown felt like that? Endless slog, and nothing to show for it. We’ve got nothing left. Either there’s literally not enough—money for rent, for food, for heating—or emotionally. We’re done in. Sometimes I can hear myself wailing inside ‘I can’t do this!’ without really knowing what it is I’m trying to do. All night, nothing.
That’s when the miracle happened, the voice calling across the lake, and the stupendous catch. Grace always comes from left field. The penny drops: ‘It is the Lord!’ As Peter struck out for the shore, I wonder whether he was remembering the other time he jumped off the gunwale into the sea like a lunatic. ‘If it’s you Lord, bid me come to you across the water!’ That’s the oddest prayer when you stop to think about it. Why didn’t he say ‘If it’s you Lord, come and join us in the boat and calm the storm’? (I’ve probably been asking for the wrong thing throughout the storm of this pandemic.)
I say I can’t always tell Jesus from a squirrel. I do know his voice, though. Don’t be scared—it’s me. When I hear it, my heart leaps—It is the Lord!—and I’m like Peter, over the edge of the boat and thrashing clumsily towards him. ”
3. A Reckless Venture
‘When my younger son was small, he told me that if Jesus came back, he’d have dents in him. I was interested to know more, as he frequently posed searching theological questions like ‘Does God have eyelashes?’ So I asked, ‘From the nails, do you mean?’ He looked at me in astonishment. ‘No! From where I hugged him.’
Sometimes small children seem to know the shortcut to God. They are ahead of us playing in the garden while we are still racking our brains trying to work out where the gate is, or whether there’s a garden at all. How hard it is for the rich and educated to enter the kingdom. These things are hidden from the wise and learned, and revealed to little children. Just as well, or Grammar School girls like me could swot our way to heaven.
I dreamt about the gate of glory once. It was vast, and the brilliance from the other side was seeping through the cracks. As I approached, I saw a tiny door in the bottom left-hand corner—more a cat flap of glory than a gate. The only way through was to squirm through head first and stark naked. Re-born into new life. This was the conundrum that baffled Nicodemus (leading expert in his field). How can you be born again when you are old?
Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom. I still tend to come at it with my brain—yes, but how? What does it mean exactly, to become like a little child? Maybe it’s the act of dropping everything and flinging ourselves into the beloved embrace? Any parent, who has been away from home and is now back, may watch their child engrossed in play, and wait for the delirious moment when their little one looks up and sees mum or dad standing there at last.
Dropping everything, leaving it all behind for the sake of love is the divine template. ‘So free, so infinite his grace, [he] emptied himself of all but love.’ God entered our world the human way, headfirst, stark naked. If ever there was a reckless venture, this was it. He was bound to get hurt. Love always leaves dents. It leaves scars that are still there on the other side. How much do I love you? This much. See my hands and my side. Don’t be afraid, little children.
‘One day at a time, sweet Jesus,’ as the song says. (My soundtrack for this pandemic.) Every day the same reckless venture: drop everything, leave it all behind for the sake of love. Our hope persists, like the brilliance of glory seeping through all life’s cracks. However long our Lord is away—and it will often feel like a long lonely time from our small perspective—he will be back to take us home in the end. ”
4. The Ultimate Comeback
‘What lies at the far side of the catastrophe? I grew up in a family that didn’t have huge rows, so I never learnt that people could have a bust-up, and that things could be all right again afterwards. The legacy of this is that I’m hardwired to avert the catastrophe of anger, by placating, avoiding confrontation, or heading it off with a joke. Anger isn’t the only catastrophe. Life bristles with them if you are a catastrophist. This is one of the novelist’s transferrable skills: to be asking constantly ‘What if? What if?’ It might be a useful engine for driving the plot along, but it’s a hindrance in daily life. What if I get investigated by HMRC? What if a child ran out in front of my car? Even grammar check can see that these are non-standard questions that I should consider revising.
For some people it’s no longer a question of ‘what if?’ They have been found out and plunged into a catastrophe of disgrace, shame, court, prison. How could you ever come back from that? If my over-developed imagination draws a blank here, it’s because of another childhood legacy—hellfire preaching. Damnation is the ultimate catastrophe that lurks behind the lesser ones, and there’s no possible comeback from that.
We’ve tended to default to our factory settings during the pandemic. Anxiety and dread seem to be mine (especially at 3am). How can I be full of Easter joy? This verse from John keeps floating into my mind: ‘Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’. These words always astonish me. They were spoken by Jesus before he endured the cross. There’s an odd double perceptive here. For the Son of God, the future has collapsed into the present. He speaks in the past tense about the far side of the catastrophe before the catastrophe had been navigated.
Perhaps I should consider revising everything in the light of this? I still view catastrophe as something to be headed off at all costs. Not this cup. Not this path. Can’t I re-wind to the moment before the fatal mistake? At the very least, I pray that everything can be put back to how it was, so I can bounce back unscathed as though nothing had happened. If damnation is the ultimate catastrophe, then resurrection is the ultimate comeback. Except it’s not quite that. It’s not a coming back, it’s more a going through and out on the far side, to find that nothing will ever be the same again. We are still living through the catastrophe. Our own death has still to be navigated. What lies on the far side? Our risen Lord. Death of death, and hell’s destruction. He has trampled down all the thorns and beat a path for us. He is the way as well as the destination. When I think of this, new hope and peace are born inside me. And everything born of God overcomes the world. ”
Dr Catherine Fox is senior lecturer and academic director of The Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her latest novel is Tales of Lindchester, coming next month from SPCK.