As a parent, I get St. Nick’s whiskey-complected appeal. Children, being our children, are hardly immune to the self-deceiving charms of avarice, kitsch or sentimentality. Not to mention, Santa cuts not only a jollier but a more clear-cut visage than a god they can neither see nor properly conceive.
Plus ‘shut up and go to bed or Santa won’t come this Christmas’ requires little explanation or elaboration; whereas, what imperial occupation, illegitimate pregnancy and a 2,000 year old Jew have to do with the PS4 under the tree requires someone, like me, with an advanced degree and pension benefits.
How one fat man with an unpaid but still limited labor force can gift all the world’s children in one evening and then spend the remainder of the year spying on them from his creepy rape bunker in the Arctic begins to seem like a reasonable arrangement…
Just as soon as you start trying to comprehend how rearranging everyone to their ancestral homes was at all a good way for Caesar to count them or how Joseph wasn’t ‘really’ Jesus’ father, God was or how Jesus was- is- actually the Father.
As a parent, I get why Jesus is a sideshow to Santa.
But as both a parent and a preacher, I’ve never once understood how the Church has managed to let the freaking Easter bunny steal our thunder.
I mean, other than lame birthday party magicians, has anyone ever come across a single one of those little rodents who would actually let you hold them without nicking the shit out of your forearms? Santa at least lets you sit on his lap.
Besides, a giant Ellen Jamesian rabbit who refuses to speak but lays chicken eggs and then abandons them to strangers like a Dickens character is creepy. Thank God we don’t wonder aloud with our kids who the rooster is that knocked up the Easter bunny. Seriously, why don’t we just read Lolita to our kids every spring?
Not only is the Easter bunny creepy, unlike Santa, there’s not even the pretense of a story.
By contrast the Easter story- the real Easter story- is a good story, good enough that not even killjoy atheists bother to quibble much about it being called ‘the greatest story ever told.’ Instead of mute eugenics and questionable sexual content, the real Easter story has everything that makes for a compelling epic. There’s betrayal and injustice, friendship and failure, undeserved suffering, scores of villains and a scapegoat. There are long dormant dreams, impossibly huge stakes, and what looks like foolish idealism. The hero dies. His movement founders. Evil triumphs. The end.
Or is it?
It’s a good story.
So we must not be very good at how we tell it. Maybe, I wonder, it’s because we’re unsure about the why of the story.
Sometimes I think you need less familiar stories to drive home the why of an Easter story now so familiar it’s become stock.
Last Easter during my children’s sermon I decided to tell the primped and seer-suckered kids the story of the seven Maccabean martyrs, one of the Old Testament’s first notes of a resurrection hope.
In hindsight I should’ve opted to tell them about the ‘No, meant no’ knocked up bunny.
The story, told in detail only an amateur butcher could love, is found in 2 Maccabees 7. In it, Antiochus IV Epiphanes is the most recent occupying thug oppressing the Jews. His occupying Greek regime attempts to pacify the Jews by stamping out what makes them Jews, their fidelity to Torah. In this charming little ‘Easter’ vignette Antiochus tries to force seven Israelite brothers and their mother, by suffering severe torture, to eat pork.
Antiochus has fires built and pans and cauldrons set out for spectacle.
When the first brother refuses the other white meat, Antiochus has his tongue cut out, his scalp cut off and his hands and feet chopped off while his mom and brothers look on.
Then Antiochus’ shock troops fry him in what must’ve been the world’s heaviest cast iron skillet.
Thus does Antiochus do to the second brother, so the story goes, who like his elder brother refuses to forsake his faith.
No sooner has Antiochus seared brother #2 in a (very large) dab of butter than the third brother sticks out his tongue, freely offering it to his tormentors. Even bolder the brother stretches out his hands and declares ‘I got these hands from the Lord, and because of his laws I forsake them, and from the Lord I hope to get them back again.’
In other words:
‘The God in whom I’ve kept faith gave me this body and God, keeping faith in me, will give it back again.’
God will vindicate my faithfulness.
God will vindicate me.
In the text, it’s a full-throated resurrection hope kind of moment, tempered only slightly by the fact that brothers 4,5,6, and 7 as well as the faith-instilling matron of the family all meet similarly grisly ends.
As you would expect, the story riveted the children when I told it to them with paschal glee. I didn’t even need props.
And as you would expect, some of their parents were riveted in a different sort of way.
I was only about halfway through the benediction when one mother, a first-time guest, glared at me and, coming about 3 cm from my face, inquired:
‘What in the world kind of Easter story was that?’
Assuming my typical pastoral posture I replied, in love:
‘Look, lady, I don’t know if you’ve seen Donnie Darko but the Easter bunny’s creepy and, besides, I’ll tell you what- that story I told the kids, that’s the only Easter story worth dragging our butts out of bed on Sunday mornings.’
She looked as though I’d just given her an enema. And as she dragged her two children away I heard her say: ‘Yes, honey, we’ll hunt for Easter eggs when we get home.’
To be honest, last Easter my comment to her was just a throwaway line, just Jason being Jason. It wasn’t anything more than a contrarian rebuttal intended to convey that the Church has something greater at stake in our Resurrection announcement than abiding her safe, civically-derived sentimental expectations. But it’s true- that story is the only Easter story worth getting our asses out of bed every Sunday.
I didn’t realize how true a comment I’d uttered until this Easter.
Two days ago, I spent the entire day at the hospital’s cancer center receiving multiple blood transfusions.
The previous week’s chemo-poison not only killed off all my white blood cells, it eradicated most of my red blood cells too, leaving me with nosebleeds that wouldn’t stop and cuts that wouldn’t clot much less heal. Where before my diagnosis I required only the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage on repeat to run a 5K in 20 minutes flat, this week, with my red blood running on empty, the simplest of tasks winded me so quickly it was seconds before I could feel my heartbeat in my teeth. Worse than the shortness of breath was the dizziness, making me feel like a passing acquaintance was having an argument in my head.
The irony of a preacher needing another’s freely given blood on Good Friday didn’t escape the staff at the cancer center.
The transfusion room was a claustrophobic row of mauve lazy boys separated by IV poles and manilla half-curtains meant to create the illusion of privacy. Vinyl decals of pastel eggs and snowy Easter bunnies decorated the length of the parking lot-view window.
Though she was only about 5 inches from my right hand, I couldn’t see the woman sitting next to me. She had a smoker’s voice and swollen ankles and was wearing, I could see extending beyond the curtain’s reach, worn jeans and New Balance sneakers. ‘The chemo’s swollen me up. These are all I can get on my feet these days.’
I guessed she was older than me, but not by much.
She’d been talking when I sat down and she kept on talking most of the day. Like it wasn’t blood that she needed. It was painful. She overshared about her private life to the staff in a way that made them blush. She told slightly inappropriate jokes to the other patients. Her running commentary to the air was one long non sequitur. She offered dubious personal connections to any tidbit she heard anyone else discuss.
It felt like we were all on a blind date and only she failed to realize how badly it was going.
She was doing anything, I quickly realized, to keep a nurse near her or a tech touching her or a stranger talking with her- even if it meant they were irritated with her.
She was afraid.
It was not so simple as that.
By the time I was on my second unit of blood the commentary in my head had changed from ‘God, she’s annoying’ to ‘She shouldn’t have to be like this.’
By the time that second bag was bottom’s up, she’d turned me introspective. I was thinking: ‘I shouldn’t have to be like this.’
I shouldn’t have to be like this.
With a reflection that catches me by surprise in store windows like someone’s stolen my shadow. With a face where my beard used to go that can now go a week and still be smoother than an East German woman’s boob. With nausea that feels as familiar as a birthmark now and fingernails that feel like dry November leaves.
I shouldn’t have to be like this, poisoned and drained, needing blood like a washed out vampire, with a diagnosis that makes even the denizens of the cancer center regard me with equal parts pity and ‘…but for the grace of God’ relief.
‘I got these hands from God, and because of his laws I forsake them, and from God I hope to get them back again.’
God will give me my body back, says the brother.
The God who made me, one could easily paraphrase, owes me that much. Or, to put it more theologically, the God who is Goodness itself owes that much to Himself.
As a preacher, I know better than most the extent to which our resurrection claim gets watered down at Easter. While outside the Church the resurrection seas gets repackaged as springtime renewal, inside the Church we neuter the Risen Jesus. We make him a symbol for our hope of life after death. Or, worse, we turn Easter into a surprising coda to a grim story in which God kills Jesus with the death we deserve to die.
But if Easter is just about life after death then the cross- a 1st century water board- is a fucked up symbol for a religious faith. And if Easter is merely a happy ending to a story where God’s righteous system of sin accounting demands that someone die, then, frankly, God is an effed up god.
You just have to go back to that other Easter story in 2 Maccabees to see how those of us who’ve made resurrection about interior souls and eternal salvation have lost the plot entirely.
Before resurrection is about eternal life, it’s about this life.
Easter’s about vindication.
In the Gospel story-
Easter is about the God of Israel vindicating the life of Christ by plucking him up from death for Caesar and all the world to see. Easter is the revelation- as obvious as an empty grave with an angel’s ass sitting where the imperial seal used to be- that the grain of universe runs with those who bear crosses not build them.
Easter is about God turning the universe inside out and showing us that the seam of creation, as John says, is love. Grace and mercy.
And if that’s the way world runs, despite all appearances to the contrary, then, dammit, eventually God will get around to vindicating those who try to live according to it.
Her next to me, awkward because she’s afraid, afraid because she’s quite possibly dying- she shouldn’t be like this. Me with my MCL. You with whatever keeps your life from being the good and perfect gift God intended. The world with its manifold darkness.
Things shouldn’t be like this. God knows it. And God will do something about it.
That’s resurrection hope.
The God I’ve staked my life on, albeit in my imperfect way, will be faithful to me.
Today is Easter.
Thanks to the transfusions, my red is back up today and I’m feeling better. But it’s not the new blood that got me out of bed today.
It’s that resurrection hope sewn inside an unseemly story: God will vindicate me.
God will give me my body back.