Friday, May 29, 2009

4-12-2009: Easter Sunday (B)

Acts of the Apostles 10:37-43/Psalm 118/Colossians 3:1-4/John 20:1-9
The old seminary professor, after explaining in scholastic detail the meaning of transubstantiation and Christ’s presence in the Eucharistic elements, stopped himself short and offered the bewildered class this very erudite explanation. It’s like bunny tracks in the snow, he said. Just because you can’t see him, doesn’t mean he’s not there.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple’s experience of the empty tomb that first Easter Sunday could be similarly construed. They enter the empty tomb and notice the shroud folded neatly in one place and the head-covering in another. “He (the Beloved Disciple),” the gospel says, “saw and believed.” If the gospel writer is trying to infuse faith in his readers, he’s left a rather ambiguous clue. What did the Beloved Disciple actually see that engendered belief? Was it the burial shroud and head-covering with an image of Jesus on it perhaps - as figured on the famous Shroud of Turin or legendary Veil of Veronica? Or was it the fact that they were neatly folded and set in two different places – Jesus being a tad fastidious before he made his descent into hell (no coat check needed in that tropical un-paradise). Or was it that the disciple saw nothing, and believed: the absence of a presence sparks imagination and faith follows. And why, by the way, does the gospel make a point of saying it was only the Beloved Disciple who believed, and not Peter? Like the old story of two witnesses of the same event – each perceiving the same thing quite differently.

Twentieth century predictions of faith’s demise have proved false as the twenty-first century now witnesses a burgeoning of spiritualities. Sociologists of Religion call it re-enchantment. And with it often comes an innate suspicion of science and technology, a romantic nostalgia for a pre-industrial age and a na├»ve disdain for the material world. This kind of faith (perhaps all kinds of faith) is, by nature, contagious. There’s a comfort and a security in knowing you’re not alone. Shalom Auslander, in his satirical and irreverent memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, relates his experience of being in Madison Square Garden with thousands of other Ranger fans – but without the Rangers (they were playing three thousand miles away). But fans paid good money to sit in the Garden and watch the game relayed on Jumbotron screens. Auslander remarks that sitting in this enormous arena, surrounded by thousands of people shouting praise for people who weren’t there was the closest he’d feel to belonging in a long time; “it felt like a synagogue,” he says. “Another place where people cheered for someone who wasn’t there…” Sometimes we confuse (or settle for) the security we find in numbers for actual belief.

When Peter and the Beloved Disciple entered the empty tomb, one believed and the other didn’t. Perhaps the gospel is hinting that it’s best to possess a bit of both: faith and doubt, religion and a healthy skepticism – two sides of the same coin – differing perspectives of a shared event. Easter is a revelation because it’s primarily about the body and not the soul, about the absence of material realities, not the presence of immaterial ones. It’s about what happened to a specific body and how we go about getting answers. Easter is the great mystery story – there’s a missing body after all. And we disciples are but detectives, enlisted to solve the dilemma, following leads that sometimes turn out to be dead ends, asking probing questions, even irreverently at times, just being skeptical like any gum shoe worth his salt. Despite the solidarity of Easter, when many proclaim the Risen Christ as present in spiritual and ethereal ways, the tomb remains empty, the body still missing. That’s why, even in a world bourgeoning with spiritualities galore, faith and doubt remain, for the detective-disciple, two sides of the same coin.

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