Religious high holy days are anchored deep in myth and symbol. These are times when true believers – as well as the larger number of unaffiliated and “occasional pilgrims” – step into the sacred stories and reflect once again on the miracles of old. Too many of them probably do this out of family obligation or annual custom, gazing on the holiday symbols with the wondering eyes of their youth.
The following day, however, they will be back at it – back at life in the real world. No miracles here. No angelic visitations, virgin births, voices from the clouds or revived corpses in the news. It used to be that these and other miraculous events were regarded as signs, still very much set in story and not encountered in contemporary life, pointing to a higher realm of being that supports this one.
Signs are significant because they signify things. Meaning is all about reference – this pointing to that, one thing leading to another, and all of it making sense in the Big Picture. Once upon a time (here I go telling a story) people lived inside a Big Picture, and mythology served the valuable function of pulling them back from the daily distractions of secular life and reorienting them in a single coherent system of meaning.
I say “once upon a time” because people today generally don’t live their lives with a Big Picture in mind. If there is one, it’s the rather cold and indifferent cosmos of science, now somewhere on an unfathomable timeline between BANG and FIZZLE (or maybe CRUNCH). For quite a while, as modern religion was losing its market share in the intellectual landscape of the Western mind, church leaders blamed science for the vacancies in their pews. Empirical skepticism (“I’ll believe it when I can measure it”) was accused of producing secular atheism (“God can’t be measured, and therefore doesn’t exist”).
But here’s what really happened.
The sacred stories began losing currency, not because they were scientifically discredited, but rather because they became increasingly irrelevant to daily life. And as the symbols lost their power to signify, the metaphors closed up on themselves and degenerated into “miracles.” Consequently the Big Picture that had oriented human beings for so long fell apart. Now – occasionally, on high holy days – we pause to fetch from the wreckage those dim reminders, those alien curiosities from another age.
So what becomes of these articles of religious nostalgia? If symbols need stories, and stories need other stories; and if all these stories (the collective mythology of a culture) comprise the Big Picture that once made life meaningful, what purpose is there in dusting the icons, pressing the vestments, and singing the hymns if we don’t really know it as our truth?
I didn’t say “believe it,” for we can make ourselves believe just about anything. There are a lot of true believers who talk a lot about god, read their Bible religiously and do their best to take it literally. If the biblical god doesn’t bust through the starry canopy and talk to us as he once did, it’s only because we live in the Last Days and he is busy preparing for the Final Judgment.
As for Jesus, Christmas got him into our world and Easter got him back out. It all happened a long time ago, but he’s coming again. Just you wait. In the meantime – and it is a mean time – we have to keep the faith, resist the devil, legislate for (our) religion, and guard our stuff.
I saw a bumper sticker the other day: “God – Guns – USA.” Now that’s a very small picture, which can be found all around the planet today. Just insert another god and a different tribe, and that truck might be driving down the road in Syria or Kenya or North Korea.
What can Easter mean in a time when evidence of god is lacking but the testimony for god is all too out-spoken and dogmatic? Just because it’s “in the Bible” doesn’t automatically make it relevant. After all, the Bible is testimony, not evidence. Furthermore, it’s a very special kind of testimony – not exactly the eye-witness accounts as many true believers defend it these days, but creative testimony, poetic testimony.
As mythology, the Bible wasn’t written as retrospective journalism on objective miracles and actual encounters with a supernatural personality. Rather, it issued from the creative imaginations of people just like you and me, inspired by the realization that their lives (just like ours) opened up to a greater mystery.
In those moments, in those places, and in the company of those rare and illumined ones who seemed to live in unbroken awareness of this mystery, the everyday world was touched, elevated and glorified with a higher significance.
Jesus came with a message about compassion, charity, and unconditional forgiveness. He not only talked it but he walked it as well, living it out in his dealings with others – in the company of his friends, in his encounters with strangers, and in the presence of his enemies.
It wasn’t long before the authorities caught wind of his growing reputation and grew uneasy over his dangerous influence on the people. Dangerous because he was waking people up from the trance of personal self-interest, religious orthodoxy, and militant nationalism.
The authorities were nervous that this trouble-maker might shift the axis of control that protected their privileged position as deputies of god and brokers of salvation. They quoted scripture in self-defense, accused Jesus of going against tradition, and at last succeeded in charging him with heresy, atheism and disturbing the peace (also known as the trance-state of spiritual sleep). He was executed and his followers disbanded.
But then, maybe among a small band of his discouraged survivors, memories were recalled and weaved together in stories. In recalling his words they remembered his message, and as his message reignited their hearts they realized that his vision was still short of fulfillment. The spirit of Jesus was not gone but now lived in them. The torch of his cause was theirs to carry forward.
An empty tomb and abandoned grave clothes are not evidence, but only the absence of evidence. They are signs, metaphors, and symbols opening out to a greater mystery. They say, “Not here.” But where then? Exactly where is Jesus alive?
Up in heaven, if you believe in heaven. In the sacraments of the Church, if that’s your thing.
I would say that if what we are calling the spirit of Jesus is not evident in the way we live and treat each other, then we’re still waiting for Easter.