Seven Stanzas and a Stone at Easter

There are some who say that today, Easter, is a celebration of an excess of imagination. John Updike, never short on imagination himself, says no: the Easter reports were about what happened.

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

(Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike)

It happened this way, or “the Church will fall.” The apostle Paul said the same in 1 Corinthians 15.

Easter is not an act of human invention, it is the world in full color. Updike is correct to insist that the surface event was never “transcendent” in the sense of unreal; yet there is at the same time a transcendence there that cannot be sidestepped, precisely because the event was real.

To follow Christ requires imagination, yes: not fairy-story imagination, but openness to reality beyond what we see on the surface.

Such openness is, sadly, not always evident. The other day I saw where an atheist blogger (who need not be named) had found “contradictions” in the resurrection accounts, including,

  • What were the last words of Jesus? Three gospels give three different versions.
  • Could Jesus’s followers touch him? John says no; the other gospels say yes.

Actually John tells us Jesus told Thomas to touch him, but not to cling to him. There’s a more consequential error on display here, though: a black-white requirement that the accounts be exactly the same or else be contradictory. Real people reporting real events tell stories differently even when telling them truly.

To live this way is to be stuck in a sad sort of stone literalism. Atheism in general implies a cold, hard world of stone. Nothing counts in the God-denier’s world but what’s on the surface, reality defined according to a cautiously contained and convenient beauty, the light weightiness of Max Planck’s quanta with the real life embarrassed out of it.

There is a stone in the story of Christ, too: it ‘s been rolled away.