TO ALL FRIENDS of Ekklesia, we wish you a very happy Easter, wherever you are and whatever shapes your life and commitment towards justice, peace and sustainability for all on this beautiful, fragile, wounded planet.
As Christians across the globe proclaim “Χριστός ἀνέστη!” (Christ is risen!), the world continues to be scarred by death, tragedy, oppression, abuse, economic exploitation and environmental destruction.
As three people I value enormously have pointed out recently, in rather different ways, this makes the message and impact of Easter far from the triumphalist ‘problem solved’ notion that can sometimes accompany and frame it in the life of the church.
Such triumphalism can be an uncomfortable thing for many — especially, perhaps, for those looking in from the outside in either literal or metaphorical disbelief.
Nicholas Adams, who is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Birmingham, and a much-valued occasional contributor to Ekklesia, put things more realistically, but still with great hope, on his personal (but also public) Facebook page on Easter Sunday morning:
The resurrection we dimly understand is the ground of possibilities we dimly imagine in a world changed utterly and disappointingly the same.
Now to work we will not see finished with a power that is not ours in this world we did not make.
This very much caught my mood. I will return to that tantalising last line shortly, in relation to what has become known as ‘The Romero Prayer’. However, to continue the sequence, later in the day my parents-in-law, Willard and Alice Roth, sent this message:
In historic tradition, on this holy day, we greet our dear children with ambiguous acclamation: ‘Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed.’ Let us live as Easter people in love, joy, and peace.
I assumed, rather too quickly and foolishly, that this ‘ambiguous’ was a misconstrual. Surely the word intended had been ‘unambiguous’? But no.
Ambiguous is intentional. Food for thought. The ambiguity of Christ’s resurrection mysteriously confounds, yet is utterly profound.
Indeed so. In the sense that is being used here, this is a return to the richer meaning of ‘ambiguous’ (often used simply to indicate ‘confused’ or ‘mixed up’ these days), namely “open to more than one interpretation; not having one obvious meaning” (OED).
Precisely. The resurrection of Christ is not a closed, completed event. Rather, it is an opening up of the future in an invitational way, accompanied by a promise of restoration, wholeness and possibility which is yet to be realised, or even properly understood. As German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg put it (at first in Offenbarung als Geschichte, [Revelation as History] in 1961), it can helpfully be thought of as a ‘proleptic’ event — the representation of something as fully existing before it actually does.
In this sense, the resurrection of Christ is a tangible signification of what is to come, and in the terms of his subsequent ‘ascension’, he now comes to us from the future, so to speak, inviting the present-future transformation and transfiguration of all things.
Resurrection, in other words, is two subversions combined. It is God-given and God-beckoned life and possibility beyond the confines of mortal existence. It is also, in the material life of Jesus of Nazareth (and of us), a direct defiance of the murderous purposes of empire, gods who kill, and any other system, practice, ideology or instinct that proceeds by means of destruction, torture, degradation, exclusion and humiliation. From our perspective of struggle and hope, a world changed utterly and disappointingly the same.
Later in the day, Manchester-based theologian Graham Adams — not a relation of Nick’s, by the way — who last year gifted us his marvellously challenging book Holy Anarchy: Dismantling Domination, Embodying Community, Loving Strangeness (SCM Press, 2022), which I reviewed here, summed things up very helpfully for me:
Resurrection is not the resolution
but the crack in the system;
Not the closing of the circle
but its opening up;
Not the proof, or even vindication,
but the great subversion;
Not the acclamation of an emperor
but the undoing of all imperialism;
Not the fix
All of which brings me back to ‘The Romero Prayer’, which has accompanied me for at least forty years. This was wrongly attributed (including by me, some years ago) to the late Archbishop, a champion of the poor in El Salvador, who was himself murdered while saying Mass on 24 March 1980, after calling on the military to end their murderous actions.
It was actually composed by the late Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, USA, drafted for a homily by Cardinal John Dearden in November 1979. But no matter. It still echoes for and with Óscar Romero powerfully.
This prayer/poem has always been important to me, and very much sums up what might be called ‘the risen life’, as we commit ourselves (in Nick Adams’ potent words) to “work we will not see finished, with a power that is not ours, in this world we did not make.”
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The commonwealth of God* is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that God’s realm* always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
* NB. I have rephrased ‘kingdom of God’ as ‘commonwealth’ and ‘realm’ here. Graham Adams follows Andrew Shanks with ‘holy anarchy’. Do read his book to find out why.
© Simon Barrow is Director of Ekklesia. His next book, Against the Religion of Power: Telling a Different Christian Story will be published in 2023. His columns can be found here (and archived ones here). Twitter: @simonbarrow. See also ‘Reflecting on Easter Revolutions’.