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Issue Date:  March 25, 2005

The future of Easter


A few weeks ago, while I was in the Carolinas visiting my family, I picked up the collected poems of the English librarian Philip Larkin at a used-book store. On the way home, while I was reading through it, I came across his poem “Church Going,” in which he visits a church and awkwardly looks at its decorations, the books inside, reads idly from the lectern, gives a worthless coin and decides “the place was not worth stopping for.”

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss
like this,
Wondering what to look for;
wondering, too,
When churches fall completely
out of use
What we shall turn them into,
if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically
on show,
Their parchment, plate and
pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to
rain and sheep.

Philip Larkin can be a rather bleak poet; he was terrified of death, constantly wondering what would be on the other side. I don’t share his vision of useless churches or empty cathedrals. But I do tend to share a certain sensibility with him, an awareness of the darkness of things. I find myself often thinking about the future and wondering where this world is headed.

Not very happy thoughts -- or reading material -- for Easter, one might think. But the days leading up to Easter show us a lot of people in mourning, feeling lost, wondering what’s going to happen. At morning prayer on Good Friday, the Liturgy of the Hours has us listen to the book of Lamentations, in which the Hebrew people grieve over the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem around 587 B.C.: “Her gates have sunk into the ground; he has ruined and broken her bars … guidance is no more, and her prophets obtain no vision from the Lord.”

Then at the afternoon liturgy on Friday, we hear the long story of the Passion from the Gospel of John. After he was laid in the tomb, the disciples must have been telling themselves the same thing as the lamenting Hebrews: Our guidance is no more.

But what we learn by listening to our history on the night of the Easter Vigil is that God can bring life out of nothingness. “In the beginning,” the first story goes, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” God constantly breaks into history, saving the Israelites from the Egyptians or telling them, in the reading from Isaiah, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you.”

Finally, after all that, the lights come up in church and Matthew’s angel tells the women at the tomb, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

At the end of that Gospel passage, Jesus himself meets the women and tells them to spread the news to the other disciples. And that’s why these stories have survived for thousands of years, and why I believe the churches of the future won’t be farmed out to herds of sheep -- because people continue to spread the news.

This story of death and resurrection resonates with people because everyone has experienced winter and then seen it turn to spring. Everyone can look back into history and see calamity after calamity followed by a prosperous time. I look into my own life and find cycles of terrible grief, followed by joy. At the end of “Church Going,” Philip Larkin even acknowledges that people will still hold some vestigial understanding of what churches mean: “someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious/ And gravitating with it to this ground.”

But I also believe this story means more than just a symbol of universal experience or a comfort from the past. In those stories from Genesis and Exodus, God took action in the lives of the people. When the angel in the Gospel says, “He is not here” -- meaning, in the tomb -- it’s because Jesus is here, with us, now. Jesus Christ is a real person, one who exists independent of me or my formulations of him; he is relating to people, taking action in their lives, allowing them to transcend darkness. We have been resurrected forever from the cycle of decay. Looking around today, it takes a lot of hope to believe that … but as Paul says, hope is one of the three things that remain.

At the liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday we hear from Isaiah 53 about the suffering servant: “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground … Who could have imagined his future?”

At the start of the Easter Vigil, we proclaim that future -- “Christ, yesterday, today and forever.” And because of our relationship with him, his future is also ours.

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer.

National Catholic Reporter, March 25, 2005

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