At the risk of frightening the horses, let me begin our resurrection story by acknowledging that Jesus was by no means the first man reported to have descended to the land of the dead, and to have returned alive. There are older myths in which a living hero tricks, barters, or steals his way into Hades, seeking lost love or the secret to defeating death.
There are others, in the bible, who had truly died, and were returned to life. The prophets had a hand in some, Jesus raised others; not Lazarus alone, although his is arguably the most dramatic story, the most prescient of Jesus’ own empty tomb. Even later, his own apostles were credited with bringing the dead to life, rescuing them from their journey to the grave.
So what makes this story different? Why do we hold the resurrection of Jesus to a higher standard of exaltation than all of the other myths and legends before or since?
First of all – first and last, perhaps – it is the person of Jesus himself who stands out: the Son of God, made perfectly human. Not a hybrid demigod, nor a mutant superhero, but the perfect image of God, a humble reflection of the Creator, and an uncorrupted example of the human design, formed perfectly to love God, to love God’s people, to love God’s creation. Offering himself fully to the human experience, Jesus lived and Jesus died. There is no humanity without mortality. That would be a cheat, a trick, and Jesus loved us too much to treat us that way.
But Jesus was not human alone. He brought with him to the cross the very essence and extremes of God’s love, God’s compassion, God’s fierce forgiveness, crying out from the cross as the world revolves around it, waiting in pain for the world’s repentance and conversion to the way of love. The people at the foot of the cross taunted Jesus with the possibility that God might cut him down, not realizing that this, on the cross, was God crying out to them to see the light of love, and take him down themselves, tend his wounds which sin had opened, be reconciled to Jesus.
Then there’s the mystery of Jesus’ journey itself, his descent to the dead; to hell, in the old language of the Apostles’ Creed. In the old myths, after some hero had explored the nether regions of our mortal experience, for glory or for romantic love, and returned, the eternal realities, the divisions between life and death, remained the same.
It was not so with Jesus. When he died, and his body was laid to rest, the love of God that he embodied could not be ended, nor silenced, nor contained. We know, we who have encountered grief, that love is not defeated by death, and the love of Jesus, perfect image of the love of God, could not be limited nor contained by the tomb. In the resurrection icons I keep in my office, Jesus does not return from the realm of the dead alone, but he has unlocked the gates of death and released from its captivity all whom God loves, all with whom God would be reconciled.
In the old stories, it was forbidden to look back. That’s often where it all went wrong. But Jesus understands that to be human is to remember, sometimes to regret; that it takes time to heal from trauma, from sin. He holds in his own body the scars of our failures of compassion. He will not discount anyone for needing to take a moment, on the way out of the grave, to grieve.
When the women returned from the empty tomb, they told the men all of this, and they thought that it was just another idle tale like so many others. How could they, even after all they had seen, fail to recognize that Jesus is like no other? We might find that surprising, given all the time that these men had spent with Jesus, and all of the advance notice he had given them of his resurrection, his irrepressible, unkillable love for them which would not leave them alone.
But, to be fair, perhaps we too often treat the resurrection like a pretty myth that changes nothing much. We fail to follow Jesus’ example of unbridled compassion. We limit our interactions with those trapped by death, or sin, sorrow; or we impose arbitrary conditions on our love: don’t look back; instead of extending our hands to all who reach out eagerly, hungrily for good news, asking them their back stories, honouring their scars, salving their wounds, tending to them as we would to Christ’s stigmata. We conspire with authority to execute innocents and criminals side by side, saying that if God loves them, let God save them, instead of recognizing God’s call to us to claw out the nails of the cross and undo our addiction to dealing with death. Like the early apostles, we still hide behind locked doors out of fear of our own neighbours, when God’s Spirit would have us break loose and babble good news to anyone who will listen.
Given all of the time that we spend with Jesus, how clearly do our own lives reflect the reality of resurrection, God’s revelation and Christ’s revolution; the irrevocable love of God?
Christ is risen. We proclaim it to be true, and not an idle tale. Then let us not be idle in putting into practice the ending of the story: the destruction of death and hell; the liberating, life-giving love of God. Christ is risen. Let’s rise with him. Alleluia.