I. Now, let me start out as clearly as I can. Easter is real.
It’s a little bit of a shame that we speak of the “Easter miracle.” Because it is no miracle at all. Easter is really real. Sometimes people regard Easter the way we react to a magic trick like, say, pulling a rabbit out of a hat. People always want to puzzle out the trick—it’s, well, just miraculous—but to no avail. So, when it comes to Easter, then they have to conclude, well, it’s just God being God again!
If you think of Easter as some kind of magic trick, then keep your eye on Good Friday. There is no Easter without Good Friday—there is no Resurrection without crucifixion. In fact, and this may be the big point lost in translation, resurrection occurs in and through the crucifixion.
Normally, stories unfold in order—first one event, then the next, is how we commonly tell them, everything laid out in a sequence. And so it is here—Good Friday is followed on the third day by Easter Sunday. But, although laid out in sequence in the Bible, the uniqueness of the Christian experience is that the one contains the other: the crucifixion contains the resurrection—it all happens on the cross, because Jesus’ last words was a prayer with his last breath, “forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
This was not to dismiss what he was undergoing, obviously, nor for us to condone, to approve or to baptize any evil. Forgiveness puts us in a more powerful relationship to evil than any other alternative. Jesus invokes the God of Israel on the cross, the God of mercy and righteousness. Jesus would have us love the world as it is—to redeem the world if we want to improve it.
II. You might learn this, as I did attending churches in the poorest sections of Southside Chicago. You know these areas, like the ones in Roxbury and Mattapan, neighborhoods now being wasted because of racist practices by the coronavirus epidemic—poor, crowded, underserved, long on dreams, short on hope.
My entire exposure to this world was summarized in a semi-autobiographical novel by James Baldwin where he described his conversion experience at the age of 14 in the storefront church of his Pentecostal preacher step-father. After an intense and long marination in the racial oppression of urban America, this boy underwent the harrowing of hell and heaven in an all-night trance that led finally to the revelation that broke through his resistance to Christ—when he saw the crucifixion and resurrection in the same moment.
“A sweetness filled John as he heard this voice and he heard the sound of singing: the singing was for him. For his drifting soul was anchored in the love of God; in the rock that endured forever. The light and the darkness had kissed each other, and were married now, forever in the life and vision of John’s soul. . . .”
That was how it was laid to Baldwin’s charge “to keep his heart free from hatred and despair.” The crucifixion of black America on the white cross was not followed by resurrection—for Baldwin, the mystery was somewhere in the crucifixion, where it was laid to his mind that hate was futile and self-destructive. Baldwin’s cross transformed him—it resurrected him as a man of extraordinary self-possession and as the most articulate critic of American society. If Baldwin could do this, why not we?
So, the resurrection was real only because the crucifixion was real, the two being one in the transformed spirit of a sanctified Harlem youngster. The two are one. The resurrection is not a solution to a problem—it is the living of the problem in a state of forgiveness.
It is from there that the fight for justice and God’s righteousness arises.
III. To take an example closer to hand, maybe you would be more familiar with a recent musical icon, the late Leonard Cohen, who made the very same testimony in his chart-topping hit, Hallelujah. Such is the spiritual power of this song that it is performed by church choirs and soloists, not to mention a host of music stars. But most renditions more nearly resemble lullabies which project comfort and transcendence. They may not have comprehended, because when you see and hear a Leonard Cohen performance of his own song, you understand that he means something pretty stark.
Cohen is all grit and grittiness when he comes to the alleluia—his HA-le-lu-ia has a guttural sound to it—. This refrain comes out of some gritty biblical stories and a hard-bitten reality of his own. First, King David in the Bible got all caught up in a tangle of adultery and murder and deceit, yet finds the right “key” (musically) to life in the course of it. Then Cohen appears to make a reference to Samson the strong man in the Book of Judges seduced by a foreign woman who betrayed him into enemy hands by cutting his hair which was the source of his strength. He was in prison so long his hair and then his strength returned, enough to pull down the capital building around his head and that of his enemies.
Cohen also seems to be making oblique references to his own love life and its, shall we say, crucifixions. But he sings outright that the Holy Spirit had a part to play in the consummation of conflicted relationships. And the resulting hallelujah is not the one people sing at church “it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah.” His raspy voice and closed eyes as he sings, doubled over, convey that life emerges from a furnace, or to put it in his more explicitly Christian terms—the furnace unveils the higher life.
In response to a question during an interview, Cohen said, “The world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled--but there are moments we can reconcile and embrace the wholeness. That is what I mean by “Hallelujah.” Leonard Cohen means to position resurrection within the painful lives of everyone, not just church people, so that everybody can take personal possession of the Alleluia because it means, in Hebrew, “Praise God.”
The question is asked every day, Where’s God in this pandemic?
Right here. The answer is, right here. Mind you, literal crucifixion is not involved—it serves as a figure for all kinds of death, death of our goals, death of our hopes, the death of our old selves, which can be as painful as anything we will ever know.
It merely requires for us to flip on the Christian light switch and see God wherever there is the strength, the endurance, the hope that comes from forgiveness. This is easier for those who have lived a life of devotion, ritual observance, study, pilgrimage, and—eventually—direct non-violent action. But sometimes, sometimes, we come upon resurrection by surprise, in the Emergency Room, the workplace, in our sequestration, where we know resurrection to bring —“a cold and broken Hallelujah.”
In conclusion, we can’t make too big a deal out of Easter, it’s that important. But isn’t it amazing to think that this is all about such a small thing—forgiveness?