By Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
This is the time of year when I most miss parish ministry. Not Christmas, but Lent and Easter. Lent and Easter, which I always see as a happily conjoined pair.
I love the fifty days of festive Easter celebration – the Easter hymns and acclamations, the descants, the buoyant joy of it all. However, I also loved crafting, week after week, step by step, liturgies designed to help ground us in the solemnity and penitence of Lent – the counterpoint that gives Easter its resonance.
Now, it may sound a bit paradoxical for an old feminist theologian to love the penitential aspects of Lent. I came of age theologically in the 1980s, on the heels of Valerie Saiving Goldstein’s pivotal journal article wherein she opined that, although pride might be the original sin of man, its opposite, or the lack of pride, might be the original sin of woman. This lack of pride, or self-abnegation, all too often causes us to consent to our own disempowerment – and thereby to fail to put our talents to full use in the love and service of God.
Penitence and guilt, we thought, were just the church’s equivalent of the medical establishment’s valium. They were patriarchy’s tools to suppress our outrage, our righteous indignation; penitence and guilt keep us docile and in our place. So we rejected patriarchy’s tranquilizers – whether they came in plastic pill bottles or from ancient liturgical texts.
And that was a good thing. But, like many revolutionary good things, in the long run self-abnegation works better as one part of a both/and balance than as one pole of an either/or dichotomy. Although revolutionary in its time, in this age of “look at me, me, me,” trophies for everyone, and salvation through self-esteem – in such an age as this, a guilt and penitence-free Lent looks more like an acquiescence to culture than a critique of it.
So I embrace a good old-fashioned Lent because it is a counter-cultural act and because, still, it is the ballast that gives Easter its meaning. I need Lent to remind me that I need Easter. I can’t be the person God created, and intends me to be, without God’s help – without Jesus. Which takes us to the heart of today’s Gospel (Luke 24:36b-48).
The disciples see Jesus standing before them, and he laughs at them for thinking they’re seeing a ghost rather than recognizing that he’s their real, flesh-and-blood companion restored to them. That’s what the text says – flesh and blood, standing before them.
I acknowledge that there may well be people in our congregations who doubt that Jesus was really resurrected in the flesh. And, if so, they’re in good company. Many very smart and very faithful people share their skepticism and disbelief on that point. And many other very smart and very faithful people believe that is exactly what happened. And we could spend a great deal of time arguing the point. But I won’t. Nor will I tell you which camp I fall into. Because I really don’t much care.
You see, I think the real danger is not believing wrongly on the facts of this matter. The real danger is getting so absorbed in the question of whether it’s factual that we forget that it most certainly is true.
The truth matters far more to me than the facts. And the truth is that something profound happened. Lives were changed, the world was changed. Resurrection happened back then. It happens still. I’ve seen it – in the Biblical texts, throughout history, in my own life, and in the lives of others.
Flesh and blood don’t matter all that much to me – resurrection and redemption do. Lent has reminded me that I need them – that I can’t be who God made and intends me to be on my own. I can’t know the fullness of life in God or grow into the full stature of Christ alone. Even on my best days I don’t get all the way there. And many of my days are not my best. I cannot save myself. I need Jesus. Jesus, who, this Gospel reading says, was to suffer and die.
Why did the Messiah have to suffer and die? Could it be that Jesus’ persecution and death were inevitable in light of who Jesus was and how the world is? Not that God intended, and wanted, Jesus to die, but that the Father and Jesus both knew what the inevitable outcome would be of a life lived as Jesus lived it?
The world, as Lent has reminded us, is filled with both the wondrous goodness of creation and with sin. And sin, when faced with absolute integrity – that is, unwavering Love – always tries to kill it. Being completely and fully who God intended him to be, living with absolute integrity, Jesus was bound to anger and frighten and shame the powers and principalities. So of course they killed Him.
We who follow the way of Jesus won’t pull it off as well as he did. That perfect integrity will elude us (not because we’re bad people, but because we’re people). Yet, if we manage to do even a halfway decent job of following Jesus, the world may very well kill us, too – our bodies, our dreams, our careers, or our sense of self. It’s likely to happen; we may as well prepare for it.
But here’s the Good News, the Easter News.
Resurrection is true – whatever the facts of the matter. Resurrection is true. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it, and I am a witness to it.
Whenever we summon up the courage to risk and face those deaths – to go through them rather than around them – we invite resurrection and redemption. We become strong through our very wounds. We find ourselves blessed in ways that exceed our hopes and our best imagining. Through those little deaths we find ourselves ushered into new life – resurrected, born again, becoming ever more who we were created to be, redeemed.
And when we let God into our lives that profoundly – when we cooperate in our own growth into the full stature of Christ through fasting and prayer, feasting and celebration, hard work and service, as well as steadfast love and joy – what our heirs will discover is that even the big death is not the end of us. Our lives, lived with that integrity, that openness to death and resurrection and redemption, will continue to make a difference even after our bodies have returned to dust.
When the people of God gather to worship, work, or play together; when they stand at the altar, or march on the Capital, or kiss a child, we, too, will be in the midst of them, continuing to bless them and shape the world.
We, too, will be resurrected, never really to die. And that’s the Truth.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen.
* Adapted from a sermon preached on Easter Thursday, April 28, 2011, at the Episcopal Divinity School. The full version can be found at http://ragsdalesermons.blogspot.com.
** The Very Rev. Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale is the President and Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the editor of Boundary Wars: Intimacy and Distance in Healing Relationships (Pilgrim, 1996).