Easter has come, bringing spring with it. The snow has melted. The sky is blue and the birds are singing. The cycle of nature continues. The early Romanising Christians might have made many mistakes, in corrupting the radical ‘Jesus movement’ with ideas from Mythraic and Egyptian death cults, but their decision to hang easter on the hook of pagan spring festivities was a wise choice.
On a bold and obvious level, easter is the springtime of the soul, the coming of a new season of the spirit, in which ‘New birth! New life! New hope!’ are declared. The bunny and the egg, symbols of fecundity almost as old as human civilisation, are not, then, to be despised or cast aside as relics of the deep pagan past, but cherished as reminders of a profound truth: that after winter, spring comes; that out of darkness, comes light.
The metaphor of springtime is an old one. Historians speak of the 1848 Revolutions as the ‘Springtime of the peoples’, as national liberationist movements, calling for constitutional rights and representative government, sprung up across Europe. More recently, we have the ‘Arab Spring’, and the struggle – still uncertain – for freedom, justice and democracy in the Middle East.
Within the Christian tradition, C. S. Lewis used this metaphor to good effect in his Narnia stories: Narnia was a land of perpetual winter, until Aslan (representing Christ) came to bring a warming spring. Surely all those who have experienced their hearts being warmed and melted by the presence of the Holy Spirit within can testify to the aptness of this comparison.
But springtime is more than a metaphor. The annual triumph of springtime over winter is woven into the very fabric of our human, physical existence. As big-brained sociable apes spinning around on the third rock from the sun, we are utterly dependent upon it. In a post-industrial age, where few people in so-called developed countries are involved in the primary economy of food production, and where the reality of climate change calls for an urgent and fundamental review to our ways of living and working, we would do well to remember our continued dependence on nature and the seasons for our very survival. If spring did not come, we would die.
These real and metaphorical uses of springtime are not mutually exclusive. In fact, each sustains and augments the other: the metaphor of spring makes sense to us because we have at some point experienced the extended days and rising temperatures of real spring; the reality of spring is enlivened, and given depth and breadth of meaning, because it evokes a wealth of metaphorical associations.
Likewise with the resurrection. Some insist on a literal reading of the texts. Resurrection, at its most literal, means a dead man walked. The resurrection, according to the literalist account, was a miraculous reversal of the regular order of nature, brought about by direct divine intervention. I find this literal understanding of the resurrection unconvincing. Aside from the fact that that resurrection stories are a familiar mythological device in the sacred folktales of many cultures, I find it unconvincing because the biblical texts do not agree on many points of detail – they cannot be considered accurate eyewitness accounts. The stories become more elaborate over time: the oldest manuscripts of Mark omit reference to the resurrection altogether (quite odd, if a literal and physical resurrection was, at that stage, central to the significance of Jesus to his followers); by the time John is written, about a century after Jesus’ death, the resurrected Jesus is both a ghost who can magically appear inside locked rooms (John 20:19) and a physical man who can cook breakfast (John 21). Given what we know of physical reality, there is too much here that appears legendary or mythological for me to credit it.
We can be relatively sure that something marvellous took place, which united the despairing and defeated disciples into the new community called ‘church’, but we do not have sufficient evidence to know with any certainty what that marvel was. It is possible, for example, that Jesus did not lose his life through crucifixion, but only his consciousness, and that he regained consciousness only to die shortly afterwards of the wounds received. We will never know. Some claim to know, based on an over-confident reliance either on creeds or scriptures, but such brittle certainties are not for me. I can go no further than a profound and awed agnosticism on these historical claims.
Does that mean I reject the resurrection? No, by no means.
One way of comprehending the reality of the resurrection is to say that it took place not physically in an empty tomb, but spiritually in the hearts of men and women. The Romans, in collusion with the temple authorities and the mob, could use force to kill the man Jesus, but they couldn’t kill his spirit, his Way, his teaching, or his example. These lived on in the community of disciples he left behind.
According to this understanding, Jesus’ death and resurrection can be likened to the breaking of a seed pod – the seeds are useless unless they ‘fall to the ground’ (John 12:24). In dying, Jesus was broken into fragments and scattered amongst the people; the resurrected body of Christ, which will continue his mission of healing, restoring, loving, changing and challenging the world, is not a ‘dead man walking’, but the Church. The same ‘Christly’ anointing of the Holy Spirit that was in Jesus was poured out upon the disciples and proclaimed to all. We see beautiful echoes of this in Communion: the bread of life is broken, and the wine poured out, in order that they may be shared for the joy and sustenance of the whole world.
Unlike a physical resurrection which is alleged to have happened once in the distant past, this spiritual resurrection keeps on happening. Just as Christ was reborn in the first disciples, so Christ is reborn in us today, as we come to acknowledge and follow the Spirit, or the ‘inner light of Christ’, within us.
That’s the easter reality: Christ is resurrected in humanity. The kingdom is here. It is within each of us. There’s no need to argue about what happened, or did not happen, two thousand years ago. Embrace it now.
Whereas many ‘orthodox’ Christians insist that entrance into the life of the Spirit must be bought by blood, or made conditional upon subscribing to certain doctrinal statements, Christian Universalists proclaim with joy that the spirit is in all, however dimly it may appear in some, and however much it may be temporarily masked by the ugliness of ignorance, sin, or squalor.
This means there is no hierarchy of holiness. The Spirit inverts traditional standards of external purity, internally purifying and sanctifying everything it touches. Everyone, every living thing, perhaps everything that exists, is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Some folks comprehend, appreciate and respond to this more quickly and more fully than others, that’s all.
As we become aware of the Spirit within, as we yield to it and follow it, we experience a resurrection within us; we are gently and slowly transformed by an enlightening joy, a profound peace, an enlivening freedom, and quickening love. We are equipped to transform the world, bringing peace, joy, freedom and love to wherever they are needed.
As Quaker Faith & Practice (26.56) puts it:
The resurrection, however literally or otherwise we interpret it, demonstrates the power of God, to bring life out of brokenness; not just to take the hurt out of brokenness but to add something to the world. It helps us to sense the usefulness, the possible meaning in our suffering, and to turn it into a gift. The resurrection affirms me with my pain and my anger at what has happened. It does not take away my pain; it still hurts. But I sense that I am being transfigured; I am being enabled to begin again to love confidently and to remake the spirit of my world. (S Jocelyn Burnell, 1989.)
Now, isn’t that better than a zombie myth?
This isn’t even half of the miracle. The good news is that the Good News keeps on getting better, but I’ll save that part for another day.