A Dual Life: Living with an Easter sensibility

In the Gospel today, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, but as with every other resurrection story in the gospels, the disciples have trouble recognizing him.  When confronted with the risen Lord, there is startlement, confusion, doubt, testing.  Mostly, there is the fatalistic inertia of what the disciples expect the world to present to them, and when the world before them breaks that mold, they don’t know how to respond or what to do.

How like them we are.  We are raised and formed to expect the world to be a certain way.  We believe in a regular, even pedantic world, in which all is mundane and/or explicable by processes that can be nailed down and defined.  If anything ever surprises us, the surprise only lasts until we have had a chance to figure it out or explain it away.  C.S. Lewis perhaps articulated our way of being in the world most aptly in his recasting of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.  I know quite well just what you are.  You are just revolving gases, forming into solid masses.”[i]  There is no wonder here.

When something happens to us that doesn’t fit the mold, when we have an encounter that truly and inherently slips our understanding and upends our expectations, we react with incredulity.  The confusion is usually too much for us, so we willfully ignore the rub and go on with our lives as though it never happened, like those followers of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels who ultimately find the inexplicability of Jesus too much to take and go back to their old lives.

8 #156 Resurrected Jesus appears to apostles ideas | jesus, resurrection,  painting

As we learn in today’s Gospel, Jesus will not have it so.  Resurrection has happened.  It will not be explained rationally or by the mundane, and its inexplicable reality confronts the Twelve.  And Jesus will not allow them to lapse back into their old way of seeing the world.  Jesus is insistent, displaying an urgency to the disciples rare in the Gospels.  That the disciples reckon with Easter, that they lean into it rather than furtively flee, is clearly of vital importance to him.  Why?  What difference does it make?

On Palm Sunday morning, as I was driving to the Cathedral, on NPR Krista Tippet replayed her 2016 interview with Irish poet Michael Longley.[ii]  Longley is known, along with Seamus Heaney, as a poet of “the Troubles,” the decades-long socio-religious conflict in Northern Ireland marked by terror and civilian casualty.  Even before the Troubles, Longley’s earliest formative memories are of his father, a trench warfare soldier in World War I, screaming through his nightmares in the middle of the night.  All that is to say, the subject matter of much of Longley’s poetry, like his life, is grim.  And yet, somehow through the grief and vexation of his verse, there is a luminescence to Longley’s poetry.  Somehow, he recognizes that there is, always, a dual reality at play in his encounters with the world: the mundane and something else

One of Longley’s most well-known poems is “the Ice-Cream Man,” about a local man who owned an ice cream shop and was murdered by a sectarian.  The man’s shop, loved by all, had featured twenty-one flavors of ice cream.  After the murder, Longley’s young daughter took a basket of wildflowers and laid them on the sidewalk outside the ice cream parlor.  What was to most passers-by unnoticeable, was to Longley a revelation.  In his poem, he begins by listing flavors of ice cream—Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach—but then transitions to a seemingly endless list of wildflowers: “thyme, valerian, loosestrife, Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica… marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch…” The effect is that Longley finds a path from something ugly to something beautiful, or perhaps better said reveals the beautiful in the tragic, without for a moment letting go of grief.  He sees a dimension of grace where others see only the brute and prosaic layer of reality.

Michael Longley: Unionists 'should embrace' Irish language - BBC News
Poet Michael Longley

Various sources claim that Michael Longley is an atheist, and he calls himself a “sentimental disbeliever.”  But when pressed, Longley offers more nuance.  He says, “I do believe in the transcendental. I believe that poetry and art, without a transcendental element, doesn’t really exist for me…. [It] is all a transcendental experience for me. My heart stops when I discover an orchid…And then, when I hear a bird sing, it goes through me like an electric shock. These are the things that matter to me. And I would call that transcendental.”  Though a poet, one gets the sense that he means this literally and not only as metaphor.

And, despite his protestation that something more religiously organized is not for him, Longley also slips in the admission, “Once every four or five years, I take communion, and I believe in the poetry of it — the poetry of it.” 

What makes the difference?  How is it that the world is neither fatalistic nor merely inert stuff to Michael Longley?  How is it that a life lived in the very shadow of such pain, and grief, and terror finds itself repeatedly taken aback by beauty and wonder?  Longley explains it as the poetic sensibility.  He tells Krista Tippet, “I have this secret life no one knows about…For me, it’s quite an extraordinary gift to see something beautiful…[It’s] extraordinary. And it’s a way of having more than one life.” 

Intriguingly, Longley also borrows a phrase from Horace, and says he, and poets like him, are, in fact, “priests.”  The basic meaning of “priest” is, of course, to be a conduit of the divine, to communicate truth that otherwise risks being undetected, and where most see only death, Longley sees the buds of new life.  Where most see only grief and pain, he encounters nascent hope.  Where most see shadow and drab gray, for Longley the world shines with color.  Michael Longley sees a dimension of reality that most of us, most of the time, miss, and in response he cannot help but share that vision with the rest of us.

Longley lives, as he says, two lives at once.  The first is the life that recognizes fully and well the world’s tragedy and, even more often, the world’s numbing banality.  But the second life is the life that encounters, knows, and is a conduit of the beautiful, the poetic, and (dare we say it) the miraculous that exists side-by-side with—and in—the everyday.  Longley calls this “adoration.”  Speaking of his poetry, Krista Tippet calls it (despite Longley’s claim of disbelief) “religious in the best sense of the word.”

Michael Longley helps us understand Jesus’ insistence with the disciples today.  I would call Longley’s way of being in the world an Easter sensibility.  He has seen and recognized the miraculous in the mundane.  His eyes are open, and no matter how unrelentingly the world grinds, he will not shut them.  Jesus, as the Resurrected One, knows that this makes all the difference, for the disciples, for us, and for the fragile world in which we live.  Because Easter people—people who look upon the world and see a different dimension of reality, who see wonder, beauty, and the presence of the living God—cannot help but live differently as people of hope, and love, and grace.  That living, in turns, redeems the world, making Easter ever more a reality.

3,705 Celtic Knot Illustrations & Clip Art - iStock

At our Sunday evening Celtic Eucharist, The Well, we often end our worship with a post-Communion prayer from the Church of Ireland that embodies for me this Easter sensibility.  It asks that we remain awake, that we encounter the risen Christ, and that we live in response to that wonder.   We pray this:

“Strengthen for your service, Lord, these hands that holy things have taken; may these ears with have heard your Word be deaf to all clamor and dispute; may these tongues which have sung your praise be free from deceit; may these eyes which have seen the tokens of your love shine with the light of hope; and may these bodies which have been fed with your body be refreshed with the fullness of your life; glory to you forever. Amen.”

[i] I first heard this from the Very Rev. Herbert O’Driscoll, who attributed it to C.S. Lewis.  There are many versions of this ditty floating around the internet, attributed to various authors.

[ii] https://onbeing.org/programs/the-vitality-of-ordinary-things/

Of Easter and the Cosmic Symphony

I was five years old when the movie Star Wars was released in 1977.  My mother took my brother Robert and me to see it in the theater.  Immediately after the movie, we walked next door to TG&Y and purchased our first Star Wars action figures.  Robert got Luke Skywalker and C3P0.  I got Darth Vader and R2D2.  Thus began a childhood love affair with outer space.  For me, then, space was all about starships and laser beams and talking robots.  Space was full of excitement, colorful characters, and action. 

Imgur | Star wars poster, Star wars wallpaper, Star wars games

By the time I was in junior high school, my enthusiasm for outer space translated into two different trips to Space Camp at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where we ran mock space shuttle missions in incredibly life-like simulators.  Despite the fact that the shuttle mission I piloted burned up on reentry because we forgot to close the shuttle’s cargo bay doors, the experience felt a lot like Star Wars minus the ray guns.  It was hugely exciting.

My enthusiasm for outer space came to a screeching halt in the mid-1980s, however, with space shuttle mission STS-41-B.  On that mission, astronaut Bruce McCandless operated, for the first time ever, NASA’s Manned Maneuvering Unit: a jetpack.  Photos of McCandless in the jetpack appeared on magazine covers and newspapers across the globe, the first-ever human being to free-float in space, untethered to the shuttle or anything else.  Most thought it was great.  I thought it was terrible.  It is difficult adequately to describe the dread and anxiety I felt when I saw the photograph of McCandless alone against the black backdrop of space.  It was existential.  My excitement turned to horror, and the horror ran deep.  Immediately, for me, outer space was no longer about Jedi and wookies.  It was about the unearthly cold, human fragility, and the endless empty void.   I could no longer think about outer space without an ominous chill.

Bruce McCandless, the first astronaut to fly untethered in space, has died

In my teenage angst, my interest in space didn’t wane, it just transitioned into something morbid.  I became especially interested in black holes, as the denouement of space’s terror.  Even now, I don’t fully understand black holes.  The best description I’ve found comes from a reporter who describes black holes as “too much matter crammed into one place, [where] the cumulative force of gravity becomes overwhelming, and the place becomes an eternal trap.”[i]

What goes into a black hole never comes out.  And everything goes into a black hole: planets, suns, even something as ephemeral as light itself.  Light, life, the future, hope; it all ends in a black hole.  Black holes are the universe’s Good Friday.  Black holes are the cosmic tomb.

The friends and followers of Jesus experienced their own transition from enthusiasm to horror these past few days, except unlike my childhood terror, theirs was not hypothetical but very real.  It must have been thrilling to follow Jesus, to see his inexplicable power, to believe in him as a leader, a teacher, a savior who would usher in a different, better world.  This must have been true right until that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the illusion of safety and security with Jesus was shed in an instant.  The next morning revealed Jesus alone and untethered from everything that might protect and preserve him, like that astronaut floating in the void.  Except Jesus wasn’t entirely untethered.  He was firmly affixed to a crossbeam of wood, designed to torture and humiliate him while terrorizing those who loved him.  In every way, it was effective.  Can you imagine the juxtaposition of such horror on the heels of such hope?

And then, all of it—the enthusiasm, the hope, the very light that was Jesus which so briefly but brightly illumined the disciples’ world, is finally swallowed by the tomb.  As with a black hole, it is over.  Nothing is left.  And the disciples are left alone and numb in the void. 

I suspect this year we may have some inkling, some minor conception at least, of that feeling.  Last year at this time the coronavirus pandemic was still so new that there was a kind of morbid, frantic excitement to it:  What did it mean?  How long might it last?  How can we fight or debate with those who view it differently than we do?  Then the horror set in, as people we knew got sick and died, as the death toll exceeded the number of Americans killed in World War II, and as the health crisis became an economic crisis threatening our livelihoods and an education crisis threatening to leave a generation of kids behind.  The past year has been like an endless Passion Week, stretched taut over three hundred sixty-five days.  This Easter we are exhausted; we are numb; and for very many of us all our energy has been swallowed as if into a black hole, as if into a tomb. 

Dark matter could be made of black holes from the beginning of time | Live  Science

My fascination with black holes never entirely waned, and a few years ago I read an article about a startling discovery at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO.  It turns out Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves a century ago, but since then they remained merely theoretical.  No one had ever actually detected them.  That is, until 2015, when LIGO’s antenna, more than two miles in length, picked up a faint chirp from across the void.  In-depth analysis concluded that the chirp was gravitational waves, which were the result of two black holes colliding, a billion years ago, millions of galaxies from the Milky Way.  Not one black hole, but two, and when they smashed into one another, as the article’s author put it, “a few last quivers of energy escaped.”[ii]

You see, though everything ends in a black hole, when these two black holes collided—these cosmic tombs—they also, paradoxically, produced something new.  Gravitational waves pushed outward, just averting the maw of the black holes’ event horizon—escaping the tomb—and coursed through the cosmos.  What’s more, when the waves reached the LIGO antenna on earth and that chirp was finely processed, it was discovered to sound like a run on a piano keyboard, from low A to middle C.  LIGO scientists went on to say that “different celestial sources emit their own sorts of gravitational waves…The binary neutron stars are like piccolos.  Isolated spinning pulsars…‘ding’ like a triangle, and black holes fill in the string section, running form double bass on up, depending upon their mass.”  Which means that, quite literally, all around us, as gravitational waves pulse, the universe is singing “like a cosmic orchestra.[iii]

It is as if the cosmos is telling us, as if God is telling us, that even the black hole—the tomb—does not have the last word.  Even the crushing finality of death itself is not the end.  From the heart of the void, the universe sings!  But we Christians have known that all along.  In our burial liturgy, we say, “Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”[iv]

We know this because of this very day.  We know this because Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and John rush to the graveyard to find the tomb empty.  We know this because Jesus Christ, the embodiment of their hope and ours, and the incarnation of God, has emerged from the black hole as the universe’s song. 

On this Easter day, we have resumed our own singing in this space.  We are reminded—our hope is restored—that no virus, no crisis, no terror, no tomb has the last word in our lives.  The last word always and ever comes from the God who creates the cosmos, the God born and resurrected in Jesus.  In our faith, as in this past year, we have moved from naïve excitement, through anxiety and fear and numbness, to this very moment when we first detect, like LIGO’s antenna, something transformed and new.  At first it is but a chirp, but the waves will continue for all who have ears to hear.  They will crescendo from all sources and sides, until our joy resounds like a cosmic symphony and we echo the song of our risen Lord. 

[i] Quoted by the Rev. Ann Benton Fraser in an Easter sermon at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio, April 21, 2019.

[ii] https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/gravitational-waves-exist-heres-how-scientists-finally-found-them

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Book of Common Prayer, p. 499.