I’ve always been intrigued – not to say mystified – by the resurrection. It certainly seemed like the ultimate victory, the absolute vindication of the man, Jesus, that we were told was the son of God. But, like many of us, I came to find that it wasn’t quite as simple as that: the ‘resurrection appearances’ of Jesus, as they called the experiences that his followers had after his death and burial are not quite straightforward. In other words, they are certainly not literal descriptions of a resuscitated corpse. Which is where many part company with religious stories like these. In a recent blog I tried to highlight the difference between literal (scientific) facts and symbolic (religious) meaning. The first emphasizes evidence, the second interpretation.
Another way of saying this is that deep knowing – beyond the basic facts – does not happen simply with our thinking minds. To truly know something, our whole being must be open, awake, and present. We intuitively knew how to be present as babies, when, in the first months, we saw ourselves mirrored in our family’s eyes. We came to believe and then become this vision. The contemplative approach of religion offers a similar kind of mirroring, as we learn to see ourselves in the ultimate gaze of God.
Our early knowing is not so much heard, seen, or thought, rather it is felt as our original identity. But we all inevitably leave the Garden of Eden, this state of innocence and blissful, unconscious union of childhood. The psychologist, Erik Erikson, called it the Fall into consciousness, which is, in fact, a progression into the dualistic thinking that characterizes our adult – differentiated – world. Psychologists suggest that when we first begin to doubt and move outside of this essential knowing, we cling to things like teddy bears and dolls, or the classic security blanket as a way of holding on to this original world.
Unfortunately, if this primal knowing never happens for us, we will doubt whether there is or ever was a Garden of Eden (“God”) where all things are one and good. Without the initial attachment of a good family, we grow up with this uncertainty and its consequences. And as we see ourselves more and more through eyes that compare, judge, and dismiss, we need help to heal the brokenness of this this world. Resurrection is about bringing us back to the original knowing of a loving web of life and an original identity. In this fundamental human experience are the roots of both our sense of sin (as separated from our original identity) and salvation (as reunited with our true self).
In the previous blog I also noted that the context of the Jesus story is the Jewish world of interpretation of life-shaping experiences that became tradition, and reinterpretation of this tradition in the face of new existential challenges, like exile in Babylon or occupation by Rome. In the case of the Jesus story, the Jewish followers of Jesus could only imagine surviving the Temple-destroying savagery in 70 A.D, when the first Gospel (Mark) was written), because Jesus had. This is the essential meaning of Resurrection: a hope that evolved into a conviction that survival of the worst fate imaginable, including death, was a possibility—even, a promise. Moreover, this was a conviction rooted in the very heart of Jewish belief and expectation, centered in a particular way on the book of Daniel (which was part of the collective imagination of that time) which proposes the first clear prediction of the resurrection of the dead in the Hebrew Bible: “..And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.” Resurrection was seen as the resurrection of the body – everything that is – into a here and now eternity where there was no more death. Eternity means that those resurrected will never die again (unlike the raising of Lazarus).
The Christian Gospels, then, were interpretations of existential challenges in the light of the Jewish traditions of the first followers of Jesus. The heart of these interpretations of the resurrection of Jesus was that death is now seen for what it is: not the end but a new beginning. Jesus is not gone but present in a different way, the way God’s presence was understood in a different way at the time of the exile in Babylon. The purpose of Jesus was not simply the overthrow of a corrupt system as a ‘revolutionary messiah’, though he clearly did challenge that, but the renewal of the human condition itself (remember our original identity) and the fulfillment of the life principle that beats in every human heart: namely that we are eternal, infinite, connected: God? This outcome was symbolized – that is ‘made present’ – by Jesus’ personal victory over death, which could only take the form of his personal Resurrection. The association with the Book of Daniel implied that the final realization, the new day – what Daniel called ‘the End Time’ – was here. Their literal interpretation of this ‘end time’ as being here, in the immediate sense, is understandable, though confusing, like all the literal interpretations that have dogged religion.
The first Resurrection story in the Gospel of Mark simply asserts, in the voice of a young man dressed in white, addressing the three women, “He has risen, he is not here.” The image and the words would have made a clear connection, in the minds of Jesus’ followers, to the vision in the Book of Daniel of a ‘son of man coming on the clouds..’ That the story seems unfinished is actually quite fitting, since the finishing was going to happen in the lives of the followers of Jesus. The Resurrection of Jesus, the author of Mark is telling his readers, will be manifest in you. The Gospel invited them to change, if not what they believed, then what it meant. Mark’s Gospel was not an intervention, but a realization. His followers began to come to the recognition that the way to make Jesus present – and the kingdom of God he spoke of actual – is to live as though it were true: as though this so-called kingdom, long expected there and then, were, in fact, here and now.
It has helped me to overlay two frameworks on these Resurrection stories: one is the process of transition that I have used with organizations and groups; the other is the dialogue method that I have applied to it. The followers of Jesus clearly went through a transition with the death of Jesus and they did so through a collective dialogue. Transition might be defined as responding – adjusting, learning, developing – to change. I have found it helpful to define Dialogue as skillful participation in the generation and emergence of new meaning (life, in that sense), often in the face of loss and change.
The stages of Transition are Letting Go (Grieving is a part of it), Uncertainty (affirming vision and direction is a part of this), and New Beginnings when an expanded awareness or awakening occurs and reveals new meaning. The stages of Dialogue are Connecting in order to be present to what is happening; Exploring in order to understand the experience and what it is saying to us; and Discovering when we give voice to new meaning in the form of shared understanding that takes us to a new place.
Thus the followers of Jesus connected to their experience of the absent Jesus, through their letting go-grieving process – talking about him, sharing stories of him. All they could understand at first was that he was gone but still with them – ‘He is risen’ in the words of the Daniel-like young man at the tomb. But then as they explored this experience and remembered the things he had said, they began to recognize his presence with them: in the man they thought was the gardener at the tomb, in strangers they met on the road, when they sat down together to eat their bread and wine. And, in the midst of their uncertainty they began to make connections with the intuitions of their traditions (things the prophets had said). Finally, they began to discover little glimmerings of the implications of this emerging understanding: new awareness of God with them in the present moment, right in the midst of life’s challenges; and eternity as here and now, not later and elsewhere. Resurrection became a realization of what IS: the opening of the tomb of old perceptions and the emergence of a new way of being in the world.
The later (40 – 50 years) writing of Matthew, Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, and John would elaborate this recognition and awareness, and further develop it. But this first Gospel was giving expression to the adaptation that Jesus people, drawing on their Jewish habit of mind, had already been making. The later Gospels elaborated in Jewish fashion (re-interpretation in the light of further reflection) on this resurrection experience, realization, and recognition of Jesus present in their lives and in the lives of ordinary people now awakened to ‘eternity’: an awakening of and to the true (original) self beyond the limited ego-self. Pentecost was the logical collective response to an awareness that was expanding in depth but also in breadth into a movement…