Easter and the Incarnation by William Droel

Tom Stella of Soul Link in Colorado has a story: Once upon a time three monks were praying. The first imagined angels carrying him to heaven. The second imagined chanting in the company of angels and saints. The third, quite distracted, imagined the variety of food awaiting him in the refectory. Later the devil wrote a report: I tried to tempt three monks but succeeded with only the first two.

Advent and Lent are mysteriously intertwined, as Christmas contains Easter and Easter contains Christmas. The Incarnation is Redemption and Resurrection. The setting for the Christmas story (a crowed hotel, a manger, the sheep) conveys the truth of the Incarnation. God enters the human condition in a humble way. God lurks in ordinary circumstances. God keeps company with imperfect people. God awaits us in the refectory or the restaurant.

The Easter setting (dinner in an upper room, a traitor, a denier, a dusty courtyard, a heavy rock) should convey the same truth. But for some, the glory of the Resurrection means that God is back in God’s proper, serene, otherworldly place. The temptation about Easter is to thoroughly split the heavenly from the earthly, the spiritual from the material, the soul from the body. The messiness of Christmas and God’s Incarnation can be lost in the exhalation of Easter.

To keep the Incarnation in Easter, the evangelists insist on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He ate, he conversed, and he visited normal places. He invited Thomas to touch his physical body, saying, in effect, I am not a ghost. Nonetheless a major heresy, Gnosticism, made significant inroads into early Christianity. This heresy teaches that Jesus was/is pure spirit, and that briefly he was playacting as a human. Gnosticism finds a companion in Platonic philosophy, which asserts that the abstract and spiritual is superior to the material. Today, this dualism, with its superior spiritual themes, is found in some New Age writings.

Some Christians make a similar mistake in equating the Resurrection with some kind of “resuscitation.” These Christians sometimes suppose that their heavenly existence is an identical continuation of earthly life, with picnics and sports events—the same body, but no illness. To counter this impression, the evangelists make it clear that the disciples do not at first recognize the resurrected Jesus. His body is different. Their resurrection faith emerges in conversation and tactile experience.

Let’s admit it is difficult to maintain awareness of the Incarnation. It is tempting to treat Christian faith as otherworldly. It is tempting to relegate God to a spiritual realm where angels sing and to not appreciate a hint of God in the dining hall. It is tempting to separate the Resurrection from the sheep and jostling crowd in Bethlehem. It is tempting to feel closest to God in some state of pure adoration.

It is, let’s admit, difficult to experience the resurrected Christ over on Kedzie Avenue near 61st Street in Chicago, where the homeless make their way, never humming a hallelujah chorus. It might be difficult to experience the joy of resurrection at the family’s Easter brunch where a loudmouth uncle repeatedly makes stupid comments. It might be difficult on Easter Monday to believe that the Resurrection has anything to do with the petty resentments that pervade the office.

But Christ was born, Christ rose, and Christ lives in ordinary comings and goings. Christ hints at glory in broken people and ambivalent settings, and at odd moments. To stay attuned to the eternal joy of Easter requires the simplicity and patience of the first witnesses in Bethlehem. The heavy stone across the tomb is like the wood of the manger—materials essential to God’s plan of salvation.

William Droel is the editor of Initiatives, a printed newsletter on faith and work, and the author of Monday Eucharist, available from the National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $7).

Image: The Yard of the Inn at Emmaus, David Ryckaert III, ca. 1632–1661. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain
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