Many years ago, when God was a boy and I was an Episcopalian, I heard a lovely Easter sunday sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Francis Wade at St. Alban’s Church, in the shadow of the National Cathedral. He started out by pointing out that we have tables that will tell exactly what day Easter Sunday falls on, well, for every year as far ahead as you would care to calculate. He noted that pretty much every year on Easter, we could count on the church being filled with lilies, the music being splendid, the parking lot packed, and so forth. In other words, he noted, “Easter has become predictable.”
He went on to note that the first Easter was anything but predictable. Jesus had just died a horrific death; his followers were in hiding for fear of their lives, and no one in the Jesus community had any sense of what their next step should be.
It was in this moment of profound fear, uncertainty, and doubt, that the resurrection happened.
I’m not interested in getting into a dogfight about what “really happened” at the resurrection. When I recently read Bart Ehrmann and Brant Pitre side by side, two scholars who offer radically different ways of understanding the resurrection, neither of their arguments struck me as definitively persuasive. And perhaps that’s because I believe the point behind the resurrection is not to argue about what happened, but to seek to live it in the dailiness of our own lives. Of course, whatever did (or didn’t) happen that day, and the days following, it changed enough people’s lives that here you and I are, almost two thousand years later, still thinking about it.
Unlike Easter today, Easter #1 was dangerous as hell.
The German Catholic Theologian Johann-Baptist Metz talks about “dangerous memory” as a way of approaching Christian theology. It’s a concept that makes a lot of sense. Here are a few interesting thoughts from Wikipedia:
Fundamental to Metz’s work is the concept of “dangerous memory,” which relates to anamnesis in the Greek New Testament, a term which is central to the theology of the Eucharist. Metz speaks variously of “the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ,” “the dangerous memory of freedom (in Jesus Christ),” the “dangerous memory of suffering,” etc. One of the motivating factors for this category is Metz’s determination, as a Christian theologian from Germany, to rework the whole of Christian theology from the ground up in light of the disruptive experience of the Holocaust.
I think we have a rather anemic notion of memory in our culture today. We tend to see it in purely cognitive, or perhaps imaginative, terms: memory enables us to recall ideas or experiences we have stored in our cerebral filing cabinet. But it seems to me that when we talk about anamnesis we’re talking about something a bit more full-throated. In the Mass, we don’t just recall the fact that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” — rather, we participate in this mystery, we live it, we “re-member” it in our very flesh and bones.
The Eucharist is not an exercise in collective imagination, but rather a profound invitation to encounter the existential reality of Christ’s body, died and resurrected, truly present, here and now.
I think Metz is right: through something as horrific as the holocaust (or, for that matter, the bloody crucifixion of an innocent man), our memory really can be dangerous — transgressive — revolutionary. If we stop trying to manage it so tightly.
Okay, this sounds like just a lot of nice theological jargonizing, and I imagine any reader who is not fully on the Catholic bandwagon is either nodding off or has already clicked on to something else. Once again, we’ve tamed Easter, we’ve made it “safe” by surrounding it with a lot of pious theology.
But it isn’t safe.
And if we experience it as safe, then we’ve bound it up in our language and our customs and all the other ways we seek to keep the Spirit under control.
Maybe we experience Easter as safe because we have not yet fully given ourselves to it. We have not left everything to follow Christ, and so we are not fully vulnerable to just how life-changing Easter really is.
If the Eucharist is grounded in the “dangerous memory” of anamnesis — the dangerous past made present — then Easter invites us into a dangerous present and a dangerous future. It’s dangerous because we are not in control: the Holy Spirit is. And the Holy Spirit might just ask us to do boring work at home, but our call might also take us into some pretty scary places indeed.