Cambridge, MA. All week, while mixing the business of school with the solemn events of Holy Week, I have been pondering the existential question, “What shall I blog for Holy Week/Easter?” Given my interreligious commitments, the question has become, “How does the Resurrection affect how we relate to people of other religions?” At the moment, at least, it is a question without an easy answer. Christmas manifests God’s embrace of being-human, so that nothing human is alien to Christ and our faith; the Crucifixion manifests the depth of God’s love for the world, even as it has often occasioned hard questions about how God saves the world, and how we are to see the diversity of God’s people in light of the Cross. The Cross is shocking, an upset to settled ideas we might have previously had about what God is like — guided by it, we learn to be less confident that we know already how God acts in the wider world, amidst all God’s children.
The Resurrection is harder. It is hard to preach on Easter Sunday, and not just because of the influx of unfamiliar faces, parishioners who find their way back on just one or two Sundays a year. We know what it is like to be born, and to struggle, and to die, but we do not know what it means to rise from the dead. The many Gospel stories of the post-Resurrection period show us a world we are still, after 2000 years unfamiliar with. Even longtime disciples are surprised again and again to discover the Risen Christ in their midst. When we ponder Easter, we should remain aware that in a good sense, we have no idea what we are talking about.
Still, if this core fact of our faith — Christ is risen! — is relevant to our lives today, and if our lives are inevitably interreligiously connected, then the Resurrection does shed some light on how to be, see, act in this world of many religions. Allow me to suggest four ways, among many more, in which the event and experience of Resurrection (as told at the end of each Gospel) does guide us interreligiously.
First, there is the fact of the empty tomb. Things are not as we expected them to be. It is empty, the dead one is not there; Jesus is not even predictably, securely deceased. No one sees him arise from the grave, either. But that emptiness and absence set the tone for all that follows: a bit of emptiness and not-finding is good for us.
Second, Jesus is alive and active in our midst, but not like before, in the ways familiar while he preached in the towns and villages. If the Cross shatters preconceptions about how far God will go, the Resurrection surprises us even more, because the Christ we knew previously and alongside us now goes ahead of us, in the body but no longer bound by the narrow expectations we have about what is possible in the world of time and space. God may be impossibly present, even on religious and spiritual paths we had discounted.
Third, it was not the apostles (only 11 of them by now) who encountered the risen Christ first. Rather, it was those who were secondary by the standard account: Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who grieved by the tomb until the “gardener” surprised her, calling her by name; the other women, first encountered by the angel, and then by Jesus himself on the road, and sent with a message for those apostles who were waiting in their room for something to happen; and the two disciples (male or female, it does not say) who walked with the stranger on the road to Emmaus and recognized him in the sharing of a meal. We ought not make too much of this point, I suppose, but it seems fair to say that the leaders of the Church find it harder to recognize God’s presence and work in the midst of other religions. It is ordinary people, rubbing shoulders with people of other faiths all the time, who become the messengers to those in charge: Christ has already been elsewhere, as we always belatedly find out.
Fourth, the disciples form a group of women and men who, transformed by the risen Christ, are empowered to go forth and make him known throughout the world. But how are they empowered? It is not simply that these first Christians were encouraged by the fact that Jesus seemed to be back, or that they took the Resurrection to a proof of the truth of his words and deeds. Rather, filled with his spirit, the Spirit, they were the people who had faced up to the emptiness of the tomb, who found him in unexpected places, and learned to listen to the marginal and even unnamed people were met the Risen Christ first. As such, those disciples became able to use their imaginations, to be at home in strange places, unafraid of the unexpected.
All of this teaches us how to behave in today’s interreligious world. If we are like those first disciples who lost the familiar Jesus and were found by him in new ways, then we too can be children of the Resurrection – able to meet Christ along the religious and spiritual paths of our near and far brothers and sisters. If we share the faith of the very earliest Church, we find ourselves no longer needing to cling to a God entirely familiar, known in just the right ways and by just the right people. He is risen, he is elsewhere too.
Of course, there is more to be said. We must also read the letters of St. Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, which have a lot to teach us about the Resurrection. But it is good to stop for a moment, at Easter and early in the Easter season, lingering with the endings of the four Gospels and the amazing freshness and inventiveness we find there - and then learning again find God in all things, even amidst the many religious possibilities that surround us.
Addendum: But practice makes perfect. Bill Mazzella has been insightful and kind enough to post the Exsultet as a comment on this blog; take a look, or find the text on the web. I invite you to read the Exsultet again, along with this passage from the Srivaisnava Hindu text I have long been working on:
"Isn’t the light of your face radiant as your hair? Doesn’t the light of your feet shine like the lotus on which you rest? Doesn’t your innate light blend with the golden radiating light of your form, your many ornaments and garments? Tell me, O Lord.
"Tell the truth: the lotus doesn’t equal your eyes, feet and hands, fine, refined gold doesn’t equal your body: when people compare you by all kinds of common praise, their words are dull, my highest light.
"You are the highest, the highest light, Govinda, my highest light who created the wide world in your highest light that shines out, ending comparisons with any “highest light” other than yourself: I cannot reckon your nature." (Tiruvaymoli III.1.1-3)
The texts are definitely not the same — yet in the light of the Resurrection, experienced in Easter morning, we can also meditate on this other testimony to the light. As Psalm 36 says, "For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light" — not close our eyes to the light.