Easter: All My Charms Are O'erthrown

Here’s an Easter question. Why didn’t the resurrected Christ appear to those who had sought, or sanctioned, his death, people like the High Priest Caiaphas or the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate? Wouldn’t that prove, beyond any doubt, that he had risen from the tomb? Jesus back from the dead, overwhelming his enemies?

One way to answer that concern would be to compare our resurrection story with one from Shakespeare. In The Tempest Prospero, the Duke of Milan, is also set upon by his enemies and overthrown. He and his young daughter are set adrift on the open sea.

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The play begins, many years later, with Prospero’s foes shipwrecked in a storm summoned by the exiled Duke, who has turned magician. Prospero’s enemies are now literally under his spell. He can seize their weapons or cast them into deep sleep. Just the sort of thing one might expect the Risen Christ to do.

In fact, Prospero is so bent on punishing his one-time foes that Ariel, his servant-spirit — who isn’t human — has to remind him of his own humanity. "Your charm so strongly works ‘em / that if you now beheld them your affections / would become tender," (V.i.17).

"Dost thou think so, spirit?"

"Mine would, sir, were I human."

Urged to pity them, Prospero concludes,

They being penitent,

The sole drift of my purpose doth extend

Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel.

My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,

And they shall be themselves. (V.i.28-32)

Why didn’t the Risen Christ do the same? Why not bring his one-time enemies to their knees, both to ratify his resurrection and to compel confession of their sin?

I’ve posed the question in a way that I hope answers it. Christ did not compel recognition from his foes because Christ does not compel, because God will not enter our world in a way that removes our freedom.

The skeptic should note that the disciples report that they themselves were not anticipating that Jesus should rise from the dead. Indeed, they fail to recognize him when he does appear. Each time, Christ must reach out to them in intimacy. He must call them by name, perform a much loved, and easily recognized, gesture, as when he breaks bread among them at Emmaus (Lk 24: 13-35).

In contrast, Prospero forces his living flesh at his foes. That he survives their treachery cannot be denied.

Behold, sir King,

The wrongèd Duke of Milan, Prospero.

For more assurance that a living prince

Does now speak to thee, I embrace thy body;

And to thee and thy company I bid

A hearty welcome. (V.i.109-113)

But the Risen Christ is not one more fact about the world, just as human beings, who enter into fellowship, are more than mutual facts to one another. The sort of encounter that happens when we love one another, as opposed to merely interact, or act upon each other, is characterized by a vulnerable communion. We only really know or love another, recognize the other for who she truly is, when we run the risk of opening ourselves. So, for example, in The Tempest, while Prospero is busy tormenting his enemies, keeping them under his control, his daughter Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand, the son of her Father’s foe.

The gospels make it clear that the Risen Christ, like Prospero, takes the initiative in revealing himself. But isn’t it entirely possible that Jesus could only be experienced by those who ran the risk of receiving him? Isn’t that why, when Peter first looked inside the empty tomb, he only saw wrappings, but when the Beloved Disciple looked, "he saw and believed" (Jn 20: 8). Isn’t it possible that, had his enemies’ hearts been open, they too would have seen Jesus?

Doesn’t the good news of Easter, in its way, confirm what we already know? That love cannot be forced? That love is only love when it is freely given? Why we would expect God’s love to be any different, any less?

The Tempest ends with Prospero’s Epilogue. Notice how even he lays down compulsion in favor of communion.

Now my charms are all o’erthrown.

And what strength I have’s mine own,

Which is most faint. Now ‘tis true

I must be here confined by you

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,

Since I have my dukedom got,

And pardoned the deceiver, dwell

In this bare island by your spell;

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hands.

Gentle breath of yours my sails

Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;

And my ending is despair

Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pieces so, that it assaults

Mercy itself, and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardoned be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

The actor, the one playing Prospero, asks the audience to open their hearts to him, to receive him in fellowship, otherwise, The Tempest is simply one more story of strength, but not an invitation to love. The resurrection of our Christ is not a story of power compelling penitence. It’s an invitation to see and to believe, to believe in order to see, and, in seeing, to love.

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