Resurrection? Are you serious? With this many people dying, no tomb lies empty these days. All are packed to capacity. The refrain of a hit song from my youth asked “How do we sleep when our beds are burning?” On Easter morning 2020 we might well be wondering how can Christ be risen when so many are falling?
This Holy Week we may have experienced a little more viscerally than before the confusion, distress, terror and grief of the disciples on Good Friday. By no means was resurrection on their minds as they later isolated themselves in the upper room, hostages to implacable fear. Despite early warnings from the master and the bloody writing on the wall, nothing had prepared them for the panic that his execution would unleash. None of them foresaw the shape of life after Calvary.
Yet new life happened, suddenly and seemingly out of the blue, despite repeated promises from the master and the glorious writing on the wall of his ministry. The scale of change on Easter morning, its immeasurable dimensions of novelty, beggared anything these simple, devoted Jews could have imagined. However, this was by no means the first of seismic changes that Judaism had undergone. In fact, in rising Jesus proves again that he came not to abolish the tradition but to complete it. An essential part of that tradition had been a revolutionary movement outwards, away from the center.
When authorities went searching for blasphemies to charge against Jesus, the most damning evidence they could find was some sketchy testimony about a claim he made concerning the destruction and reconstruction of the Temple. The Temple was the central institution of the Jewish faith and had complete control over the religious commerce of sacrifice. For a long time it had been the only place to worship the God of Abraham.
Jesus’ idea of destroying the Temple’s was not original. Already in 587 BC the Babylonians had reduced it to ruins. This calamity of cosmic proportions for the surviving Jews opened up completely unexpected possibilities for worship. Out of the smoke of the first destruction rose the novelty of the synagogue — local meeting places that housed religious study and liturgy throughout the Jewish world after Jerusalem fell. As devastating as the destruction and exile were, they in fact seeded a new life of faith, one much less clerically controlled and more widely participatory than what had fallen.
By dying and rising, Jesus takes another revolutionary leap forward in the decentralization of humanity’s relation with God. As he foreshadowed to the Samaritan woman at the well, after the Resurrection, authentic worship depends only on spirit and truth (John 4:23). Race, geography, language and culture no longer are limiting factors when it comes to knowing and loving God. What matters is purity of heart and the justice and charity that naturally flow from it. Easter decentralizes the human-divine exchange by extending to all people the predilection that God had first shown to the Israelites. Suddenly it didn’t matter whether you were Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Everyone counted equally in the eyes of the Father.
Holy Week 2020, as somber, simple and isolated as it has been, may also be seen and experienced as another surprising step in this salvific history of decentralization. Just like the Hebrew people grieving the loss of their Temple, Catholics around the globe have mourned the absence of the sacraments. Closed churches have upended our notion of worship and prayer. Disorientating though this be, perhaps it also invites us to new ways of being Church and practicing the faith. Have we Catholics relied too heavily on the sacraments to keep healthy our faith? Have these sacraments remained too centralized and controlled by the ordained? What alternative ways of prayer and liturgy, hitherto unimaginable to Catholics, are being offered to us by God, so that the human-divine relation continues to deepen in spirit and truth?
These questions and their unfolding answers are perhaps the unexpected blessings of an Easter that otherwise felt hijacked by Covid-19. It seems that so long as we keep building temples to regulate and manage the faith, God will keep tearing them down, freeing us from the bondage of religious “business as usual.”
–Greg Kennedy SJ is a Jesuit priest working as a spiritual director at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario. His new book, Reupholstered Psalms: Ancient Songs Sung New is now available for purchase.