Rarely are cemeteries as peaceful as they seem. My boyhood friends visited them by night to consult with spirits—86-proof spirits, as I recall. Sometimes we’d glimpse young couples having soulful, breathy talks among the tombstones.
When I was attending a university in Germany, I lived alone and did research in the university library. Occasionally, I was aware of that peculiar kind of loneliness called homesickness. On those days, I found solace listening to a street performer named Terry. Terry was homeless, and he spent his afternoons on an old stone bridge near the university.
In John 5, festival scenes in the holy city are juxtaposed with the view of five porticoes full of invalids. Imagine dropping by the nursing home on your way to Christmas Eve services. One place is festive, filled with pretty clothes, color, light and music. The other location features crutches, canes and people who cannot hide their desperate need for healing.
A worship professor voices frustration at students who conclude a Gospel reading with “Here ends the Gospel.” “The gospel doesn’t end,” my colleague insists. “The gospel is the good news—then and now!” Reading the endings of the canonical Gospels, one imagines that the four evangelists would agree with him. Each of them has difficulties wrapping things up.
I was looking through a high school yearbook recently, a dangerous thing to do when 40 years have passed. I got lost staring at the silly hairstyles, the photos of teachers who are long since gone, the friend in the senior play whose name is now etched on the Vietnam memorial. It was a time of turmoil and strife in the nation. Racial tensions, assassinations and war were tearing the country apart. But you would never know that from my yearbook’s carefree and hopeful class photos.
Many Christians can name the hour and the place of their salvation. For me it was answering not one but two altar calls at Billy Graham crusades in the 1960s. For Reinhold Niebuhr, who was asked if he could name the time and place of his salvation, it was “2,000 years ago on a dusty hill named Golgotha outside Jerusalem’s wall.”
My mother’s generation of women was raised to expect that families would depend financially on the husband’s income. My mother is lively and creative, and as a child she wanted to be a doctor—but women just didn’t do that. When her husband left her, her creativity and energy were channeled into supporting three children on the small income from a job initially intended to supplement the family’s welfare and provide a personal challenge.
"We are witnesses to these things," said Peter. Yet as the gospel for the second Sunday of Easter opens, "these things" do not include Jesus' resurrection. That morning Peter had seen an empty tomb with some scattered linens. He had witnessed absence, not resurrection. At that point, he had not even witnessed Jesus' death—he had missed his chance. Yet soon Peter becomes one of the boldest and most powerful of witnesses to Jesus' message, death and resurrection. Clearly something happened.
Some ideas are bigger than our intellectual capacity to deal with them. Some news is richer than the words we have to describe it. When that happens, we turn gratefully to art and music and works of the imagination. That’s why on Easter we put the emphasis on beautiful hymns and great organ and trumpet music. Words alone cannot convey the message.
Chances are that your world is either experiencing or anticipating an awakening earth after months of winter slumber. Grass is turning green, azaleas are splashing the landscape with brilliant reds, dogwoods are sprouting pink and white blooms—little Easter catechisms shaped like crosses and complete, each one, with a crown of thorns. When the birds begin their morning songs these days, and the bees their carpentry, we imagine that the sounds they make are Easter music served up by nature, as the church’s most important holy day coincides with the renewed activity of creation.