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the Beauty of the Risen Christ

from the “Sermons and Services” collection

Easter Vigil 2012

John 20:1-18
Romans 6:3-11

Robinson Chapel
April 3, 2010

The risen Christ is the most beautiful man who ever lived. This is not what you would expect, given his so-called “Good Friday.” Remember that the women had come to the tomb to wash his body for proper burial, and it was already gone. Mel Gibson has been criticized for the gore in his movie about the crucifixion; the gospels are very brief and circumspect in describing it. But it was probably even worse than Gibson thought he could get away with on film. The dead Jesus could not have been pretty. But the risen Christ is beautiful beyond compare.

Artists have had a hard time with the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Most show him looking somewhat ragged, perhaps showing off his wounds. But Titian has a painting of our text from John, with a beautiful, robust, nearly naked Jesus gracefully dodging Mary Magdelene’s hand as he says, “Do not touch me.” Caravaggio has it even better in his painting of the moment of enlightenment after the trip to Emmaus: Jesus is ruddy, beardless, well-fed, richly dressed, gesturing forcefully to bless the bread, and looking about 25. You should not worry about the inconsistencies in the various accounts of the resurrection appearances, especially about the fact that disciples often spent some time with Jesus before recognizing him. Whenever the disciples saw that special beauty in a man, they took it to be Jesus raised from the tomb and they were right.

What was that special beauty? It was a new way to be human, a “new being,” as Paul put it. Tonight in this vigil is the time to think about the old way and the new way as we switch attention from bloody Christ the Crucified to beautiful Christ the Risen. Let me remind you of five ways in which the Risen Christ offers us the possibility of a new being. (I know that sermons are supposed to have only three points but, well, this is a long service anyway.)

First, it is an essential part of the human condition that we frequently face choices among possibilities that differ in value. This means we live under the obligation to make the best choices, and determine our own moral character by the cumulative and sometimes acute decisions we make. The problem is that most important choices are between good possibilities, not good versus evil. Usually there are different kinds of values involved. Even if we have the perfect calculus to make the optimum choices, actualizing one good possibility excludes the actualization of others and our moral character is determined in part negatively by the goods we rule out. When our friends, family, and professors say we have not done enough for them lately, we know we are guilty as charged even when making the best compromises. Feeling guilty, as we all do, is not a positive emotion and we come to resent the dilemma of the human condition, being under obligation and yet inevitably guilty. Sometimes then guilt turns to resentment which leads us sometime deliberately to choose the genuinely evil possibilities over the good. Horrified by this moral monstrosity in our heart we are tempted to curse the God who set up the human condition for our moral slide into sin, and sometimes do. This is the old and usual way of being human.

The Risen Christ shows a new way. Although it is inevitable that we are moral failures, we are redeemed from any divine punishment that might be our due. Although we are resentful at having to be failures, this resentment is shown to be silly in light of the fact that this is the human condition created by God. Although we might feel alienated from the God who creates this way, God draws the circle larger to include us back in. The Risen Christ is the redeemer for the sins of the whole world, including ours, and all the symbols of atonement make the Risen Christ beautiful as redeemer. We shall soon take in the body and blood of redemption.

A second feature of the human condition is that life is a long process of integrating the important components of ourselves into some kind of wholeness, and each of these components requires some kind of respect and cultivation. We need to take care of our bodies, our emotional and intellectual lives, our friendships and family connections. We need to come to terms with our various cultural heritages, with the issues on our watch in history, and with environmental and social conditions. Each of us has unique components to integrate as well. The dilemma, over and above the vast complexity of life, is that we usually have some overall sense of self that competes with giving proper care and respect for life’s somewhat separate parts. If we did not have this sense of self, we could not integrate all those parts so as to make up who we are. But once we have this sense of self, it sometimes prevents us from taking care of our bodies the way we should because we have more important things to do. Because of our sense of self we cannot deal honestly with our family and cultural legacies. So our attempts at integration distort and sometimes break the very things that should be integrated. Sometimes this gets so bad that we break our own sense of self and live in self-hate and deliberately ruin our own chances of success. We live in contradiction to ourselves, doing what we hate and hating what we do, wondering why wholeness in life is so elusive. This is the old and usual way of being human.

The new way of life made possible by the Risen Christ is a healed reality that comes from friendship with Jesus and his companions. The Risen Christ allows us to be companions and in learning to be companions we become healed. Companions accept us in our broken state and ask that we accept them. So, suppose we don’t get our lives together perfectly—our companions accept us anyway, and that goes a long way toward bringing us back to wholeness. Suppose our sense of self remains fragmented and elusive—we find out who we are by learning who it is that our companions accept. The Risen Christ lives in our imagination as a friend who knows us better than we know ourselves, who lives with us through both the pits and peaks of experiences as well as the daily grind, who exhorts us to courage and embraces us in griefs. The Christian traditions deliver a thousand ways of coming into beautiful companionship with the Risen Christ which bring us healing, wholeness, or, as the Romans said, salus, salvation. The word companionship, remember, means “breaking bread together,” as we shall soon.

A third feature of the human condition is that we live in a world with many things other than ourselves, including other people, other social institutions and cultures, and nature in the vast reach from the local environment to the edges of space and time. Because all these things have value as parts of creation, they should be engaged with awareness and appreciation, with deep respect for their integrity as creatures. But of course engaging these other things is costly. Nature for all its beauty wears us out and kills us in the end. The institutions of life, for all that they enable civilization, are still unjust, partial, and biased. Other people demand too much of us and many are straight out enemies. So we erect barriers, practice neglect, objectify both nature and human beings as not deserving respect, and then live in denial that we should engage them in any but the most selfish ways, living life with an in-group mentality. This is the old and usual way of being human.

The beautiful Risen Christ, however, insists that our mode of engagement should be that of love, and offers us the power to be lovers. Loving is complicated, of course, and it has many forms depending on who and what is to be loved. Learning to love effectively involves both moral righteousness and personal wholeness but also much more as required by the many kinds of love to be practiced. The Risen Christ has been symbolized as the exemplar of love in countless situations in Christian history and in each is beautiful beyond compare or expectation. The Eucharistic feast is a love-feast, practicing a hospitality that brings the world into the presence of God and hosting God’s presence in the world. Betrayed, tortured, unjustly executed, Jesus Christ rises as a lover of all God’s creatures.

A fourth universal trait of the human condition is the achievement of an identity and value in ultimate perspective, symbolized perhaps as our identity before God, in divine judgment. Our ultimate identity and value includes our moral character, our achievement of wholeness such as it is, and our skills at loving others, particularly difficult others. But it also includes everything that we have achieved with the conditions given us in our lives. Of course, most of us have achieved bad things as well as good, and most of us have not been dealt a fair hand with which to achieve anything. So we ask whether life has any meaning after all. What does it all add up to? Is it all vanity? Do we ultimately count? To be plagued with these questions is the old and usual way of being.

The beauty of the Risen Christ is that being alive trumps change and decay. The most powerful symbol of the resurrection is not that Jesus comes back to continue his work—his work has to be continued by others. It is that the life we have, which does change and decay, is ultimately important. Life is to be lived with joyful commitment to doing the best we can, achieving the richest wholeness, loving as if there were no tomorrow. This is the best achievement anyone can have, and it is possible for anyone, regardless of moral character, personal integration, or skills at loving. The Risen Christ shows us how to live as if we were raised from the dead, from whatever death has entombed us. This is why we can go to the Last Supper again and again!

The fifth universal trait of the human condition is that we are part of God’s creation, each one of us a creature among others, whose deepest reality is the creative act of God that brings us into being together. The deepest part of me is God creating me from eternity to be here with you, under the church tonight in a vigil of resurrection, in Boston, on Earth, in the Milky Way, in a cosmos beyond imagining. God creating is the deepest part of you as well. God’s creative act is gratuitous, free, undeserved, and surprising. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the Risen Christ is that he invites us from time to time to forget about ourselves and situations and reflect with awe on the gracious, free, undeserved, and absolutely surprising God from whom we have our being. The gratuitous, free, undeserved, and surprising creation of the very world itself is the most “other” other we shall ever discover, and the love of that “other” other is deeper, more difficult, and yet more overwhelming and blissful than love of any thing within the world. The Risen Christ who could commend his soul to the God who brought him to the cross is the most beautiful of mystics.

Which is the greatest beauty of the Risen Christ? The beauty of Christ the Redeemer of our justification? Of Christ the Companion who heals our broken souls? Of Christ the Lover who taught us to love and let ourselves be loved? Of Christ the Risen One who gives our quick days ultimate meaning? Of Christ the Mystic Lover of God who leads us into bliss? The Risen Christ is all of these together, a most beautiful man.

The point of such beauty is its attractiveness. John said, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Lifted up from the cross to resurrection, Jesus Christ is the light that draws us to him. The true eternal life to which he draws us is at least moral redemption, companionable wholeness, self-giving love, meaning for our lives whatever they achieve, and mystic self-emptying bliss with the God of creation. So I urge you to seek out all the beautiful representations of the Risen Christ, the great music, art, poetry, dance, architectural spaces, the legends of Jesus, and work of his companions in our day. Wherever there is beauty in nature, there is the Risen Christ, calling us to a new possibility of being human. Let yourself be seduced by this beautiful man. Let him call you ever again to a new way of life. He shall shortly call you to dinner. Imagine! The food and drink of eternal life! To be at table with the New Being is a gratuitous, free, undeserved, and absolutely surprising privilege. Guess what that means! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!


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