A preliminary note: in this meditation I do not attempt to “prove” the resurrection of Jesus. I have discussed that question at length in my book Led into Mystery (London: SCM 2013). Instead, I reflect on two Easter stories in the gospel of Luke (24:33-38) that speak to those who say they believe. Do we, indeed?
“ Why are we so frightened, and why do doubts keep arising in our hearts? That is the question the risen Christ keeps asking us as he asked the disciples in Jerusalem that first Easter evening. In reflecting on the question I am conflating two stories that Luke connects. The story of the two travelers on the road to Emmaus who encountered Jesus over their evening meal and hastened back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples: “the Lord has risen indeed” they exclaim! Is he indeed? those other disciples might have responded with skepticism in their voices, as do many of us to this day. Then Jesus appears again to them all. They are understandably startled and terrified, which prompts Jesus to ask them “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” They had great difficulty in accepting the testimony of the two from Emmaus; they wanted more proof. Like them, we who have heard and believed the good news, and even exclaimed with great enthusiasm “Christ is risen! Alleluia!”, are not always so sure. Risen? Indeed? Is that why we too are often frightened as doubts arise in our hearts? Is it because for us he remains in the tomb rather than journeying with us on the road?
There is much to be fearful about, not least the terror that strikes without warning, and there are so many reasons to doubt the loving power of God. We might have been spared terrorist attacks in South Africa thus far, but we have our share of fears about the future and our own personal fate. This has always been the case. It is built into the rhythm of life. We know that life is a risk, for we are acutely aware of our own mortality and the mortality of those we love. Even as we celebrate Easter and heartily sing that death has lost its sting, or acclaim “Christ is risen!”, even as we celebrate the joys of life, even as we taste the sweetness of love, we know that being human requires that we accept our mortality. Even great saints go through dark nights of doubt.
So the one who travels with us along our journey, the one who has suffered greatly, been betrayed, denied and forsaken, is the one who asks us why we are frightened and why we doubt. He is not judging us for our fear and doubt, in fact he knows why we are frightened and why we doubt because he has himself been to hell and back. And just as some cholesterol is good and necessary for us and some bad and potentially deadly, so like a good physician Jesus knows that not all fear or doubt is bad. Good fear helps us avoid danger, genuine doubt helps us discover new knowledge and may even strengthen our faith. But whether our fear and doubt is good or bad, you cannot live life to the full if you are fearful of venturing along the road, unable to trust the testimony of others or God. So Jesus understands and respects our fears, he does not manipulate them like some politicians, preachers and other fear-mongers who use our fears to their advantage, making us doubt what is right and good and true. That is why Jesus keeps asking us at every turn, up every cul-de-sac, and at every fork that we face: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
I have been reading the life story of Brother Roger the founder and abbot of the Taizé Community in France whose songs we now often sing. The autobiography, called Choose to Love, is a beautiful account of a remarkable life. In it Brother Roger tells us about the founding of the Community during the terrible days of the Second World War ,and how he feared for his life as he provided a place of refuge for Jews on the run from the Gestapo. In later chapters he recounts his visits to many parts of the world where there is great suffering and hardship, and where, for weeks on end he lived among the poorest of the poor. He also tells about visits to countries in Eastern Europe during the Cold War and how difficult it was for Christians there even to openly meet with him for fear of arrest of punishment. On one occasion in Budapest there was a youth service to welcome him, but it was under strict security surveillance. After the distribution of communion, Brother Roger writes, “I go from one person to another to say in Hungarian “Christ is risen!” That is all he can say. That is all he needs to say. That evening he goes to another church, it is full to capacity with young people, many of them dealing with doubt and fearing the surveillance of the police, and once more he says: “Christ is risen”: “these are the only words that I say, hundreds of times,” and each time they evoke an expression of hope on the faces of people, for Brother Roger has spoken directly to their fears and doubts far more than any sermon or lecture could ever have done.
The Easter message “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” resounds through history to help us overcome fear and doubt. But it is not a carefully reasoned statement that will magically turn the fearful into the faithful or doubters into believers. Such reasoned arguments are necessary. After all Jesus reasoned with the two travellers as they discussed Scripture during the meal they shared together. But the acclamation “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” is the shout of those who have already met the stranger on the road and discovered as they have travelled with the risen Christ who enables them to overcome fear and doubt despite those that continue to beset them and niggle their minds.
Those who shared in our Easter service here last Monday when we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the Volmoed Community will know that we did not have to prove that Christ is risen, we acclaimed him, and we did so because those who came to celebrate, many of them having struggled and suffered over the years, knew that the risen Christ had joined them on the road along the journey of their lives.
When you are in the midst of poverty or grief, when you face tragedy, or are living in fear of arrest, you do not take time out to engage in academic debate about the resurrection or to discuss and analyse the crises facing our world. What you hunger for is a word of assurance that gives hope and awakens faith, a word that liberates you from your captivity in the cold tombs of death and leads us through an open door out of its darkness into the light. As Pope Francis declared in his Easter Vigil homily: “Let us not allow darkness and fear to distract us and control our hearts. Today is the celebration of our hope.” The Easter message, he went on to say, “awakens and resurrects hope in our hearts burdened by sadness.” In another Easter meditation posted on Facebook this week I came across this appeal:
May you leave behind you a string of empty tombs! That is the challenge of Easter. To resurrect daily, to leave behind us a string of empty tombs, to let our crucified hopes and dreams be resurrected so that like Christ, our lives will radiate the truth that in the end, everything is good, reality can be trusted.’
So as we celebrate this meal like the two travelers who invited Jesus to share at their table on the road to Emmaus, we too discover Jesus “in the breaking of the bread” and can shout with them and multitudes across the world even in the midst of our fears and doubts: “Christ is risen! Alleluia!”.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 31 March 2016