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Easter: the significance of Sunday morning Print E-mail
Guest column
Monday, Apr. 09, 2018 -- 12:00 AM

Word on Fire
Fr. Steve Grunow

"She hears, upon that water without a sound, a voice that cries, 'The tomb in Palestine is not the porch of spirits lingering. It is the grave of Jesus where he lay . . .'"

Somber words. One should say, inappropriate words for Easter Sunday.

They come from the American poet Wallace Stevens, an excerpt from his poem, Sunday Morning.

The poem is about a loss and lack of faith in the meaning of not only Easter, but also every Sunday since then -- for Sunday is enshrined with significance, not because it is a casual day of leisure, but because it is the day when Christ rose from the dead.

In Wallace Stevens' poem, faith in what the event of Christ's resurrection accomplished in history has been lost. The modern mind is content with the distractions of the news of the day, willing to accept that the frame of reference for life's meaning is limited to the cycles of nature, and is consoled by the promises of middle class prosperity.

Sunday is a day to sleep in, or if rising early, to quietly sip one's coffee and enjoy a pastry or two. Blessed are those, at least in the context of Stevens' poem, who do not see -- or even do see -- and do not believe.

A society that dismisses faith

Even with further contemplation, it is hard to get a sense of what Wallace Stevens is really up to in his poem. Is his purpose advocacy or critique? It does seem to me that the poem is the diagnosis of a peculiar modern malady.

This malady is the bracketing or refusal to acknowledge a supernatural reality. Experience is limited by a narrow sense of what is possible. Nature or the material is all that there is and all that matters. That which defies the limits of a natural or material explanation is dismissed as inconceivable or untrue.

Thus, Sunday is emptied of its supernatural significance. We cannot, the modern mind believes, gather each Sunday to worship a God who has acted in the world, a God who has acted to raise Christ from the dead -- for who really believes that such a God is possible?

Deism is the way of the world

The "god" that is preferred by many is not an actor in human history. He absented himself from that task when he set in motion time and space, and he has been silently indifferent ever since. An act of faith in faithlessness is what is demanded from the denizens of a polite and sophisticated society.

This is the faith of the Church's cultured despisers. Such faith is also the subject of Stevens' poem. It is a faith that constricts what is possible, and therefore, when it hears the news of Christ's resurrection from the dead, it cannot believe.

It meets the proclamation of Easter with doubt -- doubt that becomes skepticism, that becomes a scoff, and that rests finally in indifference, then permitting itself an exemption from Sunday as a practice of faith in a God who cares and who matters.

What remains of Jesus Christ is nothing more than a tomb, rather than his resurrection.

An all too familiar place

The deconstruction of Christian faith continues to be one of the premier cultural products of our time. The faith of those for whom Sunday is the Lord's day, the day Christ conquered the power of death, has become a startling contrast to those who cannot bring themselves to believe or to care.

Here is the thing: none of it is really new. The Christian is not in new, uncharted territory. We have been in this place before. The pagans and Jews of the first century A.D. would have been as comfortable with the resurrection as a symbol and metaphor as modern culture would be.

But the apostles insisted that it was not a symbol or a metaphor and that what they saw on that Sunday after Christ's crucifixion was him -- and that they saw him not only alive, but transformed. As a result of seeing him in the flesh, they, too, had been changed and changed forever.

How could this be?

The only explanation was the one that was closest to their experience. The explanation was that despite their earlier doubts, the Lord Jesus was who he had claimed to be. It was all true and really happened.

He is the Christ. He is the Messiah. He is the Son of God. He is the Lord. The limitations that constrain us to think that this world is all that there is are expanded into possibilities that do not rest in what is material. God shows us in Christ that death is not what we think it to be.

Wallace Stevens is not the only American poet to craft words in response to the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The late John Updike left his impressions in a poem called "Seven Stanzas at Easter."

They are, I think, the best last word to modern culture on what Christians believe to be the significance of Easter Sunday -- the day when we discovered that whatever we thought was possible would never be enough. Updike muses:

"Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping transcendence, making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages: let us walk through the door . . ."

On Easter and on each Sunday, we are invited to walk through that door. The door is not a passage to the tomb of Jesus Christ, but to the place of his resurrection.

Here we can gaze in wonder at the "porch of spirits lingering." Here is the place of new possibilities where God himself lives.

Christ has been raised from the dead. He is truly alive.

Amen. Alleluia!


Fr. Steve Grunow is CEO of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org