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By The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
Holy Week and Easter are often associated with dying and death. One reason for this is the calendar: We celebrate Holy Week after Lent, traditionally a period of self-denial and fasting. We also tend to spend a great deal of our time in church, reading and celebrating the events surrounding Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. Six days out of seven, we revisit Jesus’ final moments and teachings as he made his way to die on the cross. Thereby, we hope to remind ourselves that “God proves his love for us in that, while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This emphasis on death makes the Resurrection of Jesus seem like an unexpected turn of events.
However, I believe Holy Week and Easter are equally understood as celebrations of living and life. The Resurrection may have surprised the first disciples, but they quickly learned to look back on everything that happened to Jesus as foreshadowings of his victory over the powers of sin, death, and the grave. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
These words, in retrospect, are Jesus’ way of giving his disciples a quiet promise of the Resurrection and, more importantly, a lens through which to see his passion and death as profoundly life-giving. Viewed from this perspective, the Resurrection, then, is not an unexpected outcome, but it is the driving motivation of the story of Christ’s coming from the beginning.
Therefore, on Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us. For each one of us received that gift of new life, and the power to accept and live by it. The new life we have in Christ is a gift which radically alters our view toward everything in this world, including death. It makes it possible for us to declare joyfully: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
Of course, we still experience death. We face it daily in our lives, when we lose friends and family, and someday death will come and take us. But the Resurrection is God’s promise to us in Christ that, by his own death, Jesus has changed the nature of death itself from being the end of the story to being a “passage,” a “Passover,” a “Pascha,” into the Kingdom of God. This transforms the tragedy that is death into the victory of life over death. This is why we proclaim at Easter, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” For Christ has made death itself into a passage to eternal life.
To serve as a visible reminder of the victory of life over death, we invited Daniel Cascardo to lead our congregation in a special art project that interacted with our four-fold vision: Meeting Jesus, Finding Joy, Sharing Beauty, and Serving Others. Completed during Lent with the congregation, his painting is an Easter vision of Jesus, raised from the dead, welcoming his disciples.
I have also invited an emerging artist, Christer Aikens — who has a long history with Christ Church Cranbrook — to display on our church grounds a sculpture he created for the 2016 Artprize in Grand Rapids, which has previously been on display at the Cranbrook Institute of Science. The title of the sculpture is “Déntro Tou Kósmou” which is translated from Greek, “Tree of Worlds.” Inspired by the image of the thousand-petaled lotus of enlightenment in Theravada Buddhism, the sculpture is comprised of limestone, bronze, and an enormous, beautiful amethyst geode.
In his artist’s statement, Christer writes: “The abstracted figures running through” the sculpture “represent those souls not yet fully realized. While the twisting form of the piece shows the seemingly chaotic energies and patterns that connect our worlds of perception to one another. It shows that, however chaotic our worlds, however different they appear, all are interconnected and sprout from the same bedrock to form our world of worlds.”
Viewed from the perspective of Christ’s Resurrection, the movement and interconnection Christer portrays in his sculpture serve as yet another witness to the power Christ has given to us to lean into life. The “blossom” of the amethyst is yet another iteration of the life that comes from the seed that dies so that new life might be found. The “passage” of the souls in the sculpture to nirvana bear witness to the paschal passage Christ has charted through his own death and resurrection.
This Easter, may we each find ways to make this movement from death to life a story about our present, and not simply about our future.