2021-04-06

Ordinary Easter, part 1


I’ll share with you a Zen koan, and talk about ordinariness as salvific: the reliable quotidian rhythms. Then we’ll look at the larger scale hopes for social and political liberation – in the foreground of the Passover story and in the background of the Easter story. We’ll note how the four gospel accounts of Easter are different. In part 2, we’ll take a deep dive into the Gospel of Mark, and see if can emerge with a context for both the ordinary, everyday resurrection and a social liberation that we have not yet seen. I will end with a question, rather than an affirmation, so I won’t be saying Amen at the end this time. Here we go.

A friend of mine is a United Church of Christ minister. We met at the Zen center where we both practice. Every couple weeks we meet on zoom to study a koan together, and from there we often talk shop about how things are at our respective congregations. We are working our way through a collection of koans called the Mumonkan – or Gateless Gate – and when we zoomed last Thursday, the one we were on was number 19:
Zhaozhou earnestly asked Nanquan, “What is the Way?”
Nanquan said, “The ordinary mind is the Way.”
Zhaozhou said, “Should I direct myself toward it or not?”
Nanquan said, “If you try to turn toward it, you go against it.”
Zhaozhou said, “If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is the Way?”
Nanquan said, “The Way does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is a blank consciousness. When you have really reached the true Way beyond all doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as the great empty firmament. How can it be talked about on a level of right and wrong?”
At these words, Zhaozhou was suddenly enlightened.
Ordinary mind is the way. There’s no special state to be achieved. The way does call for being mindful – and this mindfulness is simply paying attention to your ordinary life with its ordinary events. There’s no particular turning toward it that is called for. Anything special would be turning away from it.

You don’t have to learn some special knowledge – knowing is delusion. But don’t glorify ignorance either – not knowing is blank consciousness. The way is nothing special.

As my friend and I were talking about ordinariness, we got to talking what we were going to say to our congregations for Easter. I shared with him that I found this koan to be helpful. This is my eighth Easter service with Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains. All the splashy interpretations that I might have to offer have been shared in Easters past. It’s getting kinda ordinary – and ordinary is the way: the ordinary and reliable rebirth of spring – the ordinary and reliable lightening of our hearts as the days grow longer, the air warms, and the lovely blossoms push up from the earth.

He shared with me that he wished he could convince his congregation that the resurrection was nothing special. I’ve been reflecting about that. He’s a Christian, and I’m a nonChristian Unitarian – and we’re both also Buddhists. Whether you’re a Christian or not, you may be thinking there’s something special about the resurrection of Jesus – something extraordinary. You might think it’s extraordinary and true -- and is a truth that gives life much of its meaning. Or you might think it’s extraordinary and false – too extraordinary to be credible. But what if neither of those? What if it’s not extraordinary? What if it’s nothing special?

Before you die, your life has what meaning it has in and through the hearts and minds of the people who know you. After you die, your life continues – meaning what it means, in and through the hearts and minds of the people who know you. And apart from that, there's the reliable rhythm of the returning beauty of spring: so glorious – so gloriously ordinary.

The annual rhythm of the seasons is recapitulated in the ups and downs of life – the cycle of defeats and triumphs, of wounding and healing. We resurrect out of silence and into our voice – and find we still have episodes of being silenced. We resurrect out of fear and into assured confidence – and find we still have episodes of being scared. Nothing special.

I am not being the Schmeaster Bunny here. You know the Schmeaster Bunny – the dismissive little rabbit that’s through with carrying eggs all over the place – done with those pretty, brightly colored symbols of fertility – fed up with chocolate representations of itself. “Easter, schmeaster,” says the Schmeaster Bunny. Don’t be a Schmeaster Bunny.

The cycles of rebirth are wonderful, beautiful, delightful – and ordinary. These ordinary and reliable rhythms of life and death and rebirth are indeed glorious and rich – and nothing to be dismissive of. Along with these ordinary rhythms, we also have this background of large-scale liberation. There’s Passover -- the eight days of which conclude at sundown this evening – and the Passover story telling us of the Hebrew people fleeing from slavery in Egypt. The Israelites were then conquered by the Assyrians – though they pretty much thrived as a semi-independent Assyrian vassal. When the Assyrian empire collapsed, the area was conquered by the Babylonians, then Persians, then the Greeks under Alexander the Great, then the Romans. The Romans had been the occupying force for a little over a hundred years by the time of Jesus. And once again (or, more-or-less, still) the Jewish people were longing for liberation from their occupying oppressors.

The original hope of the Jesus movement was a political hope – that he would be the leader, the king, of an independent Israel – like David and Solomon of old. They called him the "Christ," a Latin term, calqued from the Hebrew “Messiah,” which meant anointed one. The reference is to ceremonially anointing with oil at the inauguration of a monarch.

The common thread that links Passover and Easter is the story of a people longing for freedom from oppressive rulers: the Egyptians in one case, and the Romans in the other. The hopes of the people are pinned, in the one story, on Moses, and on the other story, on Jesus. One story has a happy ending – they escape Egyptian oppression. The other story has, well, a different sort of happy ending. The people don’t get the political freedom that they wanted. The hero is executed. Instead the story offers what may be called a spiritual bypass. The message is that a spiritual freedom is offered us – though the oppression of the body continues.

I want to remember with you, that the Four Canonical Gospels differ on what happened Easter morning. Mary Magdalene went by herself to the tomb, or she went with another Mary, or there were three women, or at least four.

She, or they, were taking spices to prepare the body for burial. She came in the pre-dawn darkness, or they came when the day was dawning, or the sun had already risen. They arrived just in time to see an angel roll the stone back, or found the stone already rolled back.

In Matthew, the two women saw an angel and some guards. Mark says the three women entered the tomb and saw one “young man dressed in a white robe." Luke says the group of four or more women saw “two men in dazzling robes.” In John, Mary Magdalene went alone and saw no one; she then left, found two of the male disciples, told them the body was missing, rushed back to the tomb with the men. They saw nothing but linen wrappings. The men left Mary alone crying, and only then did she look into the tomb and see "two angels in white."

Each of the four different stories offers us an allegory with resources for meaning making. For this year, let’s look particularly at the account in Mark. We'll begin that look in part 2.

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