Yes, I realize it is Good Friday and Easter is still to come, but I thought this might be a helpful meditation for some as we live out the next couple of days.
I’m thinking of two seminary professors who helped me come to an understanding of Easter that seems broad enough for just about every possible take on the Christian tradition. I don’t know if that’s what they meant to be teaching at the time, but that is what I took away. Here it is.
The first of those professors, Charlie Price, had left the seminary before I arrived, but he had made his mark, not just on that seminary, but on the larger church as well. Several stories and quotes of Dr. Price’s were circulated around the seminary in a scriptural sort of way, by which I mean that they grew and were improved in their telling by the way they expanded in the hearts of the faithful. One of my favorite “Price” stories had to do with his being challenged by someone after he had spoken about the Eucharist as being a symbol. The hearer is reported to have asked, “are you saying the Eucharist is nothing but a symbol?” To which Price is said to have responded, “I’m saying it is nothing less than a symbol.”
It helps here to know that a symbol in that place was defined as a sign that not only points to, but also participates in the larger reality it represents. The person who challenged that “symbol” statement seemed to think that calling the Eucharist a symbol flew in the face of doctrinal statements that affirm the reality of the Eucharist. Price’s response was that the Eucharist participates in a reality that is too grand to define and should not be limited by our ideas about it. Like I say, the story was circulating during my time at the seminary and I don’t actually know if it happened like that or if I have taken the intended meaning from the story, but I have always loved it. I had never encountered in theology such a wide open, and yet challenging and freeing space. Theologians love answers, but here was a theological position quite comfortable standing at the edge of a great mystery and saying “there is more here than we can imagine.” Thank you Dr. Price.
The other professor who helped me with the Easter story was David Adams, who taught New Testament. In our first semester, he led my whole class through the four gospels, pointing out all the ways in which basic human story-telling agenda had shaped them. His job, he said, was to plow up the fields of our understanding of the gospels so we could see them in new ways. After three months of deconstructing what most of the class held sacred, a time in which some of us were intrigued, some were demoralized and others became downright hostile, Dr. Adams summed up the whole semester for us on the last day of class. He said he hoped we had learned that there is really very little we can actually know about Jesus. His list was short. He said we know that Jesus was born and that he was a traveling teacher who attracted a group of followers. We know he got into trouble and was crucified. And, he said, we know that after he was crucified, something happened.
By the end of that first semester, I wasn’t sure what to believe about any of the tradition. My field had been plowed and a lot of weeds had been turned under, I was pretty sure the crop had gone with them. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I still don’t know that I do, but somehow, that “something happened” line drew me back in. I stopped worrying about any difference between human longing and divine revelation, understanding that whatever “happened” after Jesus’ death was a powerful sign of something real at work in the human heart. Dr. Adams had shaken up the class and he had shaken those old stories until everything loose had fallen to the ground in a heap, and still I was left standing at the edge of a great mystery saying “there is more here than we can imagine.” Thank you Dr. Adams.