Easter in us

Title: Easter in us
Date: April 4, 2010
Texts: Isa 65:17-25; Ps 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43
Author: Isaac S. Villegas

“Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.” That’s one of the last lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Let Christ Easter in us. Hopkins turns Easter into a verb, something that transforms us from the inside. What does it mean for Easter to be a verb, to be something that happens to our lives? That’s what I want to explore with you this Easter morning.

The late 19th century Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote this poem in memory of the wreck of a passenger steamship called the Deutschland. It ran aground on a shoal 25 miles off the coast of England. Waves crushed the ship for 30 hours before anyone came to help the drowning passengers. Following the lazy rescue effort, men from the nearby towns converged on the wreckage, taking anything of value, even stealing the jewelry off of the recently dead. A newspaper in London depicted the scene: a wrecked ship with bodies everywhere, and flocks of human vultures descending on the dead.

Among the dead were 5 Franciscan nuns. They had left Germany due to persecution and were on their way to the United States. But, like many of the others, they died on board the ship. Hopkins dedicated his poem to these 5 nuns. Here’s his inscription: “To the happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns exiles by the Falk Laws drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th. 1875.”

What does any of this have to do with Easter? At the end of the poem, Hopkins speaks on behalf of the British people who let the nuns and everyone else die on the boat, and he asks one of the nuns to “remember us” (he says) as she enters into heaven to be with the risen Christ. Then Hopkins speaks of his hope of what will happen when the risen Christ enters our lives: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.”

If I counted myself among those who left all those people on board the ship to die, I don’t think I would want them to remember what I did—or, what I did not do: that I let them drown, I abandoned them, and let their dead bodies be pillaged by the villagers who descended like vultures. I wouldn’t want them to remember any of that. And I especially wouldn’t want them telling the risen Christ, who sits upon the throne of heaven as a judge—“the one,” as Peter says in our passage from Acts 10, “the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). I wouldn’t want the judge to know that I did nothing to save the dying. But Hopkins says, “remember us,” and “Let him easter in us.” If I am guilty, I don’t think I want the judge to get to close to me.

The Easter story is so familiar to us that I think we miss the terror of someone coming back from the dead. There are lots of ancient stories of the spirits of the dead coming back to haunt the living. In those stories, spirits are troubled enough to return from the grave and seek revenge—to get back at those who harmed them, to make life miserable for those who killed them. That’s usually how the story goes. The return of the dead is terrifying; news of their return would make you take stock of your life, to wonder about what you may have done to them or to their friends. The return of the dead is usually bad news.

But listen to what Peter says in our passage from Acts when he preaches the story of Jesus’ return from the dead:

They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear… He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins… (vv. 39-43)

Jesus comes back not to avenge his crucifixion, not to get even with his murders, not to make life miserable for his friends who abandoned him in his time of need. No. Jesus does not come back in the name of revenge, but to offer forgiveness of sins, forgiveness to everyone who abandoned him, everyone who watched him murdered and did nothing—forgiveness to his friends and his enemies. Forgiveness—that’s the good news of Christ’s resurrection.

When Peter spreads this good news of forgiveness, he doesn’t forget about the sins that sent Jesus to the cross. He is clear about what was done to Jesus: “they put him to death by hanging him on a tree,” he says. Those sins are part of the story; to forget what happened is to lose sight of the miracle of resurrection—that “God raised him on the third day,” as Peter goes on to say. So, forgiveness isn’t forgetfulness; instead, the forgiveness made possible through Easter is about transformation, it’s about having memories transformed, healed, bad news converted into good news, the sinner redeemed by grace.

Easter becomes a verb: the presence of Christ in us, making us anew, turning us into good news for the world, converting us into a presence of forgiveness—of joy and delight, as God says today in our passage from Isaiah: “I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people” (Isa 65:18-19).

When Christ easters in us, we become a reason for joy and delight, we share in offering God’s joy and delight in the world. But first comes the transformation of forgiveness, which may seem like the death of us. Let me explain. We hold grudges. We dislike some people. We keep a list of wrongs—someone who has sinned against us, or a certain class of people who we think is responsible for the injustices in our lives or the world. We order our world with these lists—the good people in this column, the bad people in that one. And these lists help us make sense of the world—we use them for telling the stories of history, our family history, our country’s history, our personal history, any kind of story. We can’t help but think about our world and our lives in terms of us against them, the good over here and the bad over there, enemies and friends, republicans and democrats, the working-class and the wealthy, Duke fans and UNC fans… the list can go on, depending on what you care about and who you care about and who you could care less about.

This is why forgiveness can feel like the unraveling of our lives. Letting our selves be transformed into Christ’s presence of forgiveness can feel like the end of our world, of everything we know, the death of our ego. Letting the risen Jesus easter in us means death to the old, to our familiar life, to the way things used to be, how we used to make sense of the world—of figuring out who are our friends and who are our enemies, of categorizing people according to our preconceptions.

Forgiveness means the end of competition, the end of rivalry, the end of a zero-some game where someone has to lose so you can win. Jesus comes back to forgive his enemies, not to plot their demise and his victory. Easter is not a victory over enemies, but an invitation to forgive, to let go of everything that holds us back from the embrace of reconciliation. To let forgiveness take its hold in our lives, to let Christ’s forgiveness work itself out in our lives.

When I talk about the embrace of reconciliation, listen for who comes to mind as the one person you cannot forgive. Maybe a dozen people come to mind. Maybe you have been wronged your whole life, time and time again, one person after another, by friends and strangers alike. Maybe your life resembles the life of Jesus, betrayed by a close companion, abandoned by all his friends, beaten and crucified by people who said they were just doing their job. But God raised Jesus from the dead to come back and offer forgiveness, to offer the invitation of communion, our union with God and one another.

“Let him easter in us.” Easter in us means the death of our old life of competition and rivalry, the death of our old ways of understanding our identity over against others—“I know who I am, because I am not one of them,” we may say to ourselves. Easter in us means a new self, a new identity, a new life—the life of Christ, the one who judges the living and the dead with forgiveness. To receive this life is the beginning of our transformation, the beginning of our conversion: to turn away from the old ways of competition, of holding grudges, of hating your enemies, and to turn into the life of God’s forgiveness. To forgive is to welcome Easter into your life.

You are already forgiven. Easter is how Christ returns with forgiveness for us. And then we spend the rest of our lives learning how to forgive those who have wronged us, and inviting them into the communion of God’s Spirit, which is the bond of love, love that breaks down the boundaries we’ve made, love that burns through the lists of wrongs we’ve collected and stored in our hearts. It’s this love that we remember and receive with gratitude, even though it may mean our death: so we can say with the Psalmist: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps 118:1). “This is the day that he Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (v. 24).

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