“Seven Stanzas at Easter” by John Updike
by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston
Joe Rawls, over at The Byzantine Anglo-Catholic, recently posted the poem below. I was very glad to be reminded of it. I don’t know much about John Updike’s personal faith, but these lines powerfully express the scandalous particularity of Christ’s Resurrection.
Eastertide (in which we still find ourselves, and will for another several weeks) is not about springtime and new life and the annual cycle of rebirth. It is not about a generalized spiritual hope. It is certainly not about the afterlife.
Rather, from the Easter Vigil through the Great Fifty Days—and on every Sunday of the year—the Church has the audacity to announce that the man Jesus Christ, who was crucified, died and was buried, on the third day was raised from the dead. It happened at Jerusalem, in Judea, while Pontius Pilate was governor and Herod the puppet King of the Jews, and in Rome Tiberius claimed the mantle of divine emperor.
And what Updike gets (and a fair number of preachers seem to miss) is that the particularity of it all is actually what gives the Resurrection of Christ its universal significance. Because the One Man has conquered death, all humankind has been set free from the fear of the grave. Because Christ was raised in his own body—though transformed and glorified—“my flesh also shall rest in hope.” Because Jesus has become the firstfruits of them that slept, so too must my corruptible body “put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”
All of this (and much more!) is contained in the announcement that “The Lord is Risen indeed!” Here John Updike explicates it with poetic power (and an economy greater than this poor preacher’s):
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
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.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache’,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.