Easter is mysterious. This isn’t a conclusion many come to in our culture today: from a secular point of view, it constitutes only a pleasant, mostly child-oriented spring festival, while even the Christians who continue to celebrate the religious aspect tend to present it primarily as a celebration in the modern sense, an easily graspable occasion of joy because of Jesus’ victory over death.
But like our other great feast, Christmas, Easter points two ways in human time: back, certainly, to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; but also forward – or outward – to the ‘world to come’ spoken of in Scripture, and to the general resurrection of the dead.
I was led to meditate on this dimension recently, at a funeral of a family friend. One of the classic funeral passages, from 2 Corinthians, struck me anew with the strangeness of one of its central metaphors:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.2 Corinthians 5:1-5
‘Swallowed up by life’. More memorable, at least to me, is the same image in a different context, also a common and precious funeral reading: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’ (1 Cor 15:54). Here in 2 Corinthians, however, Paul flips the metaphor so that what is swallowed up is not death itself, but the mortal person or the mortal aspect of the person; and the swallowing up is not destruction or defeat, but a dramatic bringing to life.
To be ‘swallowed up’ is not usually a positive phrase – either in the Bible or in modern English. It usually conveys how completely and decisively something, or someone, has vanished or been destroyed. That inflection is being used here to shock us, to bring home the strangeness of what Paul is telling us about the life to come. Instead of the grave swallowing us up, we will be swallowed up by life.
There’s no simplistic dualism of soul and body to be found here: instead, a very deep mystery – not in the sense of something wholly inexplicable, but something too big for us to comprehend fully. (This is a definition I’ve most recently encountered in Cary Howie’s meditative Transfiguring Medievalism, which also introduced me to the poem quoted below.) Such a mystery can nonetheless be disclosed to some extent, as Paul attempts to do here.
The passage is a chain of vividly mixed metaphors. Our earthly existence, and the resurrection life which Jesus won for us, are contrasted as different kinds of both dwelling and clothing. Both those images are about being covered over and enclosed, making us think about security – not being naked, having a safe shelter. But the theme of secure enclosure is then transformed into this mysteriously total ‘swallowing up’ in life.
A lot is going on here and I’m not the best equipped to probe the nuances of how the original texts express these truths. But to my eye, Paul’s focus seems to be different to his use of similar language in 1 Corinthians. There, death itself, the fact of human mortality, sinfulness, and separation from God, is abolished: eradicated, eliminated, swallowed up.
But here, that which is swallowed up is not destroyed, because what is doing the swallowing up is no longer death, but life. The process of transformation has itself been changed. It’s no longer conceived in terms of death – consumption, disappearance, ceasing to exist – but is instead a sudden, almost violent rebirth, life seizing us by the scruff of the neck and making us wholly new.
Jesus Christ rose from the grave. Hallelujah! But when the day comes, we too will rise. What will that be like? God only knows.
by Marie Howe
Two of the fingers on his right hand
had been broken
so when he poured back into that hand it surprised
him — it hurt him at first.
And the whole body was too small. Imagine
the sky trying to fit into a tunnel carved into a hill.
He came into it two ways:
From the outside, as we step into a pair of pants.
And from the center — suddenly all at once.
Then he felt himself awake in the dark alone.The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, 2008