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How Do You Imagine Resurrection?

A Holy Week reflection by President Roger Ferlo

How do you imagine resurrection?

Frankly, the Gospels aren’t much help.  We know a lot about the before and after of Jesus’ resurrection, but precious little of the during.  The Gospel writers balk at describing an event that no one witnessed.   Once Joseph of Arimathea gives the go-ahead to use his pre-purchased resting space, we are told very little. True, Matthew has a story about the Pharisees arranging with Pilate to put guards at the entrance, thus preventing anyone from breaking the seal, stealing the body, faking a resurrection.  In a way, that reported episode is the exception that proves the rule.  On the actual mechanics of resurrection the lips of the evangelists are as sealed as the entrance to the tomb. 

This gap in the Gospel account gets reflected liturgically, in the odd little service designated for Holy Saturday in the Book of Common Prayer.  Few parish churches I know of actually mark that occasion.  In most places, the church building is as hollow as the grave—the altars stripped of ornament, the aumbry emptied, no Eucharist scheduled for the day.  Perhaps the bare wooden cross from the Good Friday service still occupies its spot in front of the barren table.  No one has yet had the time to put it back in the sacristy closet. 

That’s what it usually looked like mid-morning in the parish in New York where I once was rector.  It was then, early on the Saturday before Easter, when the altar guild gathered to clean up the church, and the twenty or so adult catechumens gathered with their sponsors to rehearse their parts for that evening’s Easter vigil. But before we got started, our custom was to come together to read that odd Holy Saturday service.  It always felt very much like a wake, and usually included this reading from 1 Peter, which demands from us in spite of all appearances an account of the hope that is in us.

Always be ready to make to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. 

It’s a disquieting demand on any morning, especially in these anxious and polarized  times, when gentleness and reverence are difficult to find either in the public square or in our own divided churches. But it is a demand especially disquieting in the disarray of a Holy Saturday morning, one that answers eloquently to life’s own disarray. Imagine yourself there, and imagine yourself listening to this message.   “Christ was put to death in the flesh,” we are told, “but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” By prison the letter writer seems to mean in Sheol, or Hades, or whatever you want to call the place where those who perished in the Flood were biding their time deep in the shadow of death no doubt weeping and gnashing their teeth.  “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead,” we’re told again, “so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”

The gospel was proclaimed even to the dead.  We live in a world where a book called Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies could become a best seller, but not even the current mania for zombie movies can prepare us for a claim like this.  One can ask a lot of questions about what this writer was imagining, and whom he thought he was writing for.  But whatever this passage might have meant to the little band of persecuted Christians who first heard this letter, it has had a resounding effect in the tradition.  This passage from 1 Peter helped create the image of the about-to-be-resurrected Christ descending into hell, breaking down the gates of death, harrowing Hades.  He descended into hell.  That wild claim allows us to bridge the Gospel gap, to answer the vacant silence at the heart of the resurrection account.  This is not a passage about preaching to zombies. 

The Eastern churches, God bless them, have always understood this, understood that on that empty Saturday, on that desolate day-between,  hidden from view, behind the scenes, the power, love and mercy of God were being made manifest among the lowest of the low.  The traditional icon of the anastasis (the lovely Greek word for “resurrection”) reads like a midrash on 1 Peter.  At its center Christ stands in glory, his cross tumbling into the abyss that has opened beneath his feet, into the vast hole created when he used the cross like a battering ram to crash the gates of Hades and cast down Satan under his feet. His arms are outstretched on either side, not helpless and nailed to the crossbeam, not raised aloft in a gesture of triumph, but fully engaged in an act of deliverance, each arm pulling, pulling, as he draws out Adam and Eve from their open tombs, their hands grasped in his as they are pulled, pulled toward the light.

This great icon of the Resurrection embodies all the paradoxes of orthodoxy, all the paradoxes of this Easter gospel, all the paradoxes of Peter’s letter.  When God seems most hidden, most absent, and creation most desolate, God in fact is most active, most present, most pregnant with life. Can we believe this?  God is to be found where we least expect God to be found, in the midst of suffering and not above it, in spite of our best efforts to resist, pulling us out of the muck and the abyss of our own making, pulling us kicking and squirming like new-born children into the full light of day.  Do we dare to give a public account of the hope that is in us, and then act upon it?

“For this is the reason that the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”

What was true for them is true for us.  Thanks be to God.

--The Rev. Dr. Roger A. Ferlo, President

President Roger Ferlo

Roger Ferlo

Roger A. Ferlo is the president of the Bexley Seabury Federation and professor of biblical interpretation and the practice of ministry. Ferlo, who was previously the associate dean and director of the Institute of Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary, where he also served as professor of religion and culture, took up his duties at Bexley Seabury on July 1, 2012.

Prior to working at Virginia Seminary, Ferlo, who trained for the priesthood at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, spent 19 years in parish ministry, serving in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. He has 14 years of teaching experience at the university and seminary levels; 15 years of service on the board of the National Association of Episcopal schools, including a term as president; and nine years of service on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Colgate University ('73, summa cum laude), where in 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Ferlo holds a Ph.D. from Yale University ('79) and has authored and edited three books and numerous published essays, sermons and reflections.