Chapter 5: The Resurrection: A Meditation by D.M. MacKinnon
As Professor Lampe says in his introduction, among those who criticized his broadcast and whose criticisms gave rise to the foregoing statement, was his colleague, Professor MacKinnon. His approach to the significance of the Resurrection is expressed in a meditation broadcast in the Third Programme as long ago as 1953 -- ‘that memorable broadcast,’ as Professor Howard Root described it at the beginning of his own Third Programme Meditation of 1966.
I suppose that there are people for whom the Resurrection of Christ presents no problem. Those, on the one hand, for whom it is a fable; those for whom, on the other, it is, as they say, ‘the best attested fact in human history’. The former ignore it, and the latter can argue happily for its reality. Both are at home with it, whether they affirm it or whether they deny it. It is an event which did or did not happen.
But if we go beyond those points of view, what then? The Gospel records are short enough, never easy, but seeming hardly at first sight to support a weight of dogmatic construction. The references in the Epistles are frequent, but they are often elusive and difficult: where, indeed, do they take us?
Now, let us be fair. The Gospel writers do make clear that on Easter Day events happened which were qualitatively similar to previous events. The morning itself comes thirty-six hours after Christ died upon the Cross: women prepare to anoint his body, and so on. The continuities are there of space and time. Moreover, it remains true that either the tomb was found empty or it was not. What, then, is wrong with the simple down-to-earth realism of those who say that either Christ rose or he did not? Simply, I think, that they would enclose within the category of event what is itself more than event. Was there, then, no night which, in the words of the Paschal hymn, saw Christ ‘rise again from hell’? Certainly; but that resurrection, although in one sense in time, possesses also a relation to the eternal as ultimate and unique as that of the universe itself to its creation. Indeed, what I would be prepared to argue is that here for Christians is focused the very relation of the temporal to the eternal itself. So that maybe we would not be wrong if we saw creation itself through this event, which is more than event. All this the Gospels make clear. The economy of their narrative (in Mark perhaps only eight verses) aids us to a proper perspective. We are never allowed to be obsessed by thaumaturgical detail or distracted by idle curiosity. It is as if here was something crucial, indeed determinative of the whole narrative of the life of Jesus: something whose import we grasp if we see that life anew in its light.
Thus the Resurrection plunged the disciples back into meditation on the things they had seen and heard. But this meditation was altogether free from nostalgic longing for what was past. The old comradeship on the road and in the street, in the house and at the supper table, was gone. But what had been present in those events, what indeed, they had gone to shape, that abided.
The life of Jesus belonged, indeed, to the ordinary world; the world of Caiaphas and Pilate, the world of zealots and Pharisees. Like all that belongs to that world, it made a tale that men could tell; like all that belonged to that world it moved from life to death; only more rapidly than in the case of many men. But when he rose his life rose with him. The impact that he had made on his friends became no longer a thing of transient force; but their memories of what they had witnessed were held firm even as their imaginations were quickened to ever deepening insight; into the eternal setting of the simplest human occasion of Christ’s life.
Thus the Resurrection did not provoke men to speculative dreams concerning the hereafter, or even to argument that it had really happened. Rather, it mattered so much that almost it did not matter. Through it they saw anew the things that had been.
‘Lord, thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising.’ These words from the 139th Psalm are traditionally used as the Introit for the Mass of Easter Day. Their suggestion is plain: it is not only the prince of this world who came to sift Christ in the hour of his Passion: it was the Father also who in him found no fault at all. The language of the Introit sees the Passion as a kind of judgement through which Christ passed, and in which he was acquitted. His fidelity in that hour was supremely tested, but it remained unimpaired. He was obedient unto death. So, in the language of Scripture, ‘his Father raises him’.
‘His Father raises him.’ What do these words mean? They indicate the ultimate mystery of which one can only speak in metaphor; when, for instance, one speaks of the Resurrection as the Father’s Amen to the work of Christ. But that Amen is not word; it is deed. For he is raised. And by his Resurrection an eternity is bestowed upon his work. Tetelestai; Consummatum est. According to the Fourth Evangelist this was his last word upon the Cross as he received the vinegar before he gave up the ghost. And that, his finished work, abides. By the Resurrection the very stuff of Christ’s self-oblation perfected in death is given a universal contemporaneity. More, it becomes the ultimate context of all our lives.
‘Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death has no more dominion over him.’ So St Paul. If Christ lives now, his life no longer moves to the horizon of death; it is life absolute and unconfined. But its stuff, its very substance, is what in the days of his flesh was expressed in a relentless movement from Galilee to Jerusalem, from life to death. And on our own lives, as they too know the rhythm of that journey, it sets the seal of its own perfection.
But what does this mean? If you ask me, all I can say is that I am speaking here of what I think lies at the heart of the Christian understanding of the world. To the Christian the world is brought into a new and abiding relationship to God by the work of Christ. Note these last words: for what I am speaking of is something which was really worked out.
For the Christian as much as for the Marxist (In a short article written by request for the monthly Marxism Today [the theoretical and discussion journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain] and published in the June 1966 number [pp. 186-187] as a contribution to the British dialogue between Christianity and Marxism, corresponding to that already going on in Eastern Europe, I refer again to this very important point of agreement between Christians and Marxists over against e.g. the disguised idealism encouraged under the label existentialism. Here find nothing in the broadcast which I wish to modify !) there is a sense in which deed takes precedence over idea; or rather, idea is significant only as expressed in action. By the obedience of the second Adam the children of the first Adam are redeemed, and, I repeat, that obedience was worked out. No writing in the New Testament brings this out more clearly than the Fourth Gospel; the Gospel that some of the Fathers called the ‘Spiritual Gospel’. The agony in Gethsemane is not recorded by this evangelist, inasmuch as he would rather show the whole life of Jesus as a waiting upon God the Father. Jesus is, indeed, presented in St John as one who of himself can do or say nothing at all: who is always waiting upon an hour that is not yet, as if he were the slave of a destiny not in his own power. But, of course, this servitude is presented as loving obedience to his Father. So, paradoxically, he says that no man takes his life from him; but he lays it down of himself.
There is no contradiction here, for he and his Father are one. At the heart of human history, then, stands for the Christian the agony, the struggle of Christ; this mysterious and awful patience of his which yet seems big with inexhaustible energy of mercy and compassion. It is deed: not idea. So that we know that ‘where death arose, thence life rose again; and that power which by a tree once vanquished us was on a tree brought low’. The demonic strength of egoism which we know in ourselves was powerless to bring Christ down. For himself he asked nothing at all -- and on the Cross in his self-abandon he revealed himself to men as the Son of God, one who is, in the depths of his being, eternally response to the Father and nothing else. Yet these things were most painfully done. Revelation is not in a charade but in an agony, with flesh racked with pain, and human consciousness lost in sense of the meaninglessness of the world.
I say that on the Cross Christ revealed himself as the Son of God. Such, indeed, is the word of St. Mark who makes the Centurion’s avowal the climax of his Passion narrative. St. Mark, whose narrative of the Resurrection is so strangely short, ending, it would seem, with the flight of the women from the tomb, finds the great climax in the Centurion’s avowal, because he can look back upon the Cross in the light of the Resurrection. He is not so far from the Fourth Evangelist, whose sense of the mystery is so great that he consistently presents the Cross as glory and exaltation: the throne from which the Son of Man judged the world. Luke, in a lesser way, presents the last journey to Jerusalem as a triumphal progress, its end to be an analempsis, an assumption.
All this should help us to see what in one sense the Resurrection is. It is the raising of the whole life and death of Christ to a place where men can see it, as the merciful act of God’s love. There is far more in the Gospels about the Resurrection than the actual resurrection narratives I mentioned a little while back. In a way, and not in Luke only, the whole presentation of the Via Crucis is a witness and an interpretation of the Resurrection. The approach of Christ to his Passion is seen as an element in the total mystery of Jesus; with whom the believer is contemporary. And that mystery is a thing of joy. In the Western liturgy of Good Friday, suddenly and almost unexpectedly, the rhythm of penitence is broken by the words, ‘We venerate thy Cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify thy holy Resurrection, because by virtue of that Cross joy has come to the whole world’. There’s a similar interweaving there to the one I’ve just spoken of in the Gospels.
But, of course, the Resurrection is not simply interpretation. It is deed, even as the Passion is deed. Called deed, I think, by analogy. Just as we speak of it as event and yet not event, so we speak of it as deed and yet not deed. For in this action the agent is the eternal God who raises Jesus from the dead. I spoke a while back of the relation of the Resurrection to the Father as being as ultimate and unique as that of creation itself. But then, you may remember, I was careful to qualify myself. It is indeed the relation of the creation to God that is illuminated by this awful mystery. We cannot see the relation, either of history or of nature, to the Father, except across the mystery of the Resurrection of Christ. Our thought of creation is rescued from abstraction when we see its fulfillment in the tomb of Christ, the birthplace of his glory, and the glory of his own.
‘The Paschal mystery is the fundamental Christian mystery.’ So, recently, a Continental theologian, thinking perhaps primarily of sacraments as the means whereby human life is knit into the fabric of Christ’s dying and arising. But the words have wider senses than that. Here, in the Resurrection, all the problems of theology are raised; for here revelation makes its ultimate claim: the claim that the Redeemer is Lord at once of history and of nature. The manner of his Lordship is patience and mercy. It is achieved, indeed expressed, in obedience unto death. But none the less in the mystery of his Resurrection he is revealed as Lord.
His patience is shown as powerful to the overcoming of death itself; and his mercy shown in the hour of his awful triumph to those who failed him is now shown to men as a final mercy. In the presence of Christ’s Resurrection we are in the presence of the final things of God, of victory, not as the world knows it, but as God knows it, in the subduing of all things to the purposes of his mercy. What we are met with here we can perhaps only show in a half light; but its claim remains to ultimacy and finality.
Can these things be? To some, all that I have said must seem absurd. Certainly, we have to do with what in the nature of the case can only be a matter of revelation. For such, of course, the story of Jesus claims to be, and in one sense the Resurrection is almost identifiable with this claim that it is revelation itself. For how could a life be the revelation of God? Surely, only if in it were focused the dealings of God with men. And, of course, men have found that the way of Jesus, the way through death to Resurrection, illuminates, if it does not wholly condition, their spiritual lives. We know, most of us, what it is to be broken; to shed, at least, some of the illusions we have about ourselves, and we know that these moments can be a kind of death; a death, too, that we must accept: for only as we accept it, as we go down into it, can we find renewal, or rather, be overtaken by the renewing hand of God. And these deaths, of course, speak to us of our own bodily death which will surely come, perhaps cutting across our life’s work before it is even half ended, leaving loose ends in every direction. We must die. Perhaps we look to survival, perhaps the dynamism of our thought and choice seems to evidence the immortal in us. But again, in a behaviorist age the autonomy of spirit is a more precarious belief than it was in the heyday of metaphysical idealism.
In a way, as I think I have said, the Resurrection of Jesus can be seen as the revelation of the nature of his dying. He died the death of a criminal, the death of the cursed. On the other hand, he imposed upon his execution the style of self-oblation. This he did in the Upper Room when he invested his death with sacrificial significance. He makes of his judicial murder an ultimate act of homage and reparation to his Father. He took the ghastly business of dying and converted it into an act of wholly obedient love. He died, and he was raised.
And in his death he gathers the dying of men into that his archetypal self-surrender. Of their deaths he makes a part of his abiding prayer. Does this seem morbid and fanciful? It is, I think, an aspect of the joy which through the Cross of Christ has come into the world: this refusal to ignore the extremities of human existence, but to find in them the stuff of praise. Our death is not simply something through which we pass. It is become through Christ an act; it is certainly the term of life and beyond it lies the secret way of purification on which Christ guides his own. But it is also in itself the gathering up of life in final homage to God. For he it is who gives and takes away. And if we make of our very incompleteness, of the fragmentary brokenness of our lives, of which death is the most eloquent sign, an act of love towards him, then assuredly we have lived and died in some understanding of the mystery of the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. ‘In manus tuas, Domine, commendo animam meam.’