Easter Day, Year C, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

“Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed (Jo. 20:8).

The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe has a great line on the familiar creedal formula, that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried.” In McCabe’s mind, this statement is unlike the rest of the Creed in being a straight-up historical fact. It’s not an affirmation of faith in things that are beyond this world, which is what you expect from a Creed, but the description of an event, a fact, that anyone present in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death would have known. No faith is required for this affirmation: it’s a piece of historical information that only a crank would question.

The language, McCabe observes, is not religious; it doesn’t make any faith claims. It doesn’t add anything interpretive, like “Jesus died for our sins;” if anything, the only interpretation to be detected is political, since crucifixion was a form of execution practiced by the Roman Empire and by no one else. Our Creed, like the Scriptures it summarizes, places responsibility for the death firmly on the Roman authorities. Apart from that politically charged word, “crucifixion,” the creedal formula sticks mostly to the facts.

So if the formula is more or less factual, in the same way that the statement “Murfreesboro is thirty-five miles from Nashville” is factual, then what’s it doing in the Creed? We sometimes describe the Creed as an “affirmation of faith,” and so it is. The Father is “creator of heaven and earth;” Jesus is “born of the Virgin Mary;” the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Extraordinary statements, out of this world in their scope. Among these faith statements, of course, is the central one that Christians make about Jesus, “on the third day he rose again.”

For McCabe, the statement that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried” may be historical but it is the anchor of the Creed, the one on which every faith statement depends. It roots us not just in history but in experience: our common human experience of tragedy and loss, not to mention death. We all know what it is to suffer loss. So it is that the Creed tells us that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried”: a historical statement of fact that connects with our own deepest human experience.         

This is the frame for our Easter celebration today. If “the deep things in life are suffering and death,” as McCabe writes, then they are deep because we struggle with them. They unite us as a touchstone for shared experience, a common mystery with which we all contend. We are shaped by this experience; who cannot say with the Psalmist, “I am worn down by the blows of your hand” (Ps. 39:11)? “Worn down”: truer words were never spoken. The sorrows we bear are the signs of our humanity.

Yet we cannot leave it there. McCabe remarks that there’s a reason that in music, the great songs are those about love and sorrow and death. “I think that if you can articulate the deep meaning of life in terms of death by means of song or sacraments, you are free for the wildest celebrations of sheer joy and love of living.” In his own Irish tradition, he points out, these songs are always followed by a new tune, a wild and exuberant one that provides a complete contrast. It’s a bit like the second-line at a New Orleans funeral: antic musical happiness that breaks out in spite of the grave. McCabe tells us, “The exploration of tragedy releases us for simple happiness” (God Still Matters, 2002).

In our Easter Gospel today, when the disciple whom Jesus loved reaches the empty tomb and enters it, he sees and believes. He’s been at the cross on the Friday before, so he knows the score. His traumatic experience is the stone that closes the tomb, a “stone of stumbling” (Is. 8:14) as Isaiah says, a stone that we stumble over; it’s the sure and certain knowledge of failure and defeat. Yet on the third day the stone is rolled away. The tomb is empty. John sees and believes that Jesus is risen from the dead.   

Christian faith is anchored in history. It faces squarely the reality we all experience: of tragedy and loss and death. This robust realism frees it up to speak of other things. The Gospel writer invites our faith in something more. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not wishful thinking; it is the power of God, taking us beyond our own history, our own experience, our own imagining, to a new reality we long for. It’s the wild and exuberant tune that follows the dirge. Can our longing be unfounded? Faith transforms the shared experience, the common mystery we know. Faith believes that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee