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April 3rd, 2015
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Updike & Easter, 2015

Seven Voices on ‘Seven Stanzas’

A young John Updike writing in his office. (Photo: Ipswich.wordpress.com)

A young John Updike writing in his office. (Photo: Ipswich.wordpress.com)

Of the untold number of poems and scholarly treatises inspired by the story of Jesus’ resurrection, none have engendered as much speculation, interpretation and consideration as to its greater meaning than John Updike’s ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter.’ In marking Easter and the Pentecost in Deep Roots, we continue our tradition, dating back to the April 2011 issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com, of offering the Updike poem; the story of its discovery in 1960 when the young poet entered it in a Massachusetts church’s Religious Arts Festival and won a $100 prize for ‘Best of Show’; and, in ‘Seven Voices on Seven Stanzas,’ seven new perspectives each year, from lay people and clergy alike, reflecting on either their personal experience with Updike’s poem or their perspective on its theological import in today’s world. In these carefully selected ‘voices’ we look not for blind praise of Updike’s stance but rather insight based on sound theology as to the poem’s application in the everyday lives of people of faith—or even how those lacking faith can still take something of value from the poem.

 

Seven Stanzas at Easter

By John Updike

(from Telephone Poles and Other Poems, 1963)

 

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

It was as His body;

If the cell’s 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-maché,

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 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.

 

 

 

The Story Behind ‘Seven Stanzas’

By Kathleen Kastilahn

 

Norman D. Kretzmann remembers John Updike as a young Harvard graduate who sought out Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Mass., because it “nurtured the roots of faith he had grown up with in Pennsylvania.”

updike2

Kretzmann, pastor of Marblehead at the time, proudly recalls that Updike was among the 96 adults who entered the congregation’s Religious Arts Festival in 1960–and that his poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” won $100 for “Best of Show.”

“People in the parishes I served became quite accustomed to my quoting his poem in my Easter sermons at least every few years,” says Kretzmann, who lives in a Minneapolis retirement center and regularly contributes to the Metro Lutheran newspaper.

Kretzmann closely follows Updike’s work, which includes more than 50 novels and books of poems. In a Metro Lutheran review of John Updike and Religion (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000) he wrote: “I was John Updike’s pastor during the time which the writer later described as his ‘angst-besmogged period.’ Who was the rabbi and who was the disciple of our years together is hard to say.”

The pastor still has Updike’s 41-year-old typed copy of “Seven Stanzas”–“marked up with all sorts of irrelevant notes by me, instructions to me for homiletical purposes or for various secretaries,” he said. And Kretzmann has one more fond memory from the festival: Updike gave the $100 prize back to the congregation. —From The Lutheran.org

 

 

 

The Resurrection of Christ, Paolo Veronese, c.1570

The Resurrection of Christ, Paolo Veronese, c.1570

 

 

Seven Voices on ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’

 

 

I.

On Easter and Updike

by David E. Anderson

 

Easter is not easy for most poets and writers, the difficult mystery of resurrection being more intractable than incarnation.

One of the best examples of the problem is perhaps the most famous Easter poem of the second half of the 20th century, John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” Updike identifies the difficulty in the opening line:

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.

 

John Updike on The Simpsons, episode 3, season 12, ‘Insane Clown Poppy’

John Updike on The Simpsons, episode 3, season 12, ‘Insane Clown Poppy’

The crucial word in the center of the first line—if—starkly states what might be called “the Easter problem” and Updike’s insistence on the orthodox doctrine of the physical, bodily reality of the resurrection, even when hedged with the doubting if, provides a succinct but apt statement of one of the key themes of his work—the terror of death and the search for some sense, some promise, of overcoming, and he will not brook any evasions:

 

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 tension between belief and doubt in the face of death, between faith and its opposite—certainty, and the need for resurrection–run through all of Updike’s vast body of writing, from his early novels, stories, and poetry (“Seven Stanzas at Easter” was written in 1960, just a year after his first novel was published, and the poem was the winning entry in a religious arts festival sponsored by a Lutheran church on Boston’s North Shore) to his later work, including Due Considerations, his final collection of essays and criticism, and Endpoint, a posthumous book of poems published in 2009.

updike-endpoint

Endpoint does not directly address Easter, but its many meditations on Updike’s impending death—he died January 27 at the age of 76 and was battling cancer as he wrote many of the poems, specifically addressing his illness in a number of them—underscore the tension he wrestled with throughout his career between the fear of death and the hope for some kind of afterlife. In a poem entitled “Death of a Computer,” he writes of an old computer’s final crash and the “hopeful garble” on the monitor’s screen: “I in a spurt of mercy shut it down. / May I, too, have a stern and kindly hand / bestow upon my failing circuits peace.” In “Fine Point 12/22/08,” the last of the seventeen poems in the title sequence, he asks, “Why go to Sunday school, though surlily,/and not believe a bit of what was taught?” He praises Jews who “kept faith/and passed the prayers, the crabbed rites/from table to table as Christians mocked”:

 

We mocked but took. The timbrel creed of praise

gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.

The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,

saying, Surely—magnificent, that “surely”—

goodness and mercy shall follow me all

the days of my life, my life, forever.

Updike wrote in an early autobiographical essay, “The Dogwood Tree,” of his fascination with what he called “the three great secret things”—art, sex, and religion and how they combined and interacted in his artistic mission to “transcribe middleness with all its grits, bumps, and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery.” While the appreciations and obituaries that poured forth at his death duly noted how art, and especially sex, wove themselves into his work, few noted what British novelist Ian McEwan called Updike’s “religious seriousness,” his being “constitutionally unable to ‘make the leap of unfaith.’”

updike-due-considerations

The final piece in Due Considerations is a contribution to National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” series. Written at the age of 73, Updike acknowledged, “Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds.” While affirming the power of science to explain much of the universe, he also noted that “subjective sensations, desires, and, may we even say, illusions compose the substance of our daily existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address and placate these. We are part of nature,” he continued, “and natural necessity compels and in the end dissolves us; yet to renounce all and any supernature, any appeal or judgment beyond the claims of matter and private appetite, leaves in the dust too much of our humanity.”

Due Considerations also includes Updike’s 1999 essay for The New Yorker, “The Future of Faith,” a combination of personal and journalistic observations that seems a prescient anticipation of the recently released American Religious Identification Survey’s finding that the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christian is declining, especially among mainline Protestants. “As the year 2000 draws to a close, faith in America hangs on,” he wrote, describing the state of belief in signature Updike style that is instantly recognizable: “A Protestant Christian on the eve of the third millennium must struggle with the sensation that his sect is, like the universe itself in the latest cosmological news, winding down, growing thinner and thinner as entropy works an inevitable dimming upon the outspreading stars.”

Updike wrote that The New Yorker assignment was given to him because he was the magazine’s “token Christian,” and he undertook it only reluctantly: “The attempt felt dangerous; I feared it might empty out of me the last drops of what feeble faith had got me thus far.” Finding himself fearful and sleepless in a hotel room in Florence, Italy overlooking the city’s stolid Santa Maria del Fiore, the fourth-largest church in Christendom, Updike reports an epiphany in the midst of a thunderstorm: “Lightning. Hectic gusts. The rain was furious. I was not alone in the universe. … I was filled with a glad sense of exterior activity. My burden of being was being shared. God was at work—at ease, even, in this nocturnal Florentine commotion, this heavenly wrath and architectural defiance, this Jacobean wrestle…. All this felt like a transaction, a rescue, an answered prayer.” It is, in a sense, the mature, aging Updike’s personal encounter with one aspect of the Easter problem—abandonment, the solitariness of being alone in the universe, and the need for transcendence.

The passage echoes the famous closing of his short story “Pigeon Feathers,” written almost 40 years earlier, in which a young boy is plagued by doubt, the fear of death, and questions about the afterlife. The fourteen-year-old protagonist, David Kern, has a series of unsatisfying encounters with adults, including the Reverend Dobson, a Lutheran pastor who tells him the afterlife is like Lincoln’s goodness living on after him. Despite the minister’s vacuous answer, Updike wrote of David: “The sight of clergymen cheered him; whatever they themselves thought, their collars were still a sign that somewhere, at some time, someone had recognized that we cannot, cannot, submit to death.”

As David goes about the farm-boy business of burying six pigeons he has killed as pests, he loses himself in studying the intricate designs on the birds’ feathers: “As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

John Updike in Massachusetts, 1984. Photo: Dominique Nabokov

John Updike in Massachusetts, 1984. Photo: Dominique Nabokov

In some senses, including what he called his “fragile” faith, Updike was the emblematic mainline Protestant. He was raised a Lutheran but, like many other Americans, held his denominational affiliation somewhat loosely. After marrying his first wife, a Unitarian, the couple attended a Congregational church as a sort of mixed-marriage compromise, and in the mid-1980s, after divorce and remarriage, Updike identified himself as “a card carrying Episcopalian.” He could even, as he said in a brief note he wrote about his 1988 novel S., the third book in his trilogy based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, write of becoming “an increasingly enthusiastic disciple of Indian religions.” That appears to have been more a literary and linguistic enthusiasm than a discipleship, yet his poem “Religious Consolation” seems to acknowledge a need for the varieties of religious experience:

Strange, the extravagance of it—who needs

Those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those musty saints

Whose bones and bleeding wounds appall good taste,

Those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas, books

Moroni etched in tedious detail?

We do; we need more worlds. This one will fail.

Unlike most of his characters and many Americans, Updike was theologically sophisticated. He cut his teeth on Danish Lutheran theologian Soren Kierkegaard, Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, and, to a lesser extent, existentialist German philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich. All three continued to engage him, and in “Midpoint,” a long autobiographical poem published in 1969, he paid tribute to Kierkegaard and Barth:

An easy Humanism plagues the land;

I choose to take an otherworldly stand.

Praise Kierkegaard, who splintered Hegel’s creed

Upon the rock of Existential need;

Praise Barth, who told how saving Faith can flow

From Terror’s oscillating Yes and No;

In his conclusion to a 1976 review of biographies of Barth and Tillich, Updike wrote that both men “confronted the apparent withdrawal of God from the world around them—Barth by claiming He was Wholly Other and thus immune to detection, Tillich by suggesting that He was present, weakly, in everything. Theology buttresses the faith that would hold off mortal fear, and these two theologians, a decade after the decade of their deaths, present a merged afterimage, positive and negative slants on the problem of Angst. What lingers of Barth, still ringing in the air of churches and seminaries, was his tone of fearlessness, his bold, encyclopedic, and hearty exposition of the word of God as over against the word of Man; whereas Tillich, unable to exclude anxiety and doubt, brought them into the sanctum, and called them holy emotions.”

More than any other contemporary novelist Updike also made clergy significant, even central characters in his work. It is hard to imagine another writer who has created such a range of clerics, from the dueling figures of orthodox Lutheran pastor Fritz Kruppenbach and liberal Episcopalian priest Jack Eccles in Rabbit, Run to the Reverend Thomas Marshfield, Updike’s version of Hawthorne’s Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, in A Month of Sundays, to his epic yet intimate In The Beauty of the Lilies, in which he richly described the loss of faith of Presbyterian clergyman Clarence Arthur Wilmot, to his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick, and its depiction of the Reverend Deborah Larcom, a Unitarian clergywoman. When she preached, one of the other characters observes, “it was with utter naturalness and clarity, taking Jesus and Buddha as equivalent embodiments of goodness, citing Doctor Schweitzer and Mohandas Gandhi and Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King as manifestations of the divine in human form.” Drawn from across a range of denominations and theological perspectives, Updike’s clergy are never cardboard or stick figures, but fully realized and embodied characters. As he said in a 1978 interview, “The practicing minister is in a terribly difficult position in our pretty well de-Christianized, inconsolable age. But they keep going, don’t they … and I admire them.”

Touching reflections by John Updike on his Pennsylvania upbringing and its influence on his fiction and poems

Still, it must be noted that despite Updike’s insistence that if Jesus rose it was a bodily rather than metaphorical resurrection, Jesus himself and the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection are largely absent from his poetry and fiction. His hope, the unstated Easter hope for eternal life that runs through his work, is dependent on what he called in one story “supernatural mail” with its “decisive but illegible” signatures, those very immanent things and events that contain within them the promise of more. In “Pigeon Feathers” he provided a telling example: “The sermon topics posted outside churches, the flip, hurried pieties of disc jockeys, the cartoons in magazines showing angels or devils—on such scraps he kept alive the possibility of hope.

Or as Updike affirmed in the last line of the first poem in his final book: “Birthday, death day—what day is not both?”

David E. Anderson is senior editor at Religion News Service. This essay is reprinted by permission of RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, April 7, 2009

Produced by THIRTEEN   ©2013 WNET. All rights reserved.

 

 

The Resurrection of Christ, Johann Carl Loth, 1632-1698

The Resurrection of Christ, Johann Carl Loth, 1632-1698

 

 

II.

At Easter, The Poetry Is In the Piety

There’s no greater poetry than faith. It is the invisible literature of the world. We try to put words into the spaces where faith lives, to shape the outer world with the rhyme and reason of the inner.

Easter is the poem perfected of life, death and resurrection. In its telling we can rise from the dead, become one with that first instant of ascension.

The Bible, despite its oft-times literal nonsense, possesses passages of lyrical beauty. There’s a rhythm running through it that fuses the sculptured holy and the unadorned language of everyman. Forget its genesis, for it is to the life and death of the son of God that people are pulled. Have faith in me and you too will rise to God as I did who died for my Father. Perfect faith.

Is not the thought of God the affirmation of being human? Or the thought of no God? Easter is the centre of gravity, whichever path of belief one chooses, which ever way one may fall. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)

John Donne (1572-1631)

John Donne (1572-1631)

There are no stanzas, no rhyming patterns, there is no poetical discipline, but still the words flow. This is the river from which others down the centuries have fished.

At its banks has been John Donne (1572-1631), whose religious bearings swayed over both divides of the Christian faith; born into a Catholic family, and then later becoming Dean of St Paul’s in London, after having being ordained into the Church of England.

On Good Friday, 1613, Donne had to travel westwards. The journey, and the fact that it was the anniversary of his saviour’s death, wrought from him Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward, part of which reads:

Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,

This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.

There I should see a Sun by rising set,

And by that setting endless day beget.

But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,

Sin had eternally benighted all.

Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see

That spectacle of too much weight for me …

It, like many others in this literary field, is both a bowing before God and a yearning to ascend. Another priest and poet, and contemporary of Donne’s, was George Herbert, who wrote Easter Wings: “With Thee/O let me rise.”

Christina Rosetti

Christina Rosetti

Almost three centuries later, Christina Rossetti, devotional to Christ so much that it was written of her work that “the superiority of heavenly joys to earthly pleasures” formed its “implicit motif,” wrote a series on Easter week. It begins with Good Friday:

Lord Jesus Christ, grown faint upon the Cross,

A sorrow beyond sorrow in Thy look,

The unutterable craving for my soul;

Thy love of me sufficed

To load upon Thee and make good my loss

In face of darkened heaven and earth that shook: –

In face of earth and heaven, take Thou my whole

Heart, O Lord Jesus Christ.

Oscar Wilde was devotional in many things, but he lived within a broader church of art than one religion or another. In The Guardian a few years ago, Simon Critchley examined Wilde’s relationship with Christ and religion. He wrote:

“For Wilde, Christ is the supreme romantic artist, a poet who makes the inward outward through the power of the imagination. Wilde goes even further and says that Christ makes himself into a work of art through the transfiguration of his suffering in his life and passion. Christ creates himself as a work of art by rendering articulate a voiceless world of pain.”

Wilde, of course, had a quote or two about God, such as: “People fashion their God after their own understanding. They make their God first and worship him afterwards.” And: “I sometimes think that God, in creating men, somewhat overestimated his ability.”

Wilde converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. Wilde wrote Easter Day, in which he compared the grandeur of the Pope with the humility and paupery of the founder of the church. Part of Easter Day reads:

The silver trumpets rang across the Dome:

The people knelt upon the ground with awe:

And borne upon the necks of men I saw,

Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome

My heart stole back across wide wastes of years

To One who wandered by a lonely sea,

And sought in vain for any place of rest:

‘Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest,

I, only I, must wander wearily,

And bruise my feet, and drink wine salt with tears.’

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot was also a convert, from his family’s religion of Unitarianism to Anglicanism. He changed over in 1927, the year his poem The Journey of the Magi was printed. In 1930, Eliot published Ash Wednesday:

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death

Pray for us now and at the hour of our death

….

Lord, I am not worth

Lord, I am not worthy.

let my cry come unto thee.

A decade or so before “Ash Wednesday,” the tide of history carried in its wash potent religious symbolism mixed with a relentless force of a people straining for their freedom. The Easter Uprising of 1916 against British rule fed into the deep well of Irish Catholicism; a nation was to be born again that day through battle. Though the battle was lost, Ireland’s cause received a transfusion of martyrs’ blood when the British executed many of the rebels.

W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats

The struggle of that day has been set in stone by W.B. Yeats in his poem Easter, 1916. Yeats, not one to be affected much by affairs of the day, found himself however transfixed by this struggle of faith and fearlessness.

The last verse is one of the most memorable in Irish literature.

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven’s part, our part

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death;

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in a verse —

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Even far from the historical tempests, the poetry of Easter murmurs through the humdrum. John Updike, hailed as one of America’s greatest 20th-century writers, is remembered for his novels on small-town life. His characters fight against falling into the abyss of everyday existentialism. The desire for salvation is a constant companion in their lives. Updike also wrote poetry. One of his poems deals with the Resurrection. Seven Stanzas at Easter includes this:

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.

At Easter, millions walk, if not through the door, then into churches and cathedrals—the chambers of God—and become part of the poetry of faith. The ritual becomes the tone poem universal. In each recitation, the word is given life. The faithful know it is in their blood.

From The Age, April 4, 2012

 

 

III.

An Artistic Depiction of ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’

Posted at YouTube by CentralPCProductions

 

 

 

IV.

A Musical Interpretation of ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’

By Saint Peter’s Choir, Thomas Schmidt, Gregg Smith: Music for an Urban Church

  

 

V.

‘A Sermon Without Reason’

By Rev. Bruce Bode

 

(excerpt from a longer sermons delivered on ‘Halloween Sunday, October 26, 2014 at Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and posted at www.quuf.org)

 

For years I’ve been carrying around with me a poem from the modern novelist John Updike, the novelist most well-known for his Rabbit series of novels; he died in 2009. And the poem I carry with me has to do with this notion of breaking the hold of the rational mind through believing something that is unbelievable.

I’ve never quite known what to do with this poem, but now I think I’ve found the spot for it. It’s titled, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” and has to do with believing in a literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Is John Updike, this modern, scientific person, really behind this? Does he really believe in a literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus?

Perhaps so, as there are many modern, scientifically-minded people, who compartmentalize religion, who, for whatever reasons, have areas that are, let us say, “unreconstructed” by modern thought. And, perhaps, this is the case with John Updike.

But mainly I see this poem as Updike protesting against religion that thinks that it can explain everything, that is too rational in its orientation, too much of the head and not enough of the heart, soul, and body.

And this would be a charge that Updike would level against liberal religion, which has emphasized the use and value and importance of reason and thought and science in relation to religion.

But here I believe that Updike, who I appreciate in many respects, is taking us down a wrong path, pitting religion against science and modern cosmology. In protesting against what he regards as the dry rationality of liberal religion, he has dismissed science–and that is not good either for science or religion.

My own main mentor in the ministry, Dr. Duncan Littlefair, after a lifetime of reflecting on the relation of science and religion, came up with a two-part formula that goes like this:

“Part I: To the extent that religion dismisses science, it is invalid.

Part II: To the extent that religion depends on science, it is invalid.”

In Updike’s poem, it would seem that he is dismissing science and modern thought. He calls upon us to “walk through the door,” but I think he’s got the wrong door. He seems to want us to walk through the door into scientific absurdity and irrationality.

The Resurrection, Maththias Grünewald, c.1515

The Resurrection, Maththias Grünewald, c.1515

So I want to suggest another option, not the door into scientific absurdity and irrationality, but the door into non-rationality and mystery, the kind of mystery that a scientist like Albert Einstein was seized by and spoke of in words such as these:

“The most beautiful and deepest experience a person can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavors in art and science. Anyone who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.”

In this regard, theologian Paul Tillich speaks of two different kinds of “mystery.”

The first kind is the mystery of a puzzle: something not yet known but which could be known; something not yet solved but which could be solved. It’s the kind of mystery that you get in a “mystery novel.” You read the mystery novel to unravel the mystery. The unsolved puzzle carries you until the end when, finally, the mystery is solved; and once solved, the mystery is dissolved–no more mystery.

But there’s a second kind of mystery that is never solved, and this is the kind of mystery that Einstein is talking about. It’s the mystery of being itself, what the Buddhists call the “suchness” of things.

This is the mystery that of its nature cannot be solved. Indeed, one’s sense of mystery–and one’s awe and wonder in the face of the mystery–only deepens as you learn more about its reality. The more you understand, the less you understand. The deeper you probe, the larger grows your sense of wonder. The keener your mind, the greater your humility.

And this is the mystery that religion is–or ought–to be, first of all, about.

(Read the entire sermon here.)

 

 

VI.

Monstrous Relief: A Sermon for Resurrection Sunday

By Rev. Dr. Charles Eric Funston

 

 

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.

So writes novelist and poet John Updike in the first of his Seven Stanzas at Easter from the collection Telephone Poles and Other Poems. Here is the rest of the poem:

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.

 

“Let us not seek to make it less monstrous!” I love that line!

Only a poet like John Updike could use the word monstrous to describe the Resurrection of Christ and, in spite of its shock value, or perhaps because of it, it is the perfect word, an ambiguous word that captures the essence of the entire Palm Sunday–Maundy Thursday–Good Friday–Resurrection Day event. Monstrous can, and usually does, mean something like “frightful or hideous; extremely ugly; shocking or revolting; awful or horrible,” and those are certainly good words to describe the way the people of Jerusalem turned on Jesus, the way his disciple Judas betrayed him, the way his other followers denied and abandoned him, the way the authorities both Jewish and Roman abused and killed him. It was all monstrous; there’s no doubt about that!

Monstrous, however, can also mean “extraordinarily great; huge; immense; outrageous; overwhelming.” And those are superlative ways to describe the fact of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead! It is a huge thing! It is immense, outrageous, overwhelming! Yes, the Resurrection is monstrous!

rev-funston

The Rev. Dr. Charles Eric Funston, an Anglican Episcopal priest, is the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Medina, OH. The excerpt published here is from a longer sermon, “Monstrous Relief,” published in its entirety at the website That Which We Have Heard & Known. It was preached on Resurrection Sunday, March 31, 2013.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VII.

Updike In His ‘Angst-Besmogged’ Period

 

Norman D. Kretzmann remembers John Updike as a young Harvard graduate who sought out Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Mass., because it “nurtured the roots of faith he had grown up with in Pennsylvania.”

Kretzmann, pastor of Marblehead at the time, proudly recalls that Updike was among the 96 adults who entered the congregation’s Religious Arts Festival in 1960—and that his poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” won $100 for “Best of Show.”

“People in the parishes I served became quite accustomed to my quoting his poem in my Easter sermons at least every few years,” says Kretzmann, who lives in a Minneapolis retirement center and regularly contributes to the Metro Lutheran newspaper.

Kretzmann closely follows Updike’s work, which includes more than 50 novels and books of poems. In a Metro Lutheran review of John Updike and Religion (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000) he wrote: “I was John Updike’s pastor during the time which the writer later described as his ‘angst-besmogged period.’ Who was the rabbi and who was the disciple of our years together is hard to say.”

The pastor still has Updike’s 41-year-old typed copy of “Seven Stanzas”—“marked up with all sorts of irrelevant notes by me, instructions to me for homiletical purposes or for various secretaries,” he said. And Kretzmann has one more fond memory from the festival: Updike gave the $100 prize back to the congregation.

From the Catholic Answers Forum, January 28, 2010

 

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