john-updike191

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.”

Inset:updike2.jpg

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

 

 

Seven Voices on ‘Seven Stanzas’

I.

Easter Wisdom

Do you know the poem by John Updike called “Seven Stanzas at Easter”? In it Updike wrestles with the ideas put forth by various ministers and theologians that the resurrection of Christ may not have been a bodily resurrection, but merely a believed story that is only important because it symbolizes some general nice truths like “You can start over” and “Try freshening things up a bit” and “Don’t give up your hope”. In their sense Easter is sort of a Spring like symbol, but not an actual occurrence.

As a psychotherapist, I’m all for hope and fresh starts and starting over. But if I were going to use Easter as a symbol, I would add a few dimensions that aren’t quite so delicate and soft. Now I certainly cherish soft and delicate things. Who does not delight in flowers, bunny rabbits, and children? But Easter as a symbol can be harder, louder, and more explosive because Easter represents much more powerful wisdom.

Ponder the Easter story and I think you’ll agree…

Easter is massive interruption. It is a new world dawning from out of nowhere. Easter is the idea that you will be helped by a greatness that is far greater than you. Easter is mind-blowing alternative—a powerful onslaught to the way you thought things were going to be. Easter is “this way of being and living is dead and gone”—here is something else, the totally unexpected, the fresh beyond imagination new beginning.

In this sense, Easter is one huge stop sign and one unforeseen giant green light beckoning you to a whole new world.

Easter is an ax.

It is a cataclysm. It is an “Oh my God” phenomena.

Easter is the miracle we need.

Think about your problems. Don’t you need more Easter in you and outside you to demolish those problems? Don’t you need some unexpected reality to come along and move the stone of your deadness and wake you up to new life?

And is this not what happens so often when we do in fact finally and slowly change? Here we are chugging along with our problems and struggles and old habits and foggy ideas when along comes a movie, a line from a song, a sentence in a novel, a word from a friend, a shout from a therapist, a firm directive from a stranger—and suddenly we see the possibility that we no longer have to live this way and right now we can change and, right now, miracle of bigger miracles, we do change and, in a certain way, become unrecognizable.

William James was getting at this when he offered this advice on how to change our life:

Start immediately

Do it flamboyantly

No exceptions

My first therapist of long ago (the blessed Ralph Fogg from New Paltz, New York who retired and moved to North Carolina but who lives in my mind and heart forever) was getting at this when he used to tell me “Robert, progress is the enemy of getting well and you don’t need progress, you need a revolution.”

I offer the Updike poem not as part of a religious debate, rather as a symbolic warning that we be careful how we water down things down and make them manageable and cozy and tidy when in fact what we need is something that will not conform to our comfort—but instead with its realness bring us the revolution we need.

–by Bob Beverly, posted at Bob Beverly’s Find Wisdom Now

 

 

II.

Seven Stanzas at Easter: A Poem for Sunday

I’ve always had something of an ambivalent attitude towards John Updike. I’ve known his work for ages–he grew up in Shillington, PA, just a stone’s throw or so from where I grew up. He was raised a Lutheran, an upbringing that he seemed to struggle with as well as be marked by. I’ve loved his short stories as much as anything I’ve ever read, but sometimes been less than taken by even his celebrated novels. I don’t know why–perhaps they were too “earthy” for this kid. But it’s precisely the “earthiness” of “Seven Stanzas at Easter” that I love about this poem. If you’re going to believe, Updike seems to say, then believe. Stop trying to soften the edges of Christian faith or make it more acceptable. And I think he’s right: “modernize” the resurrection–by making it a metaphor or parable or the disciples’ dream or psychological experience–and you lose something essential not just of the story but of the very promise of God to remake everything as real and tangible and alive as God made it in the first place.

Blessed Easter, one and all! –Posted by DJL, April 8, 2012, at …in the Meantime (www.davidlose.net)

The post image, from the familiar Greek icon Anastasis (Resurrection) is one of my favorite images for Easter because it shows the usually placid Christ actually straining to pull Adam and Eve from the clutches of death and hell. I think it compliments the sensibilities Updike expresses in his poem.

The post image, from the familiar Greek icon Anastasis (Resurrection) is one of my favorite images for Easter because it shows the usually placid Christ actually straining to pull Adam and Eve from the clutches of death and hell. I think it compliments the sensibilities Updike expresses in his poem.

 

 

III.

Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter”: Some Thoughts

I love this poem. I thank Tom Berryman, the music director here at St. Mark’s, for turning me on to it. Here’s what I love about Updike’s poem —

It gives the appropriate importance to the resurrection.

It speaks our language.

When I say that it gives the appropriate importance to the resurrection, I mean that Updike sees this event as the central event in the Christian faith, with out, “the Church will fall.”

This has been my constant refrain against those who attempt to use science to assail Christianity. Most jump to Genesis 1 and 2 and attempt to refute the creation stories with evidence of a 14 billion year old universe. I heartily agree with them and say: “Yes, I too think the universe is that old. Let’s also talk about the 4.5 billion year old Earth!” If the story of Adam and Eve or either of the creation stories in the Hebrew Bible are shown to be ahistorical, the Church will not fail. These stories are interesting, but they aren’t the heart of the faith. The heart of Christianity is found in Christ and more specifically in his resurrection. Consider this: Jesus dies as the vast majority of his disciples have abandoned him. The resurrection is that event which brings them back together, galvanizes them, and reinvigorates them for the life of persecution that they will lead in the wake of the scandal.

For the Christian, the resurrection is the ballgame; it’s everything.

Second, I love that the poem speaks our language. It mixes in the language of quantum physics, biology, and medicine. Updike doesn’t ask us to shy away from the scientific implications of the resurrection; instead, he asks us to consider them part of the miracle. The resurrection is real, down to the amino acids involved and the existence of the angel in our dimension.

This is good stuff. Thank you, Mr. Updike. May you rest in peace!

By sbhebert, published at The Hebert (undated entry)

 

Christ Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection, painting by Alexnder Ivanov (1805-1858), oil on canvas, 1835

Christ Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection, painting by Alexnder Ivanov (1805-1858), oil on canvas, 1835

 

 

 

IV.

‘My Flesh Also Shall Rest in Hope’

I don’t know much about John Updike’s personal faith, but these lines powerfully express the scandalous particularity of Christ’s Resurrection.

Eastertide (in which we still find ourselves, and will for another several weeks) is not about springtime and new life and the annual cycle of rebirth. It is not about a generalized spiritual hope. It is certainly not about the afterlife.

Rather, from the Easter Vigil through the Great Fifty Days—and on every Sunday of the year—the Church has the audacity to announce that the man Jesus Christ, who was crucified, died and was buried, on the third day was raised from the dead. It happened at Jerusalem, in Judea, while Pontius Pilate was governor and Herod the puppet King of the Jews, and in Rome Tiberius claimed the mantle of divine emperor.

And what Updike gets (and a fair number of preachers seem to miss) is that the particularity of it all is actually what gives the Resurrection of Christ its universal significance. Because the One Man has conquered death, all humankind has been set free from the fear of the grave. Because Christ was raised in his own body—though transformed and glorified—“my flesh also shall rest in hope.” Because Jesus has become the first fruits of them that slept, so too must my corruptible body “put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”

All of this (and much more!) is contained in the announcement that “The Lord is Risen indeed!” Here John Updike explicates it with poetic power (and an economy greater than this poor preacher’s)

–by The Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Canon for Christian Formation at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina; published at That Blessed Dependancy

 

 

 

 

The Resurrection of Christ, Tintoretto (1518-94), oil on canvas, 1579-81. This composition centers on the arisen Christ. He is the invincible testimony of faith haloed by the divine dazzling light that blazes from the open tomb. The four angels with large beating wings who have just removed the heavy marble slab from the tomb, are sort of inlaid into the supernatural light. At the same time two devout women come forward talking from the left deprived of natural light.

The Resurrection of Christ, Tintoretto (1518-94), oil on canvas, 1579-81. This composition centers on the arisen Christ. He is the invincible testimony of faith haloed by the divine dazzling light that blazes from the open tomb. The four angels with large beating wings who have just removed the heavy marble slab from the tomb, are sort of inlaid into the supernatural light. At the same time two devout women come forward talking from the left deprived of natural light.

 

 

 

V.

A Few Minutes with Updike’s ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’

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. ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter,’ 1960

 

While reading Kent Annan‘s After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World Is Shaken (InterVarsity Press. 2011), I came across selections from John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” On Easter, as he wrestles with faith in the face of “scientific modernity’s assault on faith in the resurrection,” Kent appreciates reading Seven Stanzas at Easter:

I can identify with these doubts, but he [Updike] asserts they shouldn’t embarrass us into unbelief. The stanzas of the poem articulate the kind of faith I need in response to Haiti, where so many died (by comparison, a similar-intensity earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994 killed only seventy-two people) largely because they had been left behind by poverty by the modern world.

I nod Amen with him, as the physical specificity of faith (of the Savior) must respond to the physical, concrete rubble that I drive by in Haiti, as well as the physically decomposed bodies I see even months later being uncovered and put into plastic bags that are thrown into the back of dump trucks:

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-mâché ,

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.

 

Walking “through the door” makes sense as a description of faith, more so to me than the famous definition in Hebrews 11: “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

–By Tom Grosh IV, published April 21, 2011 at Emerging Scholars Blog

 

 

 

VI.

Let Us Not Mock God with Metaphor: John Updike on the Resurrection

The Pulitzer Prize winning writer John Updike is not one who readily comes to mind as someone who held the historic Christian faith. But he did in the sense that confessed the Apostles’ Creed taking the words to mean what they say. He once said, “I call myself a Christian by defining ‘a Christian’ as ‘a person willing to profess the Apostles’ Creed.’”

I have read a little but not much Updike. What I remember from what I have read is the feeling that he “got it” when it came to understanding the human condition and predicament.

He was brought up as a Lutheran and died as an Episcopalian. I am not here trying to judge whether or not the man was “a true Christian ” as some would put it. That is not our judgment to make. Our Confession calls “true Christians” the elect who make up the invisible church which is known to God alone.

Nor is it our role as individuals to judge his profession of faith. That is a judgment for the visible church to make. Updike was a Christian in the sense that he was a part of the visible church and professed the Christian faith as stated in the Apostles’ Creed.

His Poem Seven Stanzas at Easter, demonstrates how literally he took the Creed by asserting that the resurrection is either a real, bodily resurrection, or there is no Christian faith or Christian Church.

–By William Smith, published April 9, 2012 at The Aquila Report

 

 

VII.

Seven Stanzas at Easter: Artistic and Musical Interpretations

Posted at YouTube by CentralPCProductions, September 29, 2009

‘Seven Stanzas at Easter,’ John Updike’s poem set to music by Gregg Smith, performed by Saint Peter’s Choir and Thomas Schmidt, from the album Music for an Urban Church (Albany Records, 2014. Posted at YouTube by Saint Peter’s Choir.

 

 

john-updike-quotes-1