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April 5, 2020
 

Updike at Easter, 2020–The Pandemic Edition

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 ‘Seven Voices on Seven Stanzas,’ being a septet of 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 view but rather insight 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. This year’s edition is a selection of our favorites from all the ‘Seven Voices’ features we’ve published, in hopes that in the time of the pandemic, perhaps people of all faiths can find something encouraging, enlightening and even comforting in the poem’s brilliance and the insightful commentary it has engendered.

 

 

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.

***

Seven Voices on ‘Seven Stanzas’

I

 

‘What Door Now Stands Open?’

excerpt from EASTER DAY SERMON 2004

by the Bishop of Meath and Kildare,

the Most Revd Dr. Richard Clarke

at St. Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare, Easter Day, 11 April 2004

(From Updike at Easter, 20i12, TheBluegassSpecial.com)

Revelation 3.8 “I have set before you an open door which no one can shut

The Gospels are of course certainly talking about the Resurrection as a real event, an event in human history. There is, as we know, a condescending and superior approach to the whole matter which suggests that the Gospel writers were speaking of a symbolic resurrection, that Jesus remained very much dead, and that what we call Easter was merely a realization on the part of the disciples that this man Jesus Christ was possibly on the right lines after all. His resurrection was in their heads and in their imagination, but nowhere else. This is, it seems to me, staggeringly patronizing–patronizing about the Gospel writers who would have known perfectly well how to make it clear if they were writing metaphor, patronizing about generation upon generation of great Christian thinkers and writers who were in fact not gullible idiots, patronizing about us who don’t like to think of ourselves either as fools or as fantasists. It’s actually patronizing about God as well. As the American writer and poet John Updike puts it so neatly, in one of his Seven Stanzas at Easter,

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 question accordingly becomes a matter, not only of the objective reality of Resurrection, but also of the impact on the lives of disciples. disciples of the twenty-first century as of the first century–of how disciples walk through this door of which both the writer of the Book of Revelation and John Updike speak to us. The question becomes, “What effect does the resurrection of Jesus Christ have on our lives?” “What door now stands open?”

*The Resurrection means first that, as individuals, we must look at Christ in a different way. Mary Magdalene, who had loved and admired him before, now finds herself utterly transformed by him. She becomes different, because everything falls into place. All that he had said and had done were no longer the words and actions of a good man, even the best man there had ever been, it had all been given an eternal reality for her which could not be contradicted or ever destroyed. No matter how often we are told that it will not do to patronize Christ, and to treat him as an amiable carpenter with a good line in stories (who would however not have survived for very long in any real grown-up world), we still do it. The resurrection is the playing of the trump card which tells us that if we not treat him with the utmost seriousness and with total reverence, it is we who are the buffoons.

*It means also that we cannot look at others in the same way. Most of the resurrection stories are stories of Christ’s friends meeting together–in a room, in a boat, on a beach, walking to a village. The Easter event is about sharing faith, being part of a community which celebrates the presence of Jesus Christ. We are pushed again and again in the Easter stories to realize that Christ is real and present with us in the Eucharist, the meal of the Church, as he shares food in a village room, as he asks for food on a shore, as he eats with his disciples in a room in Jerusalem. The risen Christ joins with his followers as they meet together. This is why it is so immensely foolish to imagine that we are somehow doing God a favor when we turn up in church for a service. Worship should never be seen as anything other than an immense privilege to be treated with the greatest humility and reverence, as the God who created us, who keeps us in being and who has smashed through the dreadfulness of death ahead of us, is ready to join us as companion and friend. Christian worship, Christian community and Christian fellowship become Easter gifts to be prized and revered, and for which we should be ever and profoundly thankful to God.

*It means that we can face ourselves in a new way. What are we as individuals without the resurrection? A moderately sophisticated organism which, simply because it has a thing called a “mind,” gets ideas far above its station, but which nevertheless ceases to exist after a few brief spins of a grubby little planet around the nearest, rather insignificant star. It is God in Christ, God in the risen Christ, who gives us a real dignity and a true purpose. This is not the bogus dignity we so readily give ourselves. This is the dignity of being a child of God, given a function and given a purpose to bring others into loving fellowship with him. I have no doubts that the value of our earthly life will be measured in the context of eternity, neither by how much we accumulated for ourselves, nor by how much others feared us or envied us, but by how much more Christian this world became, because we lived in it. And this conviction, if you think about it, only makes any sense in the light of Easter.

Easter is of course far, far more than a good reason for being a Christian. This is why we must never trivialize it, or reduce it to a happy ending or a pious parable. It is an open door to faith, to hope, to love, and thus to the fullness of eternal life.

“I have set before you an open door which no one can shut.”

Last year the Most Revd Richard Clarke, who had served as the Archbishop of Armagh and Prime of All Ireland since December 2012, announced his forthcoming retirement. In doing so he was keeping a promise made to his family and to himself that he would not stay in the post for more than seven years. He stepped down on 2 February 2020. Archbishop Clarke was born in 194 and grew up in Dublin. He was educated at Wesley College in his home city before studying for a degree in history and political science at Dublin’s Trinity College. He then taught English for a year in Iran with the Church Missionary Society before returning to complete further studies in history and theology at Trinity and King’s College London. In 1996 he was consecrated as bishop of Meath and Kildare—the position he held when he delivered the above sermon in 2004—and in 2012 succeeded Alan Harper in the Church of Ireland’s top job.

II

 

‘Uncompromisingly Biblical’

By Tom Grosh IV

When considering the correspondence theory of truth in (Christian Worldview Integration Series. InterVarsity Press. 2011), David Lyle Jeffrey and Gregory Mallet refer to John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter” (1960). *Enjoy this excerpt from a “bold, wonderfully learned manifesto … [which] breathes a prophetic passion — bracing, salutary and sometimes uncomfortable — that transcends mere academic discussion and leaves the reader interrogated as well as taught.” (Dennis Danielson, Professor of English, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Milton)

Historically, the predominant way of looking at truth is the one that occurs first to common sense. According to the correspondence theory of truth, a verbal claim is true only if it corresponds to pertinent fact or external reality.20 If there is no correspondence (e.g., if I claim that the sky is falling and some of my students run outside to check and confirm, sensibly, this it is not), the claim is evidently false at the literal level. On this view, if a speaker or writer claims that the earth is flat or that it will come to a catastrophic end in Y2K (A.D. 200) or that drinking a certain beverage will make us irresistible to the opposite sex, there are ways to investigate the veracity of each claim.

Even when we account for variance in the way people see things, this theory tends to apply to most situations quite serviceably. In each case of this sort, actuality (or as we might say, reality) takes precedence and is indispensable to the claims made regarding it, as well as the plausibility of inferences that may be drawn or actions recommended in consequence. In a famous example from the New Testament, St. Paul insists that if Christ did not literally rise from the dead, then all discussions of the event and our faith in it are meaningless and a waste of time (1 Cor 15:12-20). The poetic commentary of John Updike in his “Seven Stanzas at Easter” (1960) is thus historically and logically on the mark when he says

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.

Updike is in this poem uncompromisingly biblical in his insistence on a correspondence theory of truth; no soft metaphorizing of the resurrection, given the explicit factual claims of Scripture and the church, can be other than a lie –especially if created, as Updike says, “for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty.” Updike was in this poem reacting to common liberal theological platitudes and, in the fashion recommended by Paul to Titus, giving such revisionary constructions a stiff rebuke. To turn the essential truth given in historical event into an evasive and naturalistic trope is here to pervert the proper business even of poetry, especially for the poet who wants to think like a Christian.

(Reprinted from Deep Roots, March 2013)

About Tom Grosh IV: Tom Grosh serves as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). He brings 20 years of campus ministry experience with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, including a decade of service in Pittsburgh (1996 – 2006), and passion for “connecting.” In addition to his labors with ESN, Tom staffs the Christian Medical Society(CMS)/CMDA at the Penn State College of Medicine. Tom and his family live in Lancaster County, PA. Click here to read God’s Grace in Higher Education–an interview by Amy Hauptman for InterVarsity’s website (8/3/2012).

 

III

Resurrection Christ, Peter Paul Rubens (1611-1612)

On Easter and Updike

by David E. Anderson

(excerpt from the longer essay, “On Easter and Updike,” published April 7, 2009, at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly)

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.

The crucial word in the center of the first line—if—states what might be called “the Easter problem” starkly, 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 April 2009].

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?”

IV

An Easter Reflection

By Anna Blanch

‘…my heart and soul wanted to avoid contemplating the depths of Christ’s suffering. It just seems too hard and too much right now. I’m not ready. I feel overwhelmed by life.’

 

I’m tired. Actually, I’m exhausted: physically, emotionally, mentally. I’m even a little tired spiritually. It has been a rough few months. I’m still grieving the loss of my grandmother. I’m definitely in the hard yards phase of the second year of my doctoral thesis writing experience. My body is responding badly to the inherent stresses of life. And it was a long, cold, and dark winter in Scotland. Easter has been a distant light casting off a hopeful glow at least since the beginning of Lent. The joy of the Springtime flowers, the glimpses of warming sunlight, and the words of Madeline L’Engle, Katherine Norris, Wendell Berry, and the Psalms have been a balm to a battle-torn soul.

I’ve been looking forward to the triumphant joy of Easter Sunday–the sharing of a wonderful meal in the company of friends and fellowship as we hail the coming of the King. As I contemplated the form of this Easter reflection, I realized that my heart and soul wanted to avoid contemplating the depths of Christ’s suffering. It just seems too hard and too much right now. I’m not ready. I feel overwhelmed by life. The Passion seemed, (I admit, still seems) too brutal and difficult for me to meditate upon. It seemed somehow easier, though only heaven knows why, to think upon the marvelous mystery and miracle of the Resurrection–to declare the reign of a King whom I worship as Lord and Savior–than to set my eyes upon the events that lead up to Easter Sunday. Though finding a positive uplifting message is often what we’re encouraged to do in times of struggle and weariness, is that what Easter is really about?

I’d like to suggest that it’s not, at least not totally. I want to reflect briefly on two verses from John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter” which have provided a sobering foil to my self-absorption.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping transcendence;

making of the event a parable, a thing painted in the faded credulity

of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

 

Let us not make it less monstrous,

for in our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour,

we are embarrassed by the miracle,

and crushed by remonstrance.

It may be easy on one’s battle weary heart, and it may satisfy us to think only of the happy, sweet, pretty picture. But I wonder whether in limiting ourselves to the PG version how much we miss the wonder and power and mystery of the Passion. I wonder whether we are like those Jews who thought the Messiah would come as the conquering King, all powerful to usher in a new Kingdom. Of course, he did that, but not in the expected way. Does it spontaneously solve all that ails me in realizing this? No, but my perspective has been realigned, whether I like it or not. The King is coming, the least I can do is have an open heart.

Posted on March 4, 2011 at Transpositions. Reprinted in Deep Roots, March 2013

About the Author: Anna Blanch: Australian-born writer, arts critic, and photographer Anna Blanch cares about thoughtful engagement with arts and culture. In addition to her own website, Goannatree; being one of the founding contributors of Transpositions–a collaborative project on Theology, Imagination, and the Arts–and a columnist for The BIGBible Project’s #Digidisciple project, she has had scholarly and freelance articles published in a wide range of publications.

 

V

‘Christians Believe Something Amazing Happened Today’

By Hap Mansfield

 

It’s Easter and Christians believe that something amazing happened today: a man rose from the dead. If we don’t believe that Jesus was a man, it’s no big trick to rise from the dead. One supposes that God can do anything if he/she is a God worth the worship so rising from the dead is pretty much just a parlor trick. The fact that Jesus was a flesh and blood man that rose from the dead is astounding. It’s supposed to be. Glossing over it does God a great disservice.

I would never presume to proselytize for Christianity. I am unqualified to do so since my personal beliefs are a vertiginous mix of Hindu-Buddhist-Christian-Pagan. But, Updike is saying something wildly important about Christianity and the church that often gets smoothed down and varnished. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is what sets Christianity apart: their God is alive. Jesus lives.

Updike is forcing us to look at this resurrection as a real event and describes it as such. There is no blond Northern European in this tale. You wanna know what they looked like? They probably looked a great deal like the people we are fighting in the Middle East. Updike’s angel is clad in real linen spun on a loom, the principles of physics hold tight, Jesus has real flesh. The miracle is not merely a metaphor but a real event at a stinky tomb on hot day in the desert.

Detail from a mid-13th century psalter showing Mary Magdelen’s encounter with the risen Jesus. Photo courtesy British Library MS Royal 2B iii.

Whatever you or I feel about religion, think on this: the violence, distrust, iron rules, male-domination, rape and sexism of the so-called “Old Testament” is dead the day that Jesus rises from the dead. It’s gone and replaced by a new covenant. Jesus says that the two most important things one can do in life are to love God and to love one’s neighbor. Respect all people, care for them, and love God. Christianity is not an exclusive club–anyone can join.

And anybody who says any different has not read their Bible. Christians who dwell on the “Old Testament” are both bad Christians and bad Jews–they are cherry-picking the Bible to support vindictiveness, prejudice and war. By the by, there is a term circulating in the media that is an oxymoron: “Old Testament Christian.” It would be funny if it weren’t so blatantly ignorant. One must try to forgive these people for their silliness; they are obviously scared of love and peace for some reason.

So on this Easter day, it’s good to celebrate the life of the new church, the church Jesus hoped would be one of forgiveness, tolerance and love for all people. Doesn’t it strike you with awe and reverence that we are all evolved from the same initial life on earth? That we are all cut from the same cloth?

How many ways do we have to hear this story until we believe it?

From Hyacinths and Biscuits: Number 317, April 8, 2012

 

VI

‘A Psychology of Awakening’

 by Hedda Ben-Bassat

(The following is a brief excerpt from Hedda Ben-Bassat’s book Prophets Without Vision: Subjectivity and the Sacred in Contemporary American Writing [Associated University Presses, 2000] “about crises of ideology and identity in the fiction of five contemporary American writers—John Updike, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, James Baldwin and Alice Walker. In the following passages Ms. Ben-Bassat compares and contrasts Updikes “intertextual allusions” to Swiss theologian Karl Barth’s Theology of Crisis, specifically in Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.”)

No wonder that Updike chose Barth as the challenging double to the Emersonian model of prophetic selfhood. Just to illustrate the intriguing intertextual relation between Updike’s dark Barthian double and his surface American unconcern, it is worth comparing the metaphor Updike uses to diminish the titan, with the very metaphor Barth uses in similar context. “We are in some deep way scared by how unthinkably small our place in the universe is,” Updike claims. “We’re almost creatures of gossamer, aren’t we?” (Conversations, 204). Barth, likewise, highlights man’s earthly existence in a “sick old world,” in which “the whole network of life is hung upon thread like gossamer” (The Word of God, 188).

Moving from imagery to ideology increases our appreciation of Updike’s apocalyptic moments. For Updike as for Barth, apocalypse does not correspond with the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. Rather, it coincides with Christ’s ritual resurrection every Easter, and with the psychological moment of awakening, marking for the individual believer the moment of identification with Christ. This Barthian standpoint is expressed by Updike in his poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” The poem translates, in Barthian fashion, the theology of resurrection into a psychology of awakening. The scandalous fact of Christ’s death and resurrection is seen as man’s passage or conversion from the old (oblivious) to the new (awakened) self:

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,

for our own convenience…

lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour,

we are…

crushed by remonstrance

The two states of sleep and awakening are encouraged by two opposite prophetic figures in Updike, as in Barth. The theologian distinguishes in contemporary existence between two prophet figures. The false prophet, who is “easy-going, someone you can live with as you are,” serves the old and sinful man, who resists being awakened to judgment. The true prophet, by contrast, is “a man who most uncomfortably questions everything…about whom you are never sure, like a meteor of unknown whence and wither.” He guides the individual in the choice between the uncaring life of the old man, and the anxiety of the crisis leading to the new man in God: “You cannot demand that I should tell you about God and also accept things as they are. This is impossible. You must choose one of the two: one, not both. Decide!”

(Reprinted from Deep Roots, April 2014)

The Resurrection of Christ, oil on canvas, by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1581

 

VII

‘Seven Stanzas at Easter,’ the only recorded version of Updike’s poem set to music. From the album Music for an Urban Church by Gregg Smith with the Saint Peter’s Choir and Thomas Schmidt