“But…”

A post-Easter Day personal reflection, based on Luke 24.1-12, on the meaning of Easter on the Wednesday in Easter Week, April 24, 2019

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On Friday, Jesus was crucified. Two days later, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women went to the tomb to anoint his dead and buried body.

I’ve oft wondered, other than to fulfill Jewish custom (of course, an important and valid reason), what sense did it make, what good would it do for Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women to anoint Jesus’ already dead and buried body? “But”, Luke tells us, “on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb.”
Holy Women at the Tomb of Christ, Annibale Carracci, late 16th century

They expected to find his body. Instead, they find no body, but rather two angels, who, standing beside them, terrified them, scared the heaven out of them, but also shared good news: “Jesus is risen!”

Over many years, I’ve asked countless people: “What do you think of Easter?” The responses, though varied, fall into five groups…

For some, Easter proclaims that Jesus, who died because our sins, was raised bodily from the grave, thereby fulfilling our hope of freedom from sin and life after death…

For some, Easter proclaims that Jesus and his mission and ministry continue to live resurrected, alive and embodied, in the hearts and minds of his followers, Christians and the Church…

For some, Easter proclaims a fiction. Jesus never lived or, even if he had lived, he died and remained dead. The tale of his resurrection was proclaimed by his disciples to verify their claims of the primacy of their gospel…

For some, Easter proclaims something else. For the only thing about which one can be sure is that the revelation of what Easter means is ongoing…

For some, Easter proclaims nothing else. For there is little certainty of what to make of it.

Today, for me, Easter proclaims what can happen when, in the face of my helplessness and hopelessness about external circumstances beyond my power to alleviate, much less eliminate (war, terrorism, global poverty, systemic injustice, racial animus) and internal conditions beyond my ability to amend (the chasm between the good I want to do and the less than good I often do), I, like the women, remain faithful. For when I do what I can despite the apparent, logical futility of it all and despite my certainty about the immutable way things are, then I can hear the good news summed up in that one word: “But…

Easter tells me that my choices matter. I may not, perhaps cannot change my circumstances, but how I respond is within my power to choose.

Most of my life, I’ve been a pessimist. I learned the lesson at my mother’s knee: Always expect the worst, for if it happens, I’ll be prepared to cope with it. Through my life and experience, I’ve learned that the worst usually doesn’t happen and, having prepared for it, I’m usually too psychically exhausted to enjoy the blessing of the best when that happens or even the less than the worst, which usually happens.
James Henry Roberts (6-3-1876-4-13-1935)

My grandfather, my mother’s father, James Henry Roberts,(1) had a different perspective than his daughter. He was a teacher, a school principal, and, later, an attorney, in Oklahoma, and then in St. Louis. He never made a good living, in great part, because he was a proud and educated African American man in an American culture that neither received nor welcomed him.

Recently, as I leafed through some family archives, I came afresh on words he wrote. Words of a grandfather I never knew, for he died nearly 17 years before I was born. Words, because I never knew him in the flesh, like the words of Jesus, come to me through the mists of history on pages of written text. Words that, like Easter, give me a new vision:

The story of my life is one fraught with difficulties, disappointments, and discouragements. It would not be very pleasant to relate were it not that I have always had more or less faith in the advantages of disadvantages. Meager circumstances have as much power as weight for him who is struggling up life’s hill.

My grandfather, I believe, knew the power of the word “but,” the power of Easter, the power of continued faithfulness in the face of life’s sometimes seeming and sometimes very real futility. Reading and reflecting on his words, I have a glimpse of it, too.

 
Footnote:
(1) James Henry Roberts (June 3, 1876-April 13, 1935)

Illustration: Holy Women at the Tomb of Christ, Annibale Carracci (late 16th century)

2 thoughts on ““But…”

  1. Paul,

    Hold on to that hope and faith!! The word BUT is sooooo powerful and I loved that you included both answers to your question on how others relate to the Easter story AND the powerful words of your grandfather. Wow!!

    I can see so much of you in your grandfather’s photo. What a strong man he was… he may not have been recognized for all of his amazing accomplishments BUT he laid a path for the rest of us coming behind him, so that an educated African-American wasn’t such an unusual thing. I’m truly sorry that you didn’t get to meet him. He may have been able to eliminate some of the pessimism you had in your life given that he was such an undeterred individual!!

    I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read this today and there are no BUTS to that!

    Much love!

    Like

  2. Loretta, as you’ve oft wished (and do wish) to have known your father, so, too, I have yearned to have known my grandfather. He was a remarkable man. And, as remarkably, when he died in 1935, my grandmother Audia, the only one of the four grandparents I knew, never remarried. She died in 1979 at the age of 89, having lived 44 years as a widow. Yep, Granddaddy James must have been quite something!

    I treasure these words of his. Clearly, he was, as you say, “undeterred.” In this, I wonder what it was my mother observed and learned so to have quite a different orientation about life, so to expect the worst. Perhaps she watched her father’s struggles and came to believe that life presents more trial and tribulation than success and satisfaction. In this observation, I am thrown back on my words of reflection. I may not, perhaps, cannot change my circumstances, but how I respond I do have power to choose. Amen to that.

    Love

    Like

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