I teach the kids class at the Church of Christ my husband and I attend, and last Sunday, we covered the crucifixion. The kids, who are 4 and 5, have been really fascinated all through Lent with Jesus’ death, and perhaps unsurprisingly, most of our kid-level picture Bibles do not provide the sort of details about Jesus’ passion and death to satisfy their curiosity. In fact, the two Bibles we ordinarily use for our class stories do not show Jesus on the cross at all, only a distant shadowy image of three empty crosses under the heading “A Sad Day.” But last weekend, I found a Bible with the passion spelled out in 80’s-style detail and went to town. Eagerly, the kids (who are Church of Christ and never see a crucifix at church) poured over the images of Jesus getting crowned with thorns, agonizing as he carries his burden to Calvary, and of course, suffering through those final moments on the cross as I told the kids-version account of the passion and death of Jesus.
“But,” I said at the end of class, turning the page, “Jesus’ story doesn’t end there. Next weekend is Easter when we celebrate that Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus comes back to life!”
Glancing briefly at the picture of the empty tomb, one of the children asked, “So where is he?”
“Well, he’s the one here, in white,” I said, pointing to one of the frames. “You can see the place where they put the nails but they can’t hurt Jesus any more. Jesus can never die again!”
“No,” she said, “Where is he now? I want to see him.”
Flipping to the ascension story, “Well, he’s in heaven,” I try to quickly explain.
“What does he look like now?” she went on. “Where is heaven? What does he do all day there? When is he coming back?”
“We don’t know,” I finally told her. “We just have to hope that we will see Jesus soon and find out the answer to all these questions we have about him.”
We just have to hope. I was thinking of this exchange as I read the resurrection text from John’s gospel (John 20: 1-10). We are preparing to celebrate Easter Sunday, where we will sing Alleluias for the first time after a long Lenten season as we read the story of the empty tomb which we know means that Jesus has been raised. But from our vantage point, we can celebrate Easter only partially. We are celebrating what we do not fully see or experience. We stand in the in-between time, with Jesus already having been raised but not yet appearing in our life in glory. Our life, as Paul says in Col. 3:3, is “hidden with Christ in God.” And so, for us pilgrims, we stand with Peter and the other disciple at the empty tomb, both seeing and needing still to believe, both understanding but still standing in wonder at that which surpasses all understanding, full of hope but still in the midst of fear.
The Christian life in general is a life lived in Easter hope. Hope is one of the three theological virtues which has its object a future good, difficult but possible to obtain. Theologically speaking, the object of hope is eternal life, which is possible to obtain only with the help of God: “Wherefore, in so far as we hope for anything as being possible to us by means of the Divine assistance, our hope attains God Himself, on Whose help it leans” (Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II, Q. 17, a. 1).
Christian hope longs for the fulfillment of what we only see in part today as we peer into the empty tomb, for in this life, hope always enters “within the veil” (Hebrews 6:19). The resurrection has not changed the fact that this life is still filled with doubt, failure, suffering, and death. Resurrection hope stands in a middle ground between naïve optimism that would deny the reality of suffering, and fearful escapism that would withdraw from the world. Resurrection hope is a hope which works to bring about a better future, but works in humility knowing that what the future holds, “no eye has seen nor ear has heard” (1 Cor. 2:9). Resurrection hope is not without fear, but it is not paralyzed by fear. Resurrection hope knows both how to work and how to wait.
Perhaps a good analogy for talking about resurrection hope is what we are seeing play out right now in the Middle East. Throughout Lent, we have watched countries in the Middle East rise up against the ruling powers in an “Arab springtime” that has sent ripples all over the world. The beginnings of this Arab Spring were fueled by a spirit of idealism and youthful optimism. As the despots of Egypt and Tunisia came toppling down, it really did seem like the Arab youth driving the revolution could accomplish anything. But then Qaddafi opened fire, and the Bahraini government enlisted Saudi forces to squelch the revolution, and we entered into a multi-lateral armed conflict with Libya. The spirit of idealism has been replaced with a sober resoluteness. A better future for the Arab world will not come without pain, bloodshed, and time. Optimism can no longer be its food. What is needed now is hope.
In their new introduction to moral theology, Pat Lamoureux and Paul Wadell quote a poem by an Asian poet which expresses well what Christian hope is all about:
We never finish our work
Here on earth, however good
Everything seems in our lives.
As long as people oppress one another,
Prophets are shouted down,
Statesmen are ignored and pushed aside,
We will calmly do our work.
We will run to get warm,
Sit in the shade to cool down,
And eventually things will get better,
We hope for the best.
And so today, let us joyfully sing “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” But let us also spend this Easter Sunday gaining new energy for the work that lies ahead. Today, we get a glimpse of the future, and that future is good, but it is a long way off. Let us commit ourselves then to not be undone by suffering, failure, and death as we pick ourselves up to continue the task that Jesus has left us. Above all, let us have hope. There is so much work left to do, but today we see that there is so much our God has already done. Alleluia.