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Invincible Joy

April 20, 2018

EASTER SUNDAY 2018 | Is 25:6-9; Mk 16:1-8

 

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books of all time was Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Now, first of all, I was hooked on Bradbury. I never started a Bradbury book that I didn’t finish the same day. He was utterly addicting to me. There is, in all of his writing, a cake-thick nostalgia intertwined with both loss and joy. It was an intoxicating brew that no other author I have ever encountered can confect. It still is.

 

In Something Wicked…, Bradbury introduces us to two thirteen-year-old boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. Will is Apollo to Jim’s Dionysius. Will follows the rules, he’s the good kid. Jim isn’t a bad kid, exactly, but he’s…let us say impulsive and curious is ways that get us into trouble.

 

Their adventure begins when a carnival comes to town, Cooger and Dark’s Pandamonium Shadow Show. Will’s father Charles has a bad feeling about them, and he’s right. The carnival comes once every generation to steal the souls of everyone in the town…or try to, anyway.

 

Every character is beset by some kind of temptation—and all of them revolve around wanting to be something we’re not. Jim is desperate to shed the skin of youth, to become older than he is. While Charles is filled with regret that he is too old to be a proper father to Will. Jim and Will’s teacher, Mrs. Foley also desires to be young again, and she is turned young, but the transformation comes at a high price, as she loses her sight in the bargain.

 

In the end, Charles realizes that Cooger and Dark cannot be thwarted or defeated by force or reason, or even playing at their own game. The October people can only be mastered by something they do not understand—joy.

 

Despite the danger, despite a broken hand, despite his failures as a man and as a father, Charles rescues his son by laughing in the face of danger. And then together they rescue Jim the same way. When Mr. Dark confronts them, Charles defeats him only by hugging him, by showing him true affection. And when they find Jim’s body in a coma, they resurrect him by singing and dancing around him until the power of evil and death is broken and he is restored.

 

There is a wild, bohemian, trickster quality to this novel that is not unlike Easter—especially an Easter that falls on April Fool’s Day. What better day for foolishness, for laughter, for tricking death and destruction out of its prey? This is a day for jokes and Easter is a day for cosmic jokes—jokes that upset the order of creation, jokes that knock tyranny and evil back on its ass, jokes that hit the reset button on humanity.

 

We’ve just come through a very dark time indeed. Holy week is a dark and brooding time, with plenty of ominous notes, heavy with foreboding, all of which comes to a head on Good Friday, when we watch Jesus confront his enemy and fall beneath his hand—seized by the Romans, and nailed to the cross along with many other common criminals, his cross being added to the hundreds already lining to road into Jerusalem.

 

As we’ve seen in our Good Friday explorations, there is so much in that story, so much to that day—desperation and pain and rage and abandonment and futility—it is something that catches at the heart of anyone who has ever known the pain of being human, of suffering an injustice, of facing the death of a loved one, or even confronting one’s own mortality. It is rich and dark and difficult.

 

Which is why I find an image in one of the gnostic gospels so striking. In the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter we read, “He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and me.”

 

The text might be saying that it was a lookalike that was actually crucified, but more likely was denying the reality of the body that they crucified. But the theological mechanics of it are far less interesting, I think, than the image itself of Jesus, nailed to this cross, laughing his fool head off.

 

Sure, the Jesus of this gospel might be laughing at those who thought they could hurt him, but he’s probably also laughing at the situation itself. It might be a mean-spirited laugh, but on the other hand, it might be saying something similar to what Bradbury was getting at. We can only defeat darkness and evil by meeting it with something it does not comprehend—compassion and love and joy.

 

 

There is an orthodox version of this in the icon of the resurrection. I love this icon, but it certainly requires some unpacking. In it, we see Jesus, in hell, trampling the bones of death under his feet. Also under his feet are the gates of hell, which he had knocked off their hinges, setting free everyone who has ever been held captive there. He is surrounded on all sides by people we know from the Old Testament—David and Abraham and a host of others giving thanks in the background.

 

But the two most important figures are front and center. Because here is Jesus, pulling Adam and Eve out of their coffins, taking each of them by the hand. It’s hard to see in detail here, but Eve is smiling, and in some renderings of this icon her mouth is open in…what? It could be song, it could be surprise, it could be praise, but I choose to think of it as laughter.

 

This icon is so rich, because it tells us so much. First, it tells us that death is no longer a threat. Death itself has been taken captive, and is dying. In some versions of this icon, Jesus is dancing on death’s corpse. It shows us that death’s power is illusory and temporary— Jesus is crushing death’s head, Jesus is rising free from death’s clutches, and is opening a way to life for anyone who wishes to follow.

 

The icon tells us that if there are any doors in hell, they are only locked from the inside. Anyone is free to go there, but no one is compelled to stay. The power of death and hell to hold us captive has been smashed. There is no place on earth or any other realm, no matter how ghastly, that is so far or so deep or so forsaken that Jesus cannot find us there—that Jesus will not abandon all else to hunt us down and set us free and bring us home. You want a promise? That’s a promise.

 

The icon tells us that the resurrection is not a singular event, it isn’t just something that happened to Jesus, because if it was, you know what? Good for Jesus, but who cares? No, the resurrection is a communal event. Jesus has ahold of Adam and Eve, and by symbolic extension, every one of their descendants, and he is pulling them up out of their graves with him. His resurrection is not a gift for him alone, it is the undoing of death and evil and despair for all peoples everywhere, for the whole of the created order.

 

That’s why I love Maya Angelou’s poem so much. While it’s a shout of defiance and victory—especially for women and for African Americans—it expresses something foundational to the human condition, too. If anyone is in bondage, everyone is in bondage, or as Dr. King put it, “None of u

 

s are free until all of us are free.” Jesus’ resurrection isn’t for him alone, he’s briging everyone up WITH HIM.

 

That is reason for joy, Eve, so let it out. Evil has been trampled down, Maya, so bring on that swagger! Death itself has died, my friends, and THAT is reason for laughter, that is reason to sing and dance and celebrate, even in the depths of hell—because joy and laughter and dance are things that evil cannot comprehend and are powerless to stop. It’s the secret power that all of us possess. It’s the thing that evil cannot take from us unless we hand it over. It’s the thing that cannot be conquered, no matter how bad things get.

 

The crucifixion was horrible, but its Jesus who has the last laugh. And if we follow him, we follow him laughing. If we go down to hell, he goes after us, and does not come back without us. If we die, he laughs in death’s face and raises us up. If we fall to earth, he dances our bones back together until we take him as our partner and dance with him.

 

This is the message of Easter. Evil does not win. Death does not have the last word. Despair is not the human end.

 

Love wins. Joy gets the last word. Dancing is the human end. And the God who made us for joy, the God who animates us with love, the God who destined these bones for dancing is with us now and will be with us forever.

This God will be with us in death, will laugh in death’s face, and will raise us up to life. This God will wipe every tear from every eye and will heal every wound, mend everything broken, and make everything sad untrue.

 

The resurrection is not just a story, it is a promise. It is not something that happened a long time ago, it is a snowball that is already rolling and getting bigger. The healing of the universe has begun and nothing and no one will be able to stop it—not despair, not death, not evil, not hell. Because love has already won, joy is coming like a freight train, and laughter is the only appropriate liturgical response. Let us pray…

 

God, you have made us for joy, you have made us for hope, you have made us for dancing

And you did not give us these things only to take them away.

Your gifts are not temporary, your love is not conditional

Our end is not to be found in the dust.

We give you laughing thanks and joyful praise for the triumph of Jesus,

who left death itself in the dust and raised up to life

everyone who was lost in hopelessness and despair

and for those who find our hope in him today, you promise the same.

Help us to choose joy, to choose life, to choose laughter

even in the face of evil and destruction and despair

for it cannot defeat what it does not comprehend.

We ask this in the name of Jesus—who will not ever let us fall. Amen.

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