What if they found the body?

Easter has special importance for me as a UU.  It was at the Easter Service at May Memorial Unitarian Society in Syracuse, NY in 1993 that I decided that I would declare myself a Unitarian.  There were two things at work — one, I was looking for a sign, something dazzling, but not outside the realm of the possible, and two, the topic of Nick Cardell, Jr.’s sermon that day really hit home.  First, the sign — if you have never been to Syracuse, NY (or anywhere else in Central NY), it is cloudy up to 300 days a year.  For someone who suffers at least a mild case of Seasonal Affictive Disorder, that’s a long time.  George Harrison’s song, “Here Comes the Sun,” really resonates with the citizens of Syracuse.  On that particular Easter, it was a cold and cloudy day as I headed to May Memorial.  When I got there, it remained cloudy until the Chalice lighting, at which time the sanctuary was flooded in light.  The sun came out, quite unexpectedly, and stayed out for the rest of that day.  The sanctuary at May Memorial is a square wooden box, with a very small clerestory along the top of the wall, and a little cupola, which has class sides.  Even in that box, perhaps because of its its boxy composition, the light came shining through and made it a glorious day.  When the sun came out, I took it as a sign.  Had the sun not come out, who knows — probably there’d be another sign, another day — if you’re looking for signs, you need to stay open — revelation happens all the time, if we notice it, and it makes for a glorious time.

And then there was Nick Cardell’s sermon — “What if they found the body?”  In it, he discussed the question of whether it mattered if the disciples found the body.  In the gospel story, they don’t find the body — in Mark’s gospel, this leaves them worried and afraid — the last two words of Mark’s gospel (not the appendix added later) are “for they were afraid” (in Greek it’s two words).  In the others, they are initially afraid, and then they see Jesus later and all is hunky dory.  Had they found the body, of course, they would have proof of Jesus’ humanity, and the dream of trinitarianism would be dead.  Cardell’s point, though, was that it wouldn’t matter.  It wouldn’t change his message.  It wouldn’t change his personal ministry to people — those would still remain, and those could still inspire people.  In effect, Unitarians, who did not accept the Trinity, could only believe in Jesus as spiritual teacher — the greatest spiritual teacher, for Christian UUs, but still, a teacher, and not part of the triune God. 

I once had a discussion, via email, with a friend of mine at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, MN — an ethics professor at that Catholic school, he is himself a rather strict and devout Christian.  We had this discussion sometime around the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (which he gave two big thumbs up to).  He said that, without the death and resurrection of Jesus, the message was little more than ravings — it had no authority without the authority of true godhood.  But I don’t know about that — there are others who have preached that same message (admittedly in imitation of Christ) who are clearly mortal.  Are their words nothing but ravings because they were mortal?  Do their words only have authority because they were inspired by Jesus as God?  I can’t believe so. 

Actually, when I was in HS, I really thought a lot about the gospels and their message.  I was especially drawn to Luke’s gospel, with the more human Christ, and took some comfort in the reference to the “Son of Man” — though this is apparently a Messianic title, I took it to emphasize the humanity of Jesus.  I felt that those who seemed to only be moved to hear that message if it went with a belief in Jesus’ divinity were depending on a crutch, depending on something that offered certitude.  I came to believe that those who could be moved by such words and ideas without depending on a belief in Jesus as God, or even without believing in God, were engaged in something heroic.  I suppose I was going through some sort of Epicurean phase (the Epicureans get a bad rep for being libertines — atheists and materialists, they believed that the gods of myth were just projections, and not independent entities, that death was final (no afterlife), and that there was no reward or punishment in an afterlife that didn’t exist.  Right action, then, had no external support.  It seemed a beautiful idea to me then, and still does now. 

And so, when I heard Nick Cardell argue that very point on Easter at May Memorial, in the midst of the beautifully illuminated day I imagined without, I knew that I would be declaring my Unitarian identity, and that I would be signing the book at May Memorial.  It didn’t happen right away.  I wanted to pick the right day to sign the book, and so I chose the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 12) on which to take the big step.  And when I came to Kansas City and joined All Souls, I took it as a sign that I signed the book on Nov. 2, All Souls’ Day, which always had a certain resonance with me as a Catholic growing up. 

To this day, I have probably become a little bit surer on the side of atheism, but I retain a certain fondness for the religious language and symbolism of my youth.  If I cannot believe in a personal god, and don’t want to believe that Jesus died for my sins, I still retain a belief in miracles (small ones), and in revelation, and the beauty of a world that often seems frightening, with people sometimes committing the greatest atrocities.  A dead Jesus, whose words live on, seems just the type of guide I can believe in.

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