News that a famous American poet, Jack Gilbert, passed away on Nov. 11th. A solitary figure, who avoided the limelight, working away on his spare, very free, very moving poems. He was 87, afflicted with Alzheimer's (as Edwin Honig had been). But his Collected Poems had just come out, from a major publishing house. Poetry is all about time & timing. Now the mourning & celebration sounds are coming from the literary world, & his poems shine brighter than before. (To tell the truth I've never been very aware of him, or familiar with his work; but I picked up this new volume from the library shelf today, and am realizing I missed a lot there.)
A person dies, but leaves a ghostly trace in the work they have done. In the case of art, music, poetry, sometimes it bursts into flame repeatedly long after they are gone.
I'm thinking about Jesus, and recalling a certain idea about the Resurrection that struck me a few months ago. But I'll get to that in a minute. I'm thinking about the impact Jesus had on those around him : this figure of brilliant charismatic gifts - his magnetism & affection, his healing powers, his teachings, his eloquence, his prophetic utterance. The electricity that must have surrounded him like a buzzing power field. And especially his radical, uncompromising claim : to be the expected Messiah : that claim which brought him inexorably into conflict with the established authorities in Jerusalem (and Rome) : which brought him to crucifixion on Golgotha ("the place of a skull").
The Resurrection is a deep-shaded mystery. But I think we can hypothesize that, whatever "really happened", the way of life which Jesus's friends & followers began after his death amounted to the most serious form of commitment to mourn & remember him. It may sound heretical or out-of-bounds to compare their response to other cults of martyrdom and mourning (say, for beloved poets, or the martyr-figures or deceased spiritual leaders of other religions) - but I think it's fair to say there are at least some resemblances. Christianity is in a certain sense the largest, most powerful association of mourning & remembrance the world has ever seen. Christianity is much more than that : but I want to sketch this scene out as a kind of background to keep in mind. This religion still registers the visceral shock & grief which Jesus's followers felt, when this incomparably vital, earth-shaking, life-changing presence in their midst was suddenly, violently thrown down.
The Resurrection is a deep well. I like to think about Mary Magdalen as she is sometimes called, the "first apostle" - since according to the Gospels, she was the first to spread the news that Jesus's tomb was empty - that angels had told her to seek him in Galilee. (The mysterious Gospel of John has a slightly different version : Mary meets the resurrected Jesus in the garden beside the tomb, & at first mistakes him for "the gardener". I can't get away from the notion that this lovely, slightly comic scene - straight out of Shakespeare's late romances - has some kind of underlying symbolic meaning. The gardener - as Adam? Maybe.)
The message of the early Church is that the resurrected Jesus appeared to them several times; ascended to the Father in heaven; and sent the Holy Ghost : to be within & amongst them all, binding them together as the reborn body of Christ on earth, until he comes again. I'm convinced of the essential truth of this message, even though the whole process remains a great & alluring enigma, & even though I believe that as regards the Bible, things "literal" must be taken with a grain of salt. We must "judge for ourselves what is right," as Jesus says to the Pharisees.
But it occurred to me a few months ago that one could think about the meaning of the Resurrection in the following way. I'm not saying this is orthodox, or even acceptable; maybe it's not even true. But it's an imaginative approach. The thought occurred to me that the process of Jesus' death, Resurrection, & sending of the Spirit could be conceptualized as follows : simply, that Jesus died, yes - & is resurrected in us. This is the ultimate, over-arching power of the Holy Ghost working in us : this is the power that God grants - that "glorious freedom of the children of God" to which St. Paul attests. To be the Resurrection in our own place & time on earth : to be Christ, here, now - as manifested in our own distinct personhood, our own fate & vocation.
This, I admit, does not jibe perfectly with the doctrine of the Church : that we are waiting for the 2nd coming of Christ - that nothing is fully accomplished until that "end-time" takes place. But I think, on the other hand, this perspective might possibly give us a glimpse of what it might mean to live in constant gratitude for the simple fact of existence, of being alive. (This "gratitude-for-existence" is something which Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, and the Acmeist poets, expressed as a basic principle.) If, having been "born again", we are the resurrection of Jesus - then suddenly "all things are made new" : we have a task to re-present Christ, here, now. & maybe this would be understood to "fit" the orthodox doctrine after all, in some sense : if we re-examine the pattern of death-resurrection-ascension-glorification, then each of us is at the stage of resurrection - the pre-ascension stage, which still awaits the ultimate "end" of history, the "end of the age".
Somehow I like this notion, anyway, if only perhaps in a poetic sense. The early Church mourned the living Jesus, who had died, who was gone; we were all, as Paul wrote, "baptized into his death". Yet at the same time, in the power of the Holy Ghost, we also live out the resurrection : in the most particular local distinct personal & global & contemporary sense of the word (here & now).
There is an saying of that terse, cryptic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus - something like "living each other's death, dying each other's life" (how does it go?) - which encapsulates the unusual schema for resurrection I am sketching here.