"For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth...." (Isaiah 65:17)
When I was in high school I read Walter Lord's A Night to Remember. It made a deep impression. It's the story of the Titanic. Lord told not only the details of the sinking, the stories of victims and survivors, he also told a larger story of early Twentieth Century technological arrogance, and duplicitous ship owners, and a captain too sure in his own knowledge, too confident of his ship, too brash on the sea.
Quite a contrast with Hollywood's most expensive movie ever. Four hundred million dollars spent to rebuild the Titanic in Mexico, an extravagantly conceived, ferociously produced epic--all reduced to Romeo and Juliet with a little class rivalry thrown in.
But I couldn't help but feel, toward the end when young Leonardo DeCaprio was taking his time drowning--the gargantuan violence, the realistic horror of the great ship's last minutes, the thousand bodies floating frozen in the dark water--I couldn't help but wonder how so huge a tragedy, with so many large lessons to be learned, could be reduced to the level of boy meets girl, beds girl, then dies, then girl goes on to live an interesting life.
A tattered drawing, a diamond necklace, faded photographs clutched by an old lady into her nineties, these all seemed rather--pitiful-- as the sole retrieval from so great a tragedy. I despise this contemporary tendency to reduce everything, even large, undeniable tragedy like the Titanic, to the level of relationship. Titanic the movie, managed to depict so well the horror, the huge, awesome tragedy. But it wimped out when it came to hope.
I'm all for relationships, I'm in the business myself, but really now, two teenagers clinging to one another, is this enough to carry the freight as one sinks into watery oblivion?
I felt a bit the same about the ending of another really good movie, The Ice Storm. The movie so masterfully and depressingly lays out the misery of living upscale in New Canaan, Connecticut, 1971. But then, after getting all sorts of great dilemmas out on the table, ends with Dad and the family sitting in the cold car weeping. I just can't find a movie which manages to be both honest and hopeful. I'm yearning for a really satisfying ending.
But really now, without a God who saves, who acts, moves, triumphs, what do I expect of late Twentieth Century folk? Let's all join hands, cling to one another for comfort, shed a tear, hold on to our fading photographs as we sink into dark nothingness. Still, this seems cold comfort, small potatoes in the face of so much death. The death portrayed in Titanic was so large and the hope at the end seemed so small, by comparison.
Death is large. Everything that lives, dies. All whom we love are, day by day, descending toward that dissolution. Biologist, Lewis Thomas, speaks honestly and directly of the largeness of death:
"The obituary pages tell us of the news that we are dying off, while the birth announcements in finer print, off at the side of the page, inform us of our replacements, but we get no grasp from this of the enormity of scale. There are 3 billion of us on the earth, and all 3 billion must be dead, on schedule, within this lifetime. The vast mortality, involving something over 50 million of us each year, takes place in relative secrecy. We can only really know of the deaths in our households, or among our friends. These, detached in our minds from the rest, we take to be unnatural events, anomalies, outrages. We speak of our own dead in low voices; struck down, we say, as though visible death can only occur for cause, by disease, or violence, avoidably. We send off flowers, grieve, make ceremonies, scatter bones, unaware of the rest of the 3 billion on the same schedule. All that immense mass of flesh and bone and consciousness will disappear by absorption into the earth, without recognition by the transient survivors."
("Death in the Open," in Anthony C. Winkler, Jo Ray McCuen, Rhetoric Made Plain, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York, NY, 1988.)
I tire of these movies which do a great job of laying out, in all honesty, the vastness of our human mortality, then, in the end wimp out at the end with some couple clinging to one another for cold comfort. Yet, in fairness, what is to be said in the face of so much death?
In the 26th chapter of Acts, Paul is summoned before King Agrippa, the Roman lackie in that corner of occupied Judea. During the course of his defense, as Paul tells how Jesus was crucified, died, and then rose from the dead, Paul tells Agrippa, "This thing did not occur in a corner" (Acts 26:26).
This thing, Easter, was no personal, isolated, local event. It did not occur in a corner. Easter is large, cosmic, world rending, earth shaking. It is Jesus raised from the dead, and it is more. Easter, Paul learned to read as a sign of what God is doing, will do in the whole world. It is that Jesus lives, yes, but it is also that God is life and will not be defeated by death. This thing is more than personal. It's cosmic. Jesus comes forth from the tomb; the earth shakes! This thing, Easter, did not occur in a corner.
Philosopher Feuerbach said Easter represented no more than humanity's lust for personal immortality. We want so to live forever, we wishfully project a God who fulfills our fondest hopes. No.
Easter wasn't just about Jesus being resurrected. It was about God getting his way with the world, God getting the last word in the story, and that word was life, not death, that word was large.
Death is large. Easter is larger. Today we reach for our most extravagant song to sing of it. Words seem inadequate. The one who is raised from the tomb shall ascend to heaven, shall rule at the right hand of God, shall reign. He has put this day all things at his feet and the last enemy being destroyed is death.
Titanic, the movie, took a huge tragedy and reduced it to a touching personal relationship.
Easter takes an event where God vindicates dead Jesus by raising him to life and explodes it into cosmic triumph. It's not just about, How can I and the ones dear to me live forever? It's about, How can God's justice be vindicated? What does God do with all the sin, and all the suffering, and all the death?
"The communist lecturer paused before summing up. His large audience listened fearfully. 'Therefore,' he said, 'there is no God: Jesus Christ never existed; there is no such thing as a Holy Spirit. The Church is an oppressive institution, and anyway it's out of date. The future belongs to the State, and the State is in the hands of the Party.'
"He was about to sit down when an old priest near the front stood up. 'May I say two words?' he asked. (It's three in English, but he was of course speaking Russian.) The Lecturer, disdainfully, gave him permission. He turned, looked out over the crowd, and shouted: 'Christ is risen!' Back came the roar of the people, shouting the words they had been saying by heart at the end of the Easter service in their churches, 'He is risen indeed!'"
(N.T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1994, p. 53.)
And the almighty state crumbled, Death slinked away in humiliation, and the earth shook, and we were free. Or as Paul puts it elsewhere, "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing." (Colossians 2:15)
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