NAPPANEE — Don’t skip the bad parts.
That’s the advice Union Center Church of the Brethren Pastor Frank Ramirez gave about the story the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ this Easter.
“Sometimes people just want to skip over and go right to the good news,” Ramirez said.
He references author and scholar Kate Bowler in her 2018 book “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” as she addresses her struggles after being diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer and people’s well-meaning comments such as, ” Everything happens for a reason,” and “God has a plan.” At a Good Friday service, Bowler is awestruck by lack of solemnity and generally cheery nature of the congregation.
“We need to confront the fact that we die, and things get horrible, that they seem senseless, and that they don’t necessarily have an answer,” Ramirez explained.
In the tragedy of Good Friday, also lies the hope of Easter.
“Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us different versions of it,” he said. “A friend of mine — the late Vernard Eller, who was a religion professor at [the University of La Verne] in California — always said that ‘trying to make the four Gospels work together is like taking four puzzles and dumping them on the table and thinking you’re going to make them all fit. If you try hard, you can jam some of the pieces together but it doesn’t really make a picture,’ instead of taking them as they are.”
One thing, Ramirez explained, that the four Gospels do have in common, though, is that the women are the first proclaimers of the Resurrection.
“I think in a lot of ways, we’re recognizing that the first Apostles are the women,” he continued. “The central element of the story is the women, who are there faithfully even though Jesus is dead. It’s that moment when things are at their worst that, doing the jobs that need to be done, that allowed them to be there for the Resurrection.”
In the story as told by New Testament Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea, secret disciple of Jesus, a rich man and respected member of the council, procured the body and assumed responsibility for the burial of Jesus. Due to the risks associated with interacting with even the dead who are charged with sedition in Rome, and the fact that there were only a few hours until Sabbath, the procedure was done with haste, aromatic spices and cloth wrapping done quickly and possibly improperly, Ramirez explained.
“Joseph buried him and does not continue the job because Sabbath is to start and Jesus dies mid-afternoon, and they [the women] saw where [he was buried] and they’re going to go finish the job and do it right, which is what women do,” Ramirez explained. “And the result is, they were there and it’s in the midst of ‘doing’ that we experience the Resurrection. They experience it literally, and we experience new life and new growth, I think, in the midst of doing the rotten jobs.”
In JRR Tolkien’s 1947 essay “On Fairy-Stories,” the renowned author and scholar coins the word ‘eucatastrophe’ in relation to the story of Jesus, Ramirez said. The word coming from a combination of three Greek terms. ,” is a common word combination traditionally used to describe a change in plot caused by a dramatic event (cata) in a poem or story (strophe meaning division of poetic work). The Greek root “eu” means “good” or “favorable.” .”
“In Greek drama, everybody knows all the stories,” he said. There are no surprises. So, there’s this car crash kind of thing where it’s like, ‘Oh no, this is about to happen.’ You always know in the story of John F. Kennedy that he’ll be driving down Dealey Plaza and you just can’t stop it.”
In theater, the concept is called “dramatic irony.” Ramirez related the dramatic irony to the story of Oedipus, a mythical Greek king of Thebes. A prophecy upon the birth of Oedipus indicated that he would kill his king father and marry his queen mother, so King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes left the child for dead. Growing, a shepherd finds Oedipus, through the exchanging of hands, the child eventually falls into the hands of another royal family in Corinth to be raised as their own. Upon hearing the prophecy, Oedipus, unaware of his true parentage, leaves and sets out for another city to keep his parents safe — Thebes — setting off a chain of events that eventually lead to exactly what the prophecy said would.
“In Holy Week we know, no matter what happens, Jesus is going to die horribly and we can’t stop it,” Ramirez went on to explain. “The difference in the story of Jesus is that it’s not a ‘catastrophe’; it’s a ‘eucatastrophe.’ Tolkien says with the ‘eucatastrophe’ of history, we also know that if we can force ourselves to watch, there will be this unexpected good turn of history.”
C.S. Lewis said that every ancient faith had its myth of the corn god, who died, was buried and raised again. That’s reflected in a lot of mythologies.
“If something is true, then it becomes true for many cultures and we find that we share many of the same basic stories,” Ramirez continued. “I think many Christian writers recognize that we’re sharing the same basic truths expressed in different ways . I think the ministry of Jesus and his death and Resurrection has changed some of the basic elements about the way we think and it’s infected all cultures whether we would call the Christian or not. We take that basic story of replanting and renewal, and we still celebrate it. We have the Easter bunny, the Easter eggs — these symbols that are basically pagan, we incorporate those into the central story, which is the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
He went on to explain that because of this, pagan themes incorporated into the Christian holiday don’t bother him, and they shouldn’t bother others.
“We’re all encountering the same story,” he said. “We’re all encountering Jesus, and we’re all encountering the Resurrection and yet the meaning is different for us because we’re different people. That’s why if kids are excited about the Easter egg hunt, that’s just as good as anything. It’s not ‘either or,’ it’s ‘both and.’ Keep maypoles, keep Mummer’s Dance, keep whatever people say that, ‘has pagan origins’ — you bet.”
“If the highlight of your Easter is to have the family over to have ham and scalloped potatoes and green beans with those onion things on top, that’s fine,” Ramirez said. “Whatever it is you’re doing, because we remember the words that the Apostle Paul uses in I Corinthians 11, ‘As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.'”
Ramirez, instead, suggested to focus on the people within the story to identify with. There is a character for everyone in the story of Jesus, from the people in the crowd who chose Barabbas to be released in a customary pardon over Jesus to Barabbas himself, from the Roman soldiers who carried about the execution to an uncertain governor who didn’t want to put his position of power at risk, from Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to Peter who denied Jesus three times or the slave girl who confronted him, from the other men on the crosses on either side of Jesus to Joseph of Arimathea, who buried the body because he felt it was the right thing to do.
“That’s what Easter is to me,” he said. “We proclaim the risen Jesus, but now we need to put ourselves in the story and it won’t be the same for everybody. Sometimes want everyone to encounter Jesus the same way we did. They will have their encounter in their own way, in their own time, and the story will become alive.”