As a minister’s daughter, I grew up almost literally in the church, its red door and ivied walls across the driveway from the rectory. On Easter the church was packed; every family received a pink or red geranium. There were Easter egg hunts, baskets stocked with chocolate rabbits and the jelly beans these magical creatures laid. The church rang with triumphant hymns: Jesus Christ is risen today. Although like all children I reveled in holidays involving excessive sweets, it was not the candy or the or the requisite rejoicing that moved me most.
It was the women, or in the Gospel according to John, the woman, bereft and brave, who went to the tomb to tend Jesus’s body. The male disciples had scattered and gone into hiding. In the Protestant Episcopal Church, Christmas Eve and Easter were the only times women played a prominent role in the story. Those were not the loud, triumphant moments. They lived in my child’s imagination as the quiet, mysterious times, Mary giving birth in the night attended by cows, donkeys, and stars. Dawn in a garden, wet with dew, the only sound birds waking and singing, the only people, the women, or the one woman who captured my imagination and, in my story, has her own apotheosis on that morning.
I did not question the miracle of resurrection. Miracles and magic made sense to me as a child. Theology didn’t. My father liked to expound on Jesus’s utterance from the cross “My God, my God why hast though forsaken me.” He insisted that Jesus was not crying out in despair but quoting Psalm 22, which ends in triumph. The Gospel narratives emphasize Jesus’s rising again “in accordance with the scriptures,” implying that he knew he would come back to life on the third day.
I never believed in this foreknowledge. To me it robbed the story of its power. I also did not understand how, by his resurrection, Jesus had triumphed over death and sin. Why, I wondered, did people still die? Why were we still so sinful, a sinfulness we repented every week in the general confession in some detail. (“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.”) As a child in the 1950s, World War Two and the Holocaust loomed large. My own country had dropped two atomic bombs and we lived in fear of nuclear war. I could not comprehend how Jesus’s death on the cross had reconciled us with the Father. You killed my only begotten son, but it’s all right, I raised him from the dead, and now I forgive you?
What I did/do believe is that Jesus suffered, not only the agonies of crucifixion but the anguish of doubt, and yes despair. We may not all have been physically tortured and executed, (though many people have been and still are) but most of us have known times when we were bereft of all hope. Whatever our personal circumstances, if we are paying attention, we are aware of systemic racism, sexism, violence, poverty, war, environmental depredation resulting in climate catastrophe, the loss for so many people and other beings of home, habitat, and sustenance. Matthew Fox speaks of the Earth herself, whom he calls Mother, as Christ crucified.
What remains of my Christian upbringing is simply this: whoever, whatever Jesus is, I find him present in all suffering and all joy. I wanted an incarnate goddess, too, so I imagined her story. She is with me, also. And, for me, they both point the way beyond their personhood to something vaster but no less intimate.
A westerner, raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and on the idea of historic human progress, and a novelist whose stock in trade is beginnings, middles, and endings, it is challenging for me to think in other than linear terms. But now and then I get a glimmering. Crucifixion and resurrection are not a singular event in linear time. They are happening all the time at the same time. Not even just seasonally or cyclically as spring follows winter but simultaneously. In clamor and quiet, mystery and plain sight.
I have discarded several attempts at giving specific examples of this simultaneity. I’m still stretching my imagination. Instead here are a couple of poems from Tell Me the Story Again.
courage singer, sorrow singer duet
sometimes courage comes from the ground.
hush, my children are buried there.
from noticing one plant, different from another.
there is no comfort but the wild blue air.
or a bloom you never saw before.
beauty hurts, why would you wish for more?
a tree bends down to drop fruit in your hand.
my children starved in a barren land.
yes, I remember the salted earth, the poisoned well.
the sickened ones who walked with a bell.
we who remain must mourn and yet—
no more of courage, we owe sorrow a debt.
though the sun is cold, look, a new leaf.
I see the mold, the death beetle, the grief.
there! the grey mouse takes a seed from a stalk.
mice fouled the grain that could have been bread.
ah, sorrow singer, I will sing with you for our dead.
yes, sing with me, friend, no more talk.
sing and walk our rocky common ground.
yes, sometimes courage comes from there.
grey mouse knows the ground, one seed, then another.
from courage singer waits
it takes courage to open your eyes,
courage to plant seeds,
courage to hope they will grow.
I am here in the tiniest cracks.
I am the trickle of water
that greens the rocks’ seams.
I am the hidden spring,
just waiting for someone
to scratch the dirt
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. Her novels The Wild Mother and The Return of the Goddess have both been released in 25th anniversary editions. She is also the author of Murder at the Rummage Sale. The sequel, All the Perils of this Night, will be published in 2019. Tell Me the Story Again is her fourth collection of poem. An interfaith minister, Cunningham is in private practice as a counselor. She is also a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.