Easter: Who else than the Messiah Himself can be born in a grave?
My Good Friday reflection concluded with the parable of the mad man that was written by Frederic Nietzsche back in 1882. The parable is about a man who is perceived mad by the onlookers as he goes around announcing that God is dead.
The parable gained incredible popularity in 1960s. Several newspapers and magazines, including the Time, asked: “Is God Dead?” The question created quite a stir. It referenced Nietzsche’s parable as the inspiration behind the “God is dead movement” which insisted that “man” has killed God because “man” has evolved beyond our need for gods.
Nietzsche went on to develop this insight in his book The Twilight of the Idols. As far as Nietzsche was concerned, he envisioned a world emptied of meaning and filled with despair. Nietzsche predicted that the western world is destined to collapse into nihilism due to a consistent decline in the traditional belief system. Walter Kaufmann, an American philosopher, writes that Nietzsche “felt the agony, the suffering, and the misery of a godless world so intensely, at a time when others were yet blind to its tremendous consequences, that he was able to experience in advance, as it were, the fate of coming generation.”
Was Nietzsche right in his prediction? Did the world descend into nihilistic chaos?
The generation following Nietzsche in many ways seemed to have experienced the fate he had foretold. In a way, Nietzsche was right. The first World War exterminated Western Europe’s faith in modern progress. With the reality of war, the anticipation of the promise of a better future was gone. The dream of enlightenment suddenly turned into a nightmare.
The disintegration of the Soviet empire also cancelled faith in Marxism as the guarantee of progress — Marxism’s promise of a better world never came to fruition. And though there seems to be continued belief in a better future through modern means, many in the face of climate change appear to be accepting the evidence that hope in progress through human means is an empty pursuit.
The sense of emptiness pervades the post-war world. Today most individuals are not fervent war supporters. Instead, the modern individual seems to be searching for a cause that will give meaning to their lives in different ways. Yet, this search for meaning appears to be a lost cause. Despite the high standard of living that we enjoy, the question remains: what is it all for? What is the purpose of it all? The question seems to grips all of us in our moments of solitude. Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, noted that in the West evermore people today have means to live, but no meaning to live for.
It is quite remarkable that Nietzsche was able to prophesise this nihilistic mood, which has survived to this day. He surmised that the modern world would not only lose faith in man but, at the same time, will also declare its independence from God, so that there is neither faith in God or faith in man, leaving only faith in nothing, which will lead to despair and disappointment.
He concludes the parable by noting that the mad man went into several churches announcing that God is dead. Each time, when led out of the churches and asked what he thought he was doing, he replied: “What are these churches now if not the tombs of God?”
Shall we not ask this Nietzschean question to the church of today: what are the churches now if not the tombs of God? How shall we answer this question?
One obvious answer would be to say how churches have become cultural monuments. They symbolise culture and time when religious observances were central to life and community. Not anymore. They are no longer at the centre of things. The belief in God no longer animates our communities, and it is no longer the central guide to our lives. The magnificent structures and buildings, if not entirely extinct, seems to be vanishing and crumbling away.
But there is another answer to the Nietzschean question. It comes from the late Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich. Tillich worked within the same intellectual tradition as Nietzsche (known as existentialism). He tells the story of a witness in the Nuremberg war-crime trials who testified that he had lived for a time in a grave in a Jewish graveyard, in Wilna Poland. It was the only place he–and many others–could live after fleeing the gas chamber.
During this time, the man recorded an event; it was a description of a birth. In a grave nearby, a young woman gave birth to a boy. The eighty-year-old gravedigger, wrapped in a linen shroud, assisted. When the new-born child uttered his first cry, the old man prayed:
“Great God, hast Thou finally sent the Messiah to us?
For who else than the Messiah Himself can be born in a grave?”
This is a remarkable story; it carries unprecedented emotional value and tremendous symbolic power. It transcends anything a human imagination could have crafted. It breathes new life into our Christian symbols, which seemed to have lost a great deal of its power because it is too often repeated.
It is too easy to forget that the manger of Christmas was the expression of utter poverty and distress before it became the place where the angels appeared and to which the star pointed. And we forgot that the tomb of Jesus was the end of his life and of his work before it became the place of his final triumph. And for these reasons, the question of the eighty-year-old gravedigger corresponds profoundly to our Easter celebration: for “who else than the Messiah himself can be born in a grave?”
Do not these words describe almost exactly the paradox of Easter?
The old man was wrong to identify the new-born as messiah. But he was right in another sense, for only God could do something as incredible as cause life to be born in a grave. This is exactly what happened on Easter morning and is the greatest of all symbols of God’s ingenious resourcefulness. Out of that awful matrix of death and tragedy, life began to flow – for the Messiah himself was born in a grave.
It is not hard to hear these sentiments today, in a world where there are so many places like the Jewish cemetery in Wilna. At times the Easter proclamation of victory over death seems oblivious to the daily human struggle with the continued grip of death on life–the pandemic, famine, political oppression, economic crises and continuing attempts at genocide.
We know about the horrors of our history and we can hear the news in our own living rooms as people around the world succumb to death and despair. We know that greed and hatred are the go-to responses of far too many and that humanity has a long way to go before we can live in harmony. But we take solace in that fact that Easter is not here to cover the pain of grief and the reality of death with loud music and bright colours. Instead, the Easter message begins in the dark tomb – reminding us that the Christian hope was actually born in a tomb.
So, in reply to Nietzsche’s question, “What are these churches now if not the tomb of God?”, I want to say yes because the ultimate paradox of Easter is that life is born in a grave. That something purposeful emerges out of chaos. That the tomb of Jesus was the end of his life before it became the point of departure for a new life. I want to say yes, because the churches, as dead as they may seem, can unleash life, can become a place where new hope is kindled. I want to say yes because Christianity itself is founded upon an empty tomb – indeed in a graveyard.
And finally, I want to say yes because the news of the empty tomb cannot be separated from the words and actions. Resurrection is not an abstract concept, unconnected with the real world. The resurrection of Jesus is an invitation to live as Jesus lived. Just as there is cruelty, brutality, selfishness and abandonment, so there are values and principles that cannot be killed but rise again – often in unexpected ways. What is repressed today returns tomorrow.
There is an insightful Mexican Proverb that speaks of this reality:
“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
Life finds its way, despite the fiercest efforts of death to stop it. Persistent. Pervasive. Persevering. Even, invasive. Injustice, defeat, and death are not the final words, because life and love will find a path, a place, a way to grow and overcome our failures and fears, our prejudices and hostilities.
Indeed, Easter reminds us that life persists and pervades. It will flourish where buried. It will not cease to surprise. This is the paradox of Easter, that life is born in a grave. That something purposeful springs out of chaos. Death becomes the source of life. And, the tomb becomes the point of departure for a new life