Choose Life: A meditation on Easter Sunday
Talk by Tom Baker

Aril 4, 2010

When I was first ordained a priest, I had a kind of theme that I wanted to promote in my parish. It was summed up with the phrase, "We are resurrection people and alleluia is our song." This phrase was not original with me but I loved it and wanted to get my parishioners thinking along the same lines. Neither the parishioners nor my fellow priests where very receptive to this notion. When I told my pastor that I wanted to open Mass on Easter with my favorite phrase, he informed me that in his mind Easter was sort of a footnote to Good Friday, that it was the death of Jesus than had saved us; the resurrection was just icing on the theological cake. This view was reinforced on Easter morning when the organist played "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" as the opening hymn. Needless to say I kept quiet about being resurrection people and dutifully intoned "alleluia" only when it appeared in the ritual. I learned not to rock the boat of human and divine suffering. And for good reason. The most painted scene in western art is the crucifixion of Jesus. The scene throbs at the center of the western mind. The suffering Jesus, while not the most accurate, is the most influential symbol in Christianity.

When I read the four gospels, all of which tell the story of Jesus in great detail, I did not find a Jesus who suffered. I found a Jesus who, in fact, avoided suffering for himself and others. The public relations problem Jesus had was that he was too happy and enjoyed himself too much. People said in effect, "Why can't you be more like John the Baptist; he was the kind of holy man we're used too: impatient, condemning, moralistic: he doesn't drink or smoke or dance he just gives us hell. We like that. You come along, you and the party girl Mary Magdalene and multiply fish and bread and wine. People are getting fat, our cholesterol is going through the roof and nobody goes to AA meetings anymore. Jesus Jesus, we can't tell if you're from Bethlehem or Babylon. And you forgive everybody and heal anybody who asks. We can't tell the good people from the bad people anymore; you're messing up our categories." Then Jesus goes and does the totally taboo thing: he raises Lazarus from the dead. Death is the ego's industry. The ego is CEO of Death, Inc. You can feed'em and heal'em but don't start digging up the cemeteries. Edgar Cayce said that raising Lazarus from the dead was what got Jesus crucified. He also said that Jesus told jokes on the way to Calvary; he didn't say what kind but I imagine Pharisee jokes, high priest jokes, gallows humor. And he died in three hours; it usually took people a couple of days to die on the cross. Jesus suffered as little as possible. He was not your Daddy's Jesus.

Yet it did not take long for Daddy ego to take all Jesus' vigor and life and energy and turn it to the celebration of suffering and death. As a priest I intoned the words of a sad martyr and a suffering hero as I held up the bread and announced, "Take this all of you, and eat it: this is my body that will be given up for you." I hoisted the cup, "Take this all of you and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all men so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me." There was no laughter, no toasts, and no cheers, only a solemn response such as "When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory."

I began to wonder how the happy, even fun loving Jesus became the Jesus who died for our sins, suffered for our salvation, sacrificed himself so God would love us and told us to take up our cross and follow his painful example. How did this happen?

Around death there is always a question. Why did this person have to die? Jesus had to die for a good reason. He was sailing along feeding the multitudes, healing the sick, and raising the dead and then suddenly, less than a week after riding triumphantly into Jerusalem he is crucified. Disgraced. Defeated. People needed to make sense of his death. Give it a good reason. Suffering became the good reason.

I think I understand how suffering could become so compelling. As a teenager I started having obsessive thoughts. I thought I was going crazy. For two years I suffered. Then one day, as obsessive thoughts often do, they simply disappeared. But during this horrible time in my life I read Mans Search For Meaning. In this book the author Victor Frankl finds meaning through suffering. He even develops a form of therapy from his suffering insights, called Logo therapy. My misery finally had a purpose. I found that suffering made me wise, empathetic, deep, spiritual, and compassionate. I became the suffering hero. I decided that I would suffer and do the impossible.

This was the best thing I did in that it gave meaning to my life and it opened my heart to people's pain. Suffering deepens and humanizes us. But gradually I began to suffer on purpose. Gradually suffering became my purpose. I was drunk on suffering and I hit bottom. My wife helped me push up off the bottom with a simple sentiment. She told me that she loved me too much to want me to suffer so enthusiastically. Love was the ultimate meaning and rendered suffering meaningless. I remembered that Jesus was a healer, not a martyr. He never told the cripple to limp on with patience. He never encouraged the blind man to bear his cross proudly. He did not assure Mary and Martha that their brother Lazarus was in a better place, that they had an angel in heaven. He got that cripple up and skipping, he gave the blind man 20/20 vision, and he brought Lazarus back to life. Jesus chose life, life with strong legs, life with sound eyes, life with a delighted countenance smiling at the sour face of death.

Edgar Cayce said that the difference between karma and grace is choice. In the Old Testament God says to the Israelites, "I set before you today life and death, choose life." For 2000 years we have chosen suffering and death for our meaning. From the beginning Jesus chose life, he chose life for others, for himself, and for the world. He released himself from the human obsession with suffering and death and like Lazarus he came out.

Jesus walked out of the tomb, but we hung back, holding tight to the cross and the terrible logic of our suffering. Everyday since, he has turned around and invited us out into the light. "Come out my dears, the brothers and sisters of Lazarus, choose life and open your hearts to joy." I might add, we are resurrection people and alleluia is our song.


© Copyright Tom Baker 2010