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By Joshua Vis
Only Jesus has experienced Lent and Easter.
For the rest of us, life is Lent. We know only a life of Lent. Except we strive to avoid entering into the suffering and despair of life.
The resurrection (and Lent) has taught us to mourn our existence, to wish for something different, something better. We focus on suffering, mortality, and death just before Easter, with Easter providing us with an emotional reprieve.
But a literal Easter reprieve doesn’t exist for us. Literal resurrection never happens. Maybe it will happen someday. Honestly I have no idea if it will or if we should want it to. I’m interested in a practical question: What is the function of wishing for a different kind of existence?
Orthodox Christian doctrine views the dismissal of Adam and Eve from the garden as an exile. No matter your view on the historicity of Adam and Eve, liberal and conservative Christians alike profess that humanity lives in exile, meaning some better existence is to be desired and sought. Though Adam and Eve never mourned leaving the garden, and though their choice made them like God (something we celebrate in Genesis 1), we have turned their story into the ultimate tragedy.
Jesus seemed to affirm the tragedy as he came proclaiming a major change to the world order. The kingdom of God would come and things would be better. Yet again Christian doctrine asks us to live in anticipation of something better, something that stubbornly refuses to arrive.
When we live in expectation that life will be better when our circumstances change in some significant or banal way, we often catch ourselves. We realize that waiting to live is no way to live. And if we don’t catch ourselves in that moment, we realize shortly after the desired change (new job, new TV, more money, whatever) that our anxieties and our insecurities have remained. Those things are hardwired into the human experience.
What then does the belief in the resurrection of Jesus get us in our day to day lives? Does the hope of having a second existence after death help us to live? Even as every single person dies, we are told that Jesus has conquered death. Don’t accept death; it’s a theological malfunction.
I don’t know what it means to live as though the resurrection of Jesus has freed me from death. I fear death. Jesus feared death according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The promise of resurrection does not seem to lead to the acceptance of mortality. There our inexplicable horrors in our world, horrors that no one understands, myself included. Resurrection does not erase those horrors, nor does it explain them. They remain horrible.
Many would contend that it doesn’t matter how the resurrection of Jesus functions in our lives. It accomplished salvation. Again, maybe that’s true, but I can’t see how that aids me as I work at living this life, the only life I know I get. What does eternal salvation have to do with the human condition? The human condition is inescapable and difficult (and beautiful and charming). We will not be saved from pain, suffering, rejection, fear, sadness, death; all the things we try to avoid or negate. They are unquestionably certain. What good is wishing that we might avoid them someday?
Pretend this quote from Jesus has nothing to do with resurrection and vindication, and everything to do with accepting this existence, making the most of this life: “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’” (Mark 8:34)
Maybe taking up of one’s cross means accepting the difficulty of this life. Maybe experiencing the beauty of this life requires accepting it as it is, without understanding why and without the hope of something better. Maybe we should learn to love this life, rather than spending our time pining for a different one. Maybe it’s time to choose life before death. Maybe it’s time to choose Lent without Easter.