When I was a child, I liked to read.
We didn’t have a ton of books in my house, but I was well served by those we had, by friends, and by school.
My seventh grade English teacher introduced us 1970’s suburban kids to the folklorish ways of the English countryside in The Wind in the Willows.
My 10th grade American Authors teacher introduced us to the cynicism of Joseph Heller in just the right proportion of Catch-22.
The local K-Mart introduced me to piles of the so-called classics by reducing them to graphic novels and piling them up in a bin where we could buy them for 25 cents, an amount that was relatively hard to come by in those days, but well worth it.
Through graphic novels, I was introduced to A Tale of Two Cities (we read it in its glory in 11th grade), The Prisoner of Zenda, some of Shakespeare’s plays, and who knows how many other works that somebody regarded as so great they merited a reduction to the mind of a child.
A truly civilized society, which I did not grow up in, would, no doubt, have scoffed at my introduction to many of these great books. But we vulgar, marginal characters have to start where we can. So I did, with plenty of encouragement from my elders.
My direct and deep encounter with a classical text, however, focused on one book: the Bible. In my home, it was seen as the sine qua non. My mother, I am convinced, would have given up all her possessions and every other book, and certainly her children, if that was what she had to do to keep her Bible.
She read it to her four boys every chance she got. I especially remember the book of Proverbs, which she often read from The Living Bible, a paraphrase that was popular back then. Among the Proverbs, I especially remember her emphatic reading of one paraphrased verse: “Wine, women, and song have robbed my people of their brains.” For some reason that has echoed down the corridors of the time of the decades of my life’s mind.
We were rewarded for memorizing Bible verses, a gift I will cherish through eternity (just last night I woke in the too-early morning and found myself praying that most perfect of poems: Psalm 23). My youth group would gather on many Saturday nights at Sean O’Gorman’s or Dennis Schildt’s or the Anthony’s and, quite literally, study the Bible. I mean, we would read it, discuss what it meant, sometimes argue about a given interpretation, deliberate together.
On Sunday’s, my church had an open worship service in which people could get up and speak briefly as the Spirit led them about “the person and work of Christ.” It was not a time for teaching, but for worship. I learned to listen, to sense where the energy and thoughts of people were moving, and how to determine whether what I had been reading had anything to do with what other people had been reading and contemplating. I did not know it then, but I was experiencing a deep inner training, an orientation toward Christ that only the Divine Liturgy can exceed.
The spiritual resources that my church community poured into me is both the treasure and the shame of my life: the treasure because of its priceless value; the shame because of how little I have made of it.
One year, this lover of books and quarter-hearted lover of Christ wanted to learn more about a somewhat odd and somewhat rarely considered phrase in the writings of St. Paul: “the power of His resurrection.”
The great and holy apostle insisted to the Philippians that he considered his entire heritage, the righteousness he had attained among his elders, the reputation he had gained among his peers for the passion of his commitment to their shared cause, all of these things he considerd, as the KJV puts it, “dung, that I may win Christ,… that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection…. If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.”
It’s a pretty intense emotional passage in Philipians 3, and since I’ve always found the idea of knowing Christ Himself so far beyond appealing that I can’t put it into words, I like his way of putting it.
So, that year, quite a while ago, I decided I wanted to study phrase, “the power of his resurrection.” Going to the church library, I dug around looking for a book on it. To this day, I am still astonished by the fact that I could find only one book that directly addressed it. There were plenty of books about the crucifixion, but I came out of this search thinking that there was some sub-conscious or emotional dropping off that took place after the crucifixion.
I’ve contemplated why that would be for a long time, and can’t pretend I know. But here is something I have noticed both in my own soul and in other people’s conversations. When it comes to the crucifixion, we can easily see and feel that something gut-wrenching is happening. If we are struggling to feel the way we ought to feel about God, we can bring up the crucifixion, use graphic descriptions, raise our voices or the emotional pitch, and find ourselves at least a little moved – and sometimes it works so well we are aroused to action or moved to tears.
Also, theologically, it’s easy to focus on what Christ achieved by dying. It’s harder to see Him once He has gone into sheol or ascended into heaven. But on the cross, He is vividly before our eyes, like a bronze serpent wrapped around a pole out in the desert. As a result, when we think about the work of Christ, it is easiest to see its meaning when we can see Him hanging on the cross.
We do not appreciate the significance and accomplishment of the resurrection in a similar proportion.
As I write, many of you have taken today off from work for Good Friday, the day on which Christ was crucified. May God bless you as you remember His death. May you find yourself entering deeply into the blood and water that poured, first from His forehead and then from His side. May you even, as God and your children permit, enter into the silence of the tomb on the holiest Saturday the world has known, when He was among the dead, conquering death, and freeing captives.
When Sunday morning comes, may you also enter into the power that raised Him from the dead, that declared Him to be the Son of God with power (Romans 1), and that showed Him that paths of life (Acts 2). Perhaps you can even rise with Him and see the moment when He approaches the everlasting gates and the angels who guard it can’t recognize Him in His humility. Perhaps you can see His train, the released captives and the angelic host, as they cry out to the guardians: “Be lifted up everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall come in!”
Perhaps you can stand beside or behind Him and hear the angels of the gates cry out, “Who is this king of glory?”
Perhaps you can hear and even join in the response of the liberated captives, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle, He is the King of Glory!”
Perhaps you can enter with Him through the gates and approach the eternal throne where He sprinkles the blood of the eternal sacrifice on the eternal altar, and “see” His Father rise from the eternal throne of grace and say to Him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten You.”
Perhaps you can sit with Him at the right hand of the Father.
Perhaps you can hear His final message to the apostles when He says, “All power has been given to me in heaven and on earth. So go into the whole world and make disciples of every nation, teaching them to observe everything I have taught you. And notice this: I am always with you, even to the ending of the age.”
Perhaps you can attain to that resurrection yourself. That is what Paul says he wants to do. It is a great and deep mystery, but when we unite ourselves to Christ, this is what He achieves in us.
We can be made “conformable to his death.”
We can share in the “fellowship of His sufferings.” Today, Good Friday, is a God-blessed opportunity to attend to these.
And we can also “know Him, and the power of His resurrection.” At the very, very least, the power of His resurrection is the power that defeated death. The Sunday that follows Good Friday should be an embodied anticipation of the possibility that we can know that power (read Philippians 3 (the whole chapter) for more details).
May you know both the fellowship of His sufferings and the power of His resurrection, because both are required to know Him, which is the only final desire of our hearts.