‘As the first day of the week was dawning … an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.’ Matthew 28.1-8
As the Christian seasons circle around I always pray for an insight or thought to come fresh to me. After hearing and telling the great stories of the faith over a lifetime they all too easily lose their power to surprise or renew. One Easter it was the angel – the one who ‘rolled back the stone and sat on it’. That detail. Now I can imagine rolling a heavy stone away on your own would leave you out of breath and needing a rest. But I never considered that might be a problem for angels.
What are we to make of this detail? Sitting down has a ‘job done’ feel to it. And certainly, while an angel is sitting on it, there is no chance anyone could roll the stone back again. But is it me or does the mood feel teasingly casual somehow? Something heavy enough to seal in death itself is reduced to a handy spot to sit for a moment. If we weren’t talking about angels I could imagine this as a work break, for a smoke, before going on to the next job.
Well on this occasion I got the distinct impression that angel was fixing me with a mischievous – ‘you won’t believe what I’ve just seen!’ – look. I swear he winked at me. I was trying to pray but I keep giggling.
There is a literary theory that all story-telling revolves around four types of plot and these correspond to the seasons of creation. Autumn is tragedy, Winter is satire. Summer is romance and Spring is comedy. Resurrection is faith’s Springtime. New life is emerging after the long death winter.
It may be that our most trusting response to the resurrection story is laughter. Oh, the philosophers and theologians still have the serious thinking and analysis to do – and so do we. But don’t miss that angel sitting on that stone watching us all, grinning.
The poet Anne Sexton was more often a wounded pilgrim in her journey of life and faith. But in one of my favourite poems of hers she imagines meeting up with God on an island. He surprises her by producing a pack of cards and starting a game of poker. She is dealt her hand – as we all are in this life. And like her we make what we can of what we are given. To her surprise it is a very strong hand. She thinks she has won and lays down her cards with a flourish. But God trumps her with a fifth ace! A wild card. Her response is not outrage though. She loves it! The poem ends with the poet and God doubled over each other in helpless laughter at their ‘double triumphs’.
I with my royal straight flush,
love you so for your wild card,
that untameable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha
and lucky love.’ (1)
Christians don’t usually describe their relationship with God in terms of gambling! But there is nothing trivial in the imagery of this poem. Anne Sexton was someone who often found life a desperate struggle. Life does not deal out fairly to everyone. Given a reasonable hand of opportunities, skills and openings we will hope to do our best. But here, after everything had been dealt out and the outcome apparently clear – a fifth ace appears from nowhere. Like a wild card God’s love breaks in and trumps the lot!
The resurrection of Jesus is God’s fifth ace. Love is a wild card.
I once spoke on this poem during a retreat with ministers who were all working in a very tough urban contexts. ‘After we have done all our careful theology and praying,’ I suggested, ‘we need a God who cheats – who has a fifth ace up his sleeve’. A sense of energy and shared mischief came into the room at that point (though several could not resist a nervous look at their bishop). One of them came up to me afterwards. ‘You are right that God cheats,’ he said. ‘But he doesn’t cheat fairly!’
There was a tradition in many older societies of the clown or jester. In royal courts, among religious dignitaries and in the market-places they have permission to mock the pomposity of the powerful and de-throne the self-important. They laugh at the po-faced solemnity we confuse with reverence. They simply refuse to take us seriously. And that is their gift. Their laughter relativises the powers. They subvert scripts. They roll large and important stones away and just sit on them.
A prayer group was silently imagining they were entering the court of God the King. They were invited to act this out, walking across an empty room, drawing near God with whatever expressions of reverence they felt appropriate. At the far end of the room, as some knelt or bowed, one of them suddenly laughed out loud. I asked them afterwards what had happened. ‘Well you know when you are in the presence of someone really important you feel awkward and tongue-tied and they say something to relax you?’ ‘Yes’, I said.’ ‘Well, God told me a joke.’
This is the season of comedy.
Resurrection is God’s fifth ace.
He has broken the rules.
Just trumped the lot.
You just have to laugh don’t you?
1. ‘The Rowing Endeth’, The Complete Poems, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982. pp 473.