Beauty-Full!

 

March 27, 2016: Easter Sunday
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

Alleluia, Christ has risen! Christ has risen indeed! And how good is our life-giving God! Our God who has been hard at work with humanity since…..the beginning; since Genesis!

Sometimes it feels to me on Easter morning as if we have reached some long awaited destination. That we have been on a long journey. And we have been, since last year at this time. And we have finally arrived. But as the old saying goes: it’s the journey, not the destination that counts. Because what really counts is the transformation that happens along the way. As that other old adage goes:

To journey without being changed is to be a nomad.

To change without the journey is to be a chameleon.

To be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.

And a pilgrim journeys along a road to nowhere.

We might reframe this old adage in the vernacular of our Christian tradition:

To be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.

And a pilgrim journeys along a road to ….. emptiness.

It’s the paradox of our faith, don’t you know. That this new life to which we aspire leads us to the emptiness of the tomb. It is the paradox of our faith that the prize will leave us with less, not more. Most new things in this life result in more, they add things to our lives. A new child. A new marriage. A new puppy. A new job. A new house. Each of these increases the fabric of our lives. But the journey to the New Creation leads us to an empty tomb. It leads us to less, not more.

Frederick Buechner talks about this paradox of less leading to more. He says that when we truly open ourselves to God, two things happen. First we lose ourselves. And second, we find that we are more fully ourselves than we ever were.1

And so if less is going to be more in this new life, we are going to need a new yardstick. We are going to need a new way to speak about who we are and where we are going. We are going to need some new language. We are going to need to learn to embrace the empty tomb as though it were full; filled with life abundant….which, of course, it is.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, has a wonderful, mystical understanding of this Easter morning. Rather than serving as a virtual end point to God’s story of salvation, our Orthodox brothers and sister place the Easter story within the great cosmic drama from creation to eternity. The resurrection is not the destination, but a passageway.

The Orthodox Church is not afraid to ground itself in the Mystical (with a capital M), the Spiritual (with a capital S), the Possible (with a capital P). Unlike the Western tradition that organizes itself within a seven day calendar week, with the Sabbath at the start OR at the end, depending upon one’s orientation, the Orthodox tradition embraces an eight day week. Sunday is both the first day of Creation and the first day of the New Creation. The end is the beginning of a divine continuum. In the Orthodox tradition, there is no break between the Creation in Genesis and the New Creation of the Resurrection. The beginning and the end are not just intrinsically connected, they are one in the same thing. Not unlike the empty tomb….which is both the end…….and the beginning.

Likewise, says Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian, Creation was not an act of God orchestrated in seven distinct days as is thought to be the case in the Western church, but more like a song that just sings on.2 And if that is true, then creation is never really complete. It is always and ever emerging from a process of ongoing creativity. Like a pilgrimage that has yet to arrive. In the beginning, God…..began creating.

In the beginning, says theologian Guroian, God created the earth and the seas and the skies as a Temple.2 But not in the way that Western Christians talk about the earth as God’s Temple, not figuratively but literally, as a place whose primary purpose was worship. Guroian says that fundamentally, God created the earth as a sanctuary; a landscape intended for worship. Likewise, human beings were created for the purpose of expressing gratitude. I preach a lot about our being created to love each other, but according to Guroian’s Orthodox theology, in the beginning, before greed and avarice and consumerism created poverty and war and oppression, gratitude was our first purpose.

Guroian describes how God laid the foundation of the Temple of gratitude. God stretched out the heavens above and filled the altar with loved living beings……you and me, who were to live every day as though we were God’s gift to the world, and God’s world were a gift to us. He speaks about life and the world in which we live in terms of a “liturgy of Creation.”3 How great is that?! Our very lives as worship…..as liturgies; where ever we are, whatever we are doing. Imagine your Monday morning commute as a liturgy. Your Tuesday afternoon meeting….a liturgy. Your Wednesday end of your dead tired day trip to the Stop and Shop……yes, even that is a liturgy. What if we saw the stars as sacraments. The stones as holy witnesses. The buildings and bridges around us as chapels. The trees and the valleys and the rivers and the highways and the sidewalks as elements of worship and rites of passage. All of creation, offered not as mere shelter and subsistence, but as sacred, as a space created for thanksgiving and living prayer. Beauty and joy!

This radically orthodox view of creation might not seem so radical if the dominant translation of the Book of Genesis had followed the Septuagint, which you may know is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. I am specifically speaking of that repeating line in the first creation story; the story whose every day’s work ends with God’s self-satisfied declaration: “and God saw that it was good.”

The Hebrew word translated in most versions of the scripture as good, is tov. But tov can also and equally authentically be translated as beautiful. And so the Greek in the Septuagint reads after every day’s work: “And God saw that it was beautiful.” God created light. And God saw that it was beautiful. God created the waters. And God saw that they were beautiful. God created the birds. And God saw that they were beautiful. God created the creepy crawly things and all of the animals of the earth and God saw that they were beautiful. And then God created earthlings, and God saw that they were very beautiful.

Good Lord! Beautiful Lord! Tov Lord! What a difference that makes. Don’t you think? There seems an almost ontological difference between good creations and beautiful creations. Good seems almost always to be a sort of moral judgment. What is good is usually measured, at least in our Western world, against what is bad. As what is right is right in comparison to what is wrong. But beautiful……it sets up no moral judgment, there is no competitive edge. And there is no space to fail. Beautiful is just beautiful. And better yet, as we all know beauty is in the eyes of the beholder…..so it is inherently personal, and yet completely non judgmental. How beautiful is that?!

I think we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy and life force in our culture trying to be good; trying to live good lives. But after thinking about the Greek translation of tov in the Septuagint, I am just wondering, what if we spent that same amount of time and energy and life force trying to live beautiful lives. What if beauty, rather goodness were our yardstick……were our means of getting right with God? For one thing, it would be a lot harder to point our fingers at those whom we think are not getting it right with God. It is much easier to condemn those who we think are not-good than those who are not- beautiful…..because, let’s face it, who are we to say what is not beautiful.

What if we looked at each other, not as God’s good creatures, but as God’s beauties. What if we searched each other, not for the goodness in our hearts, but for the beauty? What if we took seriously that God’s highest praise of God’s own creation is that it is beautiful. And we are very beautiful. How might that change the way we relate to God, and to each other, and to the world around us?

I have to say, I have spent a good deal of my preaching over the last couple of years making the theological case for wholeness over goodness. But I am beginning to think that maybe I need to rethink my own theology. Again. I still think wholeness is certainly closer to divine than goodness….as goals go. But like goodness, wholeness also seems to be out of reach in the context of the human condition. Who among us feels whole…in the fully-ourselves-as-we-were-created-to-be sort of way? Anyone? I will just speak for myself, but I think I have flashes of wholeness, I have glimpses of wholeness, I have moments of wholeness, but, trust me, I am far from being truly and utterly whole in terms of integrating my created potential. And so, based on my own experience, I think that the brokenness that comes with this human condition may well preclude wholeness as a realistic aim.

Please do not misunderstand, I am not denouncing wholeness. It is a fine aim for our fractured lives. But I am wondering if that beautiful tov in the Septuagint’s Genesis might offer us a much more integral and personal and attainable relationship with God and each other than either goodness or wholeness might allow.

And so here we are at the empty tomb. No wonder Christianity has such an image problem. Our core symbols are a crucifix and an empty tomb! But what God gives us in that empty tomb, we can find nowhere else. And nothing can take that fullness of life away. From the void from which God created all things, to the tomb which is void of all things. They are bookends in our life with God.

The good news is that the void in the tomb is filled with the beauty of everlasting life. And in keeping with the ongoing creativity of God, the promise of the empty tomb is that the story is not finished. Empty things need to be filled. It is simply a law of nature. And that is better than Good News.

The tomb is empty because Christ has risen! It is the tell tale sign that the pilgrimage has progressed to a new level. That empty tomb is the sign that beauty is ascending.

I will leave you with this Easter blessing from the wonderful poet, Jan Richardson:

Easter Blessing

By Jan Richardson

If you are looking for a blessing, do not linger here. Here is only emptiness,
a hollow, a husk where a blessing used to be. This blessing was not content in its confinement.             It could not abide its isolation,
the unrelenting silence, the pressing stench of death. So if it is a blessing that you seek,
open your own mouth.

Fill your lungs with the air that this new morning brings
and then release it with a cry.
Hear how the blessing breaks forth in your own voice,
how your own lips form every word you never dreamed to say.
See how the blessing circles back again wanting you to repeat it but louder. How it draws you, pulls you, sends you
to proclaim its only word:
risen, risen, risen.

Alleluia! The most beautiful among us has risen indeed! Amen.

 

Endnotes

1  Frederich Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pp.83-4.

2 On Being with Krista Tippet, April 5, 2012  (Radio program produced by National Public Radio)

3  Vigen Guroian, The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, 2010 (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI)

 

© April 2016 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
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