I was about sixteen years old when I saw my first death. It was a murder: a particularly obscene act of cold-blooded murder that involved somebody I felt I knew a little bit. His name was John F. Kennedy, and I watched him die on a March evening in 1975 during a TV broadcast of Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of his assassination.
I was familiar with death in the abstract. My grandfather and grandmother had “gone to heaven” when I was a child. I used to practice dying in battle in the back yard. I saw hundreds of people die on TV. But the guy who was killed on Combat this week would be back to die on Star Trek next week. People didn’t really die.
Then came the Zapruder film. I saw death in all its horror for the first time in my life: the instant transformation of a man into a thing. Not just any man, but a man whose voice and face were familiar to me from my earliest childhood. And not just any thing, but a horrifying rag doll with its blood, brains, skull and scalp draped across the right side of its head like something out of a nightmare. Somehow, the finality and inevitability of it was shattering. For years, it remained in my mind, whispering that, say what you will, death is the ultimate reality. All that stuff about Going to a Better Place was just a dose of opium to keep from facing that fact.
Then I encountered the Risen Christ.
It hadn’t been easy to meet Him. Many modern Christians, intimidated by our culture of skepticism, had hid Him under the bushel of private, subjective experience where they hoped no skeptic could attack. Instead of telling me about the Resurrection, they told me, “You ask me how I know Jesus lives? He lives in my heart!”
I don’t deny that Jesus lives in the heart of the believer. But I do deny that this has anything to do with what Easter means. And I especially deny that this is any way to answer the challenge that the Zapruder film made to my young pagan soul. Indeed, it comes perilously close to “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” sentimentality.
What broke into my world where death was the ultimate reality might best be summed up this way: It dawned on me one day that though there is no Santa Claus, there is a Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra–a real man who tramped the floor and cast a shadow and had to blow his nose sometimes. And the fact that he was every bit as real as any other historical figure eventually prompted the question, “Where did he come from?” And that led back inexorably, by a chain of equally historical people, to the apostles who invented the office of bishop and to Jesus of Nazareth.
Most especially it led back to the moment where Jesus of Nazareth–whom the apostles had just seen murdered in a way every bit as concrete, bloody and obscene as the murder I’d witnessed—handed them a nice cooked fish, said, “L’Chaim” and ate some of it Himself. It led to Doubting Thomas putting his finger in the actual wounds of this Risen Jesus—and then, like all the apostles, telling the world about it for the rest of his life and getting persecuted and killed for his troubles. It led to apostles who emphatically did not go around saying Jesus was alive because he “lived in their hearts”. Rather, they were galvanized by the absolute thunderbolt that the same God they had read about in Genesis, the “In The Beginning” One, had died in front of their mortal eyes covered in sweat, filth and blood—and had then been seen with those same eyes, looked upon and touched with their hands, three days later.
In other words, Christianity isn’t there because the apostles had an improbable fit of gauzy sentimentality after their Master’s brutal murder. Christianity is here because the Risen Christ said to them, “Stay in Jerusalem, because I’m about to pour out on you the same Spirit that raised this glorious body you see before you from the dead.” They stayed in Jerusalem, expecting they knew not what, not because they had a lovely private mystical subjective vision that made them feel a bit better about the unfortunate events of Good Friday, but because they saw a tomb with no corpse in it and a Risen Christ who didn’t conform to the canons of Consoling Hallucinatory Experiences.
All this matters intensely to me for the same reason it mattered intensely to St. Paul. I never liked “Yes, Virginia” sentimentality. When people tell me, “I’ll be there in spirit!” I know they mean, “I won’t be there.” When they say of a dead man, “He lives in our hearts,” I know they mean, “He’s dead.” I’ve seen the Zapruder film. The only adequate answer to it is the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are people out there who will prattle about an “Easter Event”. The “Easter Event” is a turnip ghost invoked by theologians who don’t want to come right out and say they think the stinking corpse of Jesus Christ went a-progress through the guts of a wild dog while Christians fantasized a Resurrection. Like the apostles, I’m not the least bit interested in an “Easter Event”. I’m interested in Jesus Christ Risen—bodily—from the dead. I’m interested in the truth of that shocking, concrete and violent reply from the God of Miracles to the shocking, concrete and violent obscenity I witnessed when I was sixteen. He is what Easter means to me.