by John E. Alsup
I hear Easter comes early this year. Oh great, I haven’t even recovered yet from Christmas!
The “seasons” of Christmas and Easter are really hard times for lots of folks — pastors and parishioners alike, truth be told! Doubts, uncertainties, insecurities, exhaustion … all realities that weave their way daily through the consciousness of us all.
Which is the less formidable obstacle to the authentic joining in celebration of the “seasons” alluded to above: the hop, hop of Easter egg “bunnydom,” the chimes of Time Square’s welcoming in of the New Year, or the surrogate nativity hymnody of “Here comes Santa Claus”? Once again, a good many folks sense a form of victimization in having passed through Christmas and New Year en route to a whatever-Easter. This probing reality check shaped the prayer in our hearts as we fell into bed these nights gone by. We were just plumb tuckered out by all the competing interests! They also shaped the prayer we offered up as we rose to face another day — an intercessory prayer that God Almighty would deliver us from the oppression of our seeming helplessness.
Help! … And, is that an intercessory prayer?
It makes no difference, really, if the weight of oppression of a perceived hopelessness (the first cousin of helplessness) is personal/private, family/inclusive, labor/economic, injustice/experiential or civic/ national/international in scope. The “now” of our need for deliverance is just that: We desperately need intervention “from on high” (as we used to say … I wonder when and why we stopped saying this)!
Is this “primacy” stuff kind of like getting the cart before the horse?
As one parishioner voiced after worship regarding the week of December 26-31, “Well, we made it through — muddled through is more like it — the tensile-happy fling of another Advent/Christmas.”
It is no wonder that one grouses about the “season” that is commercialized to the teeth and is lacking so much in authenticity. We are truly burdened by the regret of not finding the perfect gift for everyone on that obligatory list of deserving recipients, driven by escalating sale prices and by a very real lack of financial wherewithal to make goodness happen! And the prayer for deliverance from on high has nudged us to lean more into Lent/Easter than schlep along under the weight of disappointments remembered in last season’s commercialization of the Christian liturgical calendar.
Of course Easter has its own commercialization problems (to a lesser degree perhaps). And yet, maybe Easter will be different this year. After all, Easter’s heritage has always been our theological focus — a reversal, if you will, of our insistence upon natural chronological inclinations: first baby Jesus, then the biographical journey, and finally the trial, the death, and then the tomb; first happy birthday and then the end of the greatest story ever told, as Fulton Oursler called it some years ago. Very possibly the doorway to a “deliverance” is to approach the season from an inverted post-resurrection perspective. Perhaps it bodes some promise to embrace the “season” from the primacy of Easter vision.
So, are all Gospels alike in how they organize the telling of Jesus’ story? I mean, where are they supposed to begin and end?
The phenomenon to which we refer here is the domestication of the gospel, if you will. It is in part the flawed assumption that the Gospels are essentially comparable to biographies. We know how to tell the story of our mortal lives. It starts with babies and the parental pedigree captured in birth certificates; it proceeds along the lines of growing up, accompanied by schools attended, graduations and certificates; marriage(s) and progeny, employment histories with accomplishments, distinctions and/or failures; and then finally a death certificate, an obituary and a final resting place. Like the old West Texas grave marker epitaph penned by the grandson of the Shackelford County pioneer Peter Gunsaulus, put it: “Oh stranger, as you pass by, remember, as you are now, so once was I; as I am now you soon shall be, so prepare for Christ, and follow me!”
The Gospels, we assume, are something like this life-journey format. Well, this is not really so. Gospels are actually meant to be read and understood from the end, as it were, to the beginning. The story of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is really a novum (Latin for “new thing”) when it comes to its telling and significance.
So what does Easter have to do with Christmas and vice versa?
For one thing, the date of December 25 for Christmas and its Advent sequence — with what for us has become a familiar journey (Sunday school re-enactments included) with mangers and adoring shepherds, cattle lowing and magi from the East — do not appear in the narrative beginnings of the earliest Gospel (Mark) or the latest one (John). We rely entirely on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke for these particulars of baby Jesus.
Mark’s principle of a post-resurrection compositional arrangement is dominated by the focal question posed in 8:27: “Who am I?” For Mark, nativity traditions play no role at all. The closest Mark comes to the birthing issue appears in 3:31-35 and the “who is my mother?” question. John, moreover, focuses on Jesus’ origins in terms of the “Word” spoken at creation having become flesh and that One’s relationship to light and, historically, to the wilderness ministry of John the Baptist. No baby Jesus, except by the natural givens of human presuppositions when it comes to genealogical beginnings. It is a good thing here to remember that this article’s reflection is on the “primacy of Easter” — it is not an exploration of the subsequent compositional interests of Matthew and Luke as they augmented their Markan source.
I’m getting interested in primacy, but I’m still wondering about how it all began.
Primacy, as focal moment, enables us to think some more about the origins of Christian faith. We know that the earliest record of our beginnings in the New Testament are found (counter to our instincts when following the order of arrangement of the canon) not in the Gospels but in the epistles, the Pauline corpus to be exact. Literarily speaking, the oldest witness to the use of the term “gospel” is found in 1 Thessalonians 1:5: “(You remember) that our gospel came into your midst not in word only but also in power, that is in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you will recall what sort of persons we became while we were there with you and on your behalf.” The substantive recall of those “gospel/faith” beginnings as a preached “gospel” and not as a written composition (Mark was not even written yet) is found in verses 9-10. The primacy moment of Easter is the hope and reality of resurrection deliverance out of all future wraths. The expanded version of this apostolic primacy kerygma moment (preached word) is found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. This starting point is not the Christmas narrative of our contemporary Christian calendar at all.
I like the old hymn “Open my eyes that I may see glimpses of truth Thou hast for me,” and I think maybe it should include “glimpses of primacy”!
This brings us back now to the “muddled through” comment of a parishioner mentioned earlier and the need for deliverance from the victimization syndrome that battered this person (and probably most all of us) in the week after Christmas and left us with little more focus for Lent and Easter than the concern that more of the same domestication of “good news” is just around the corner. The road back to a rediscovery of the primacy of Easter is marked by Jesus’ question. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel asks his disciples (and, in turn, all of us as well): Who do people say I am? Who do you say I am?
This question in its double-sidedness holds the key to Easter’s primacy. For starters, people would and often do acknowledge that Jesus was/is an important figure in history and they do join in on celebration moments about probably “the greatest story ever told.” But the “who do you say I am?” question presupposes from Mark’s post-resurrection compositional perspective that the confessional posture of Easter’s primacy changes everything for the question and the one who answers it. Even Matthew and Luke support the angle of vision to read their works from end to beginning and by doing so affirm Mark’s starting point of Jesus’ query.
This issue of Easter’s primacy accompanies all discussions on the nature of God’s incarnation because the mystery of whom we behold in Jesus of Nazareth and whom we worship as Jesus the resurrected Lord comes through faith’s breakthrough vision gifted to Easter visionaries. Nowhere is this more profoundly portrayed than in the first chapter of The Book of Revelation: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who am the Being One, the Was One, and the Coming One … the Almighty” (1:8). “Do not fear, I am the First One and the Last One, even the Living One … I was dead and, behold, I am alive for ever and ever and I have the keys of death and Hades … write of these mysteries … (1:17-19).” In the concluding hymn-vision of 21:3-5 the promise is that this One is “making all things new”! Fittingly, this conclusion to our New Testament canon stems from the very context (in Ephesus) of John’s Gospel and very well could have been originally the conclusion to that Gospel (cf. the end of chapter 20 and the beginning of chapter 21). Reading from end to beginning does perhaps have some relevance, after all, as primacy vision for telling the story of our lives too.
Wow! Who would have thought that Easter would be so directly relevant to the telling of my own story? I think we may be on to something truly wonderful here.
JOHN E. ALSUP is the D. Thomason Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and pastor of Sunrise Beach Federated Church in Sunrise Beach, Texas.