Easter is a paschal mystery. We can only approach an encounter with Christ’s resurrection through the doorway of the cross.
I am acquainted with the power of doors. I have a four-inch scar to remind me every day. It is a very different emblem than those evinced by our four children, most of whom have embraced the millennial discipline of tattoos. Our oldest sports a Bible verse in Tshiluba and French, a reminder of a short-term mission experience in Congo. Our youngest has both an image of Ferdinand the Bull and a quote from T.S. Eliot on her arm. My arm scar, in contrast, is a mark without design or intention, beyond reflection — except perhaps by a surgeon who would find satisfaction in the healing it represents.
I was only four years old. My mother was preparing to drive my older brother, a second grader, to school. I was hurrying, excited, running through the house toward the door. The door represented freedom and future, the promise that I too would leave home and head off to school in just another year or two.
My older brother expected that I would see that he was fully through the doorway, releasing the screen door and about to step off the front porch. I thought he would continue to hold the door open for a second or two more. It was an easy mistake. My arm struck the glass just as I reached the threshold.
I don’t remember much, except lying an hour or so later on the table under the bright lights of the hospital operating room. I woke up after the surgery with twenty-five stitches in my right arm.
Our journeys, our scars teach us.
In our busy world, filled with moment-to-moment demands and the endless news of global disasters, you and I are tempted to move swiftly, multitasking all the way, from the Sunday of palms and joyful shouts to the Sunday of empty tomb and new life. In our hurry as we enter Holy Week, we may be content to disregard our surroundings and mindlessly mimic the words of Jesus as we untie the colt for the entrance into Jerusalem. And we are not surprised when his very next word is one that recognizes our lack of understanding, “If you, even you,” Jesus says, “had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42).
Understanding is often beyond us, for we wish to sing praises of the king who comes, the king we worship and serve — as long as the experience serves our wants, is always convenient, is not too demanding in our busy routine.
We yearn to move easily from triumph to triumph, enjoying the enthusiastic welcome for Jesus on Palm Sunday and the celebration of resurrection on Easter Sunday. We turn away from the agony of Good Friday and the difficult waiting of Holy Saturday. More than we have the courage to admit, we are eager to live without pain, to cover and hide the scars we have suffered.
Yet every doorway into Easter leads through the cross. In Luke’s Gospel:
- The angels who appear to the women at the empty tomb make explicit reference to the crucifixion of the One who was raised.
- On the road to Emmaus, Jesus reveals himself in the breaking of the bread, as his disciples remember the sacrifice of his body.
- When the resurrected Lord appears to his followers, he shows them his hands and feet, demonstrating the mark of the Risen One is his suffering.
Even as we are sorely tempted to turn from our memories of pain or the prospect of self-sacrifice, we discover that Christ’s suffering provides the necessary framework of Easter. In “Letters and Papers from Prison,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world … [yet] the Bible directs man to God’s powerless and suffering. Only the suffering God can help.”
The reality of Holy Week and Easter — entrance into Jerusalem, betrayal, arrest, suffering, crucifixion, burial and resurrection — gives form to our spiritual lives only as we flesh out the story and journey through our own cross-shaped experience. The doorway of the cross leads us into Easter.
Ron Byars alludes to this architecture in “Finding Our Balance: Repositioning Mainstream Protestantism.” He writes, “The liturgy of the church in Word and Sacrament, with attentiveness to the poor, shapes the dispositions of worshipers over time and imprints on them the architectural structure that supports personal and communal engagement with the God revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ … The liturgy of the church is at work both in the conscious and unconscious mind. It works through sound and speech, but also in bodily movement, as well as by means of the senses, such as sight, smell and taste.”
We cannot live as Easter people until and unless we are shaped by the cross, moving through its doorway daily, hourly and moment-to-moment.
The temptation is great to choose other portals as the guiding feature for our spiritual lives. We are beckoned each day to orient ourselves by walking through the door of success, the door of wealth or the door of popularity. We yearn to be the best and the brightest. We are tempted to scrub every vestige of imperfection or loss from our presence on Instagram or Facebook.
When I was in middle school and high school, my mother and father owned and operated a motel. My adolescence was marked by life at the family business; we lived in an apartment there in the motel. My brother and I delivered extra towels, cleaned the pool and replaced faulty televisions. With my father, I checked the boiler room late at night. I still remember interrupting one family holiday meal after another to check in guests on Christmas Day.
Although my classmates thought it strange, there were advantages. My brother and I swam early and often at the motel pool in the summer. Our home had more rooms and more doors than any other in town, even the largest mansion. Depending on the doorway, I might find myself stepping into the linen room, the boiler room, the storage room or any number of guest rooms. Some rooms had newer furniture and TVs and others were almost ready to be renovated; all held the promise of conversation with guests from another part of the state or country.
As I grew older, those doors came to represent the myriad of choices available as I prepared to leave for college. Who would I become? Diligent student or dedicated partier? Earnest disciple or fallen-away former Christian? What doors would I step through? What identity would I embrace?
Peyton Pond, a gifted architect from northern Virginia, reflects on this reality in his essay on the significance of doors. “In architecture today, there are at least two camps, the materialists and the symbolists. The materialists look at building elements with regard to materials, details and relationships to an overall constructed design. The symbolists see architecture as a repository of constructed symbols that reflect the human condition.
“Doors are a lost opportunity as tools for an examination of our current culture and existential condition. We live in a binary world: in/out, one/zero, happy/sad, satiated/hungry, something/nothing, alive/dead. Our experiences, while often complex and more subtle, usually can be summarized as a this or a that. However, one notices the value of a door as a symbol of circumstances and aspirations as well as fears. One hopes to know what is on the other side of a door, but one never knows until one dares to open it and cross its threshold.”
Today’s church faces a dilemma. You and I have gathered inside our beautiful buildings, and we are afraid to go outside. We may tell ourselves that our doors are open wide and the welcome mat is out. We may be convinced that we are hospitable and eager to embrace others in Christ’s name on Easter. But you and I still wait for our neighbors to cross our threshold.
We still look and act and think far too much and far too often in ways that reflect the world rather than the faith. We still wait for the world to come to us, rather than defining our witness by going out in Christ’s name. Our lives are not formed by the giving, serving, hoping shape of the cross.
Instead of the “triumphant religion” that most of our neighbors identify with Western Christianity, Douglas John Hall invites us to move into the world through the doorway of the cross. “The theology of the cross is bound to this world in all of its materiality, ambiguity and incompleteness … We, whose movement in one way and another had always been away from the world, whether into our own private little worlds or to some theoretic superworld of our own devising — we, through our ‘baptism into his death’ (Romans 6:1f.), are being directed toward the world where his life is being lived, hidden among the lives of those especially whom the world as such seems to have denied fullness of life (Mathew 25:31f.).”
In short, Hall recognizes, “the object of the Christian presence in the world — of discipleship — is to engage the world.”
The resurrection of Jesus Christ frees us from the power of sin and death, from the impossible demand that we must create the door that leads to freedom. The shape of Easter is the doorway of the cross. It leads us beyond the false idolatry of self-centeredness, resting in an idealized place of safety and security, separated from all our neighbors.
Instead, the cross becomes the shape of our spiritual journey, beckoning us to our own encounter with Christ’s resurrection, discovered in the midst of the world’s brokenness.
Almost 40 years ago, the congregation I serve dedicated a beautiful large sculpture as the entryway to the church buildings. Preschool students to older adults walk through it. Created by the late Thornton Utz, a church elder, “this work is about Christ as the Way, the Way into the Church, the Way to God, and the Way back into the world God loves. Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us, is the Way.”
The congregation chose the Utz Cross as the emblem of its centennial celebration several years ago. “The symbolism of the cross embodies us for a vision for the future,” they wrote. “We will continue to walk in the Way of the Living Cross.”
My friend Margaret LaMotte Torrence pointed out that the Utz Cross is built on a series of vaguely elliptical platforms, which serve as steps. The steps, when viewed from above, form the shape of a butterfly. As Margaret said, “Thornton Utz included it anyway, even though there is no vantage point on the church property from which that shape can be discerned. He knew that when we are facing the cross, we cannot see the resurrection. But always it is there in God’s eternal eye.”
Easter is this invitation for each of us to walk into the world, embracing the challenges of human sin and brokenness and natural disasters and climate change. The cross, as we carry and represent it, becomes our doorway into the depth of Easter joy as we celebrate with all those around us.
GLEN BELL is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, Florida. He currently serves on the strategy team of the NEXT Church and the board of the Presbyterian Outlook.