In honor of this holy day, I offer a favorite poem: “Seven Stanzas for Easter.” John Updike wrote it in 1960 as a university student, as I understand, and published it in a periodical called The Lutheran.
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the
molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of
beauty, lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
The poem, for some strange reason, reminds me of Huxley’s statement: “All great truths begin as heresy.” In a gnosticized world where the resurrection is merely a spiritual event, surely this poem could only have been written by a heretic.
A wonderful poem, whose expression of faith is all the stronger for demonstrating that modern ideas have not been ignored, but considered, sifted, and incorporated where possible: skepticism of miracles rejected, Max Planck’s quanta accepted.
The black-and-whiteness of the opening stanza—in which the stakes are raised, the gauntlet thrown down—seems quite resonant with Mormonism’s insistence on concrete literalism, not just with regard to the resurrection, but the all-or-nothing bet on the fate of the Church being tied to the literal reality of the Book of Mormon.
It’s interesting that he wrote it as a university student—a time, for some, when ideals are held in starkest relief. I tend to see things in black-and-white by disposition, so I can sympathize with the desire for clarity on big questions. I did especially so in my college years, in the BYU environment. I wonder if he also was at a religious university, and if he saw things quite so categorically later in life. Might this urgent expression of Updike’s youth—which might be read (along with some of FARMS fare) as having a “thou doth protest too much” character—be profitably contrasted with the expression of an older and mellower Jim. F.?
Mark (#1), I’m a believer in your Huxley quote. According to legend, upon hearing a proposed theoretical resolution to an empirical problem in physics, another physicist responded along the lines of: “It’s a crazy idea—but is it crazy enough?”
Still, we are conditioned to see the truth according to our standards of beauty and simplicity—a tendency Updike warns against in the last stanza. For it may take strange truths—even monstrous ones, to use Updike’s word—to overcome great conundrums of great crisis.
I think Updike went to Harvard. And thanks for articulating better than I could some of the reasons I like this poem.
Great poem, Greg. Where’d you find it?
As I was reading a book about the Ebola Virus (that particularly fatal one) the author wrote that the cells of the body would fall into disorder, the organized systems would atrophy, and the process would be irreversible. It was particularly unhopeful.
So in contrast, this poem is profound for me because it reaffirms the miraculous nature of the resurrection. This year in Biology I have just started to learn the complexity of living systems and instead of making the resurrection ordinary by talking about “amino acids” it only makes it more meaningful. I have to agree with Updike in the 4th stanza where we should not “sidestep” how important this event is.
A link to the “original”: http://www.thelutheran.org/0104/page18.html
I don’t remember.
Thanks for the link. Based on that, my post had a typo I’ve cleaned up. And it’s interesting to see the original indenting that my version left out.