“I wish I had never heard it, so that I could hear it again for the first time,” Tom said. The subject was Mozart’s Requiem, among the most beloved compositions in all of European classical music. As an orchestral player, Tom now gets to play Mozart’s Requiem. He gets to be part of making it come alive for others. But the magic of hearing it for the first time — holding a tense breath during the fourth beat of the third measure, letting go as the dissonance relaxes, marveling at how quickly you are swept away — only happens once. The feeling of a sacred moment of discovery, of offering yourself as a captive to that moment, only happens once. Then never again. The surprise of being escorted into the unfolding drama for the first time only happens once. You can still be swept away later, but always for the second time.
And yet, some stories keep yielding newness, even when we know how they go. In his Confessions, St. Augustine shouts out to God, “Late have I loved you, beauty ever ancient, ever new. Late have I loved you!” Hopkins, in the ecstasy of “God’s Grandeur,” exclaims that in the world charged with the grandeur of God, “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Though we can never hear a story again for the first time, we can learn to love it more deeply. Second and third and fourth readings and hearings begin to yield deeper layers and complexities. The stories we repeat begin to lay claim on our lives, making demands on the ways we move in the world.
On Easter Sunday, Christians around the world told an old, old story. The story ends in victory – a peasant man chooses allegiance to God’s abundance rather than Caesar’s scarcity, and so is brutalized and executed by a cruel empire, only to show that the God of the poor has conquered the oppression and death of the domination system. We know the story. Knowing it, we claim it for ourselves. Not only is Jesus resurrected, but so shall we be. The sting of death has been conquered once, for all. Not even the most brutal empire can win when the God of the universe intercedes.
What is interesting in narrating our lives this way is not necessarily how they end. The basic Christian confession is that all of our stories end with “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Our final chapters have been written. On that great gettin’ up morning, we will see Jesus, and we will be like him, having been freed from death. We know how the story ends, but we do not know how we get there. The middle chapters are missing. We get to help God write them.
I suspect that the spiritual life is mostly about waking up, and learning to see ourselves in spirit and in truth. Striving to live in communion with Jesus seems, in most of the saints, to end up bearing the fruit of knowing who you are and what time it is. This Eastertide, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the murder of the American prophet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is surely a crucial time in the life of the church in the United States. It is especially so for those like me, who have been taught that we are white, and have thus been part of a Christianity that usually looks more like Rome than it looks like the God-movement Jesus came to inaugurate.
We live in the middle chapters, before the end we know is coming. There is more to write. We are an Easter people, but we live a prolonged Holy Saturday. Before us has gone the horrific damage of the domination system — the doctrine of discovery, the practice of enslavement, a trail of tears, Jim Crow, white Christians destroying the homes and churches of Black Christians in Urban Renewal, colonizing pastors and their church plants in the age of gentrification. Beyond us stands the ecstasy of full consummation with God, the throngs gathered in the redeemed Jerusalem, where crystal waters flow through the heavenly city. In between those times, though, is where we stand. This prolonged Holy Saturday offers the possibility of creating with God. It also leaves open the possibility of generations more of racial and economic terror done by Christians against God’s creation, including other Christians.
For white Christians, imperial Christianity has been all we have known for generations. It was to white preachers that Dr. King wrote his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Despite his brilliant rhetoric, white Christians remained unmoved. And there were precious few white folks marching with him in solidarity with sanitation workers in Memphis five years later, at the time of his assassination. America killed its prophet, and then sanitized his legacy. We teach our kids about his dream, but not about his preaching on the three evils of poverty, racism, and militarism.
Fifty years later, here we are telling old stories again. A man of God organizes parades and stares down the principalities and powers. He comes preaching good news to the poor. He organizes peasants and tells them their lives matter. And then he is assassinated.
We know how this ends, but we haven’t reached the end yet. What comes next is ours to choose. Surely, at this crucial hour, we can listen to those who have suffered under our imperial Christianity. They, like a Palestinian migrant and construction worker, and like a Baptist preacher from Georgia, can offer us all leadership to the freedom of a long Easter.