The Reverend Kathleen Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



Easter is a troublesome holiday for many Unitarian Universalists — for the ones who are still feeling some pain from their childhood religious upbringing and for those of Jewish background — because it is the highest of Christian holy days. It is the culmination of the holiest week in the Christian calendar beginning with Palm Sunday, encompassing Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It is a problem also because, despite the fact that its very name is pagan as are most of the symbols used in its celebration, its Christian meaning is the event of the resurrection which even the inventor of Christianity, St. Paul, described as unbelievable. In fact, very few people believe in its objective reality, even Christians for whom it is a central tenet. The Neo-orthodox theologians of thirty and forty years ago used the word kerygma a Greek word, as a label for those matters whose truth could not be justified through objective proof, but whose story spoke of a truth higher and truer than objective facts.

A lot of years ago now I would go yearly to a class at the Baptist Theological School in New Orleans to explain Unitarian Universalism to them so they would know what they were up against when they began serving churches in the real world. (Unitarian Universalists were not the only ones asked to come, but it sounds better if I left the others out.) One year the class began asking me my opinion of the objective facts of the resurrection. I tried not to give them a direct answer. After all, from the things I had previously said, they knew perfectly well what I thought about it, and I didn’t think it would be useful to shock them by stating it blatantly. I told them that what I thought about the facts was unimportant, that it was the kerygma that mattered — how the story called to them in their own faith. They would not be satisfied and asked over and over again. Finally I let my sense of humor and impatience rule and I replied, “Well, Elvis has been seen in a lot of supermarkets lately.” There was a concerted gasp, and I was never asked back.

Of course there may have been other reasons for that. They may have decided that other religious points of view were not important. Their new president chaired the committee which a few years ago made the pronouncements which finally drove many individual churches and the whole Texas convention out of the Southern Baptist Convention. That was the one that talked about women being obedient to their husbands and denying the right of women to be called to pulpits in Southern Baptist Churches. Although Baptist churches share the same congregational polity as ours with the right to call and ordain their own ministers and make their own congregational decisions, the ministers, in order to be certified by the convention must sign on to certain matters of doctrine. Besides the subservience of women I must assume that the physical resurrection of the body of Jesus is one of them.

In fact, though it was brutally stated, I suspect my take on the question of the facts of the resurrection was probably as correct as any. The book, Constantine’s Sword, by James Carroll, though its purpose was to show the way the Catholic church was not only complicit in but actually caused the Nazi Holocaust, included a very compelling explanation of how Jesus became Christ as an article in Newsweek put it. He reminded us of how we respond when someone of great importance to us dies, and how much more powerful and agonizing the response must have been when Jesus suffered a violent death for the very teachings that his followers took most seriously. They did, indeed, worship him, though scholarship makes it clear that the references in the gospels to him as being God rather than a great man were arguing after the fact and were only explicit in the Gospel of John. Carroll wrote about the way we gather to mourn together and talk about the beloved, reading passages from poetry and sacred texts that seem to us to apply to him. More than one person who describes him or herself as a non-believer has told me about a sense of the material presence of someone who has died. They don’t know where it comes from, but they know that they have experienced it. As these experiences continue, as we think more and more about the greatness of the one we have loved, the more that person gains almost mythical stature. The stories of Jesus’ return have no consistency in the gospels themselves. Mark’s doesn’t even mention them except in a later, tacked-on addition. And it is true that Elvis has been seen in a lot of supermarkets. It’s even more true, however that what is important is not the objective facts, but the kerygma.

Probably the worst movie I ever saw was The Last Temptation of Christ. (I haven’t seen Gibson’s film on the subject.)  Terrible as it was it was entirely redeemed for me by the last scene where Jesus is in the marketplace of the village in which he is living married to Mary Magdalene and comes upon Paul preaching Christ crucified, buried and resurrected. He goes up to Paul and says, “But that’s not what happened,” and Paul replies, “No, but that’s the way it should have happened.” I am no fan of Paul, but he was right. It is the kerygma that matters in the story of the resurrection, not just for Christian believers but for all of us for whom stories of rebirth, the very meaning of springtime, are important.

Spring, of course, here in southwest Florida does not have the impact that it does in more northern climes where the stillness almost of death comes to trees and flowers and even when the earth is not covered with snow it is brown and lifeless. The green mist showing on the willows, the crocus first showing its color in the snow is like the renewal of life itself. We do, of course have seasons here. They have different names and dates, but we have them. They are the rainy season, the hurricane season, the tourist season and the brushfire season. If we allow it to do so Easter could become the ceremony marking the end of tourist and the beginning of brushfire. It will be better for our souls, however, if, like understanding that the truth of the story is more important than the truth of the facts surrounding the resurrection, we continue to remember Easter and springtime, singing the songs of new life and rebirth as a truth outside of seasons. There is some of that too, if you look for it. The cypresses are putting on green as is my bougainvillea. The amaryllises and the orchids are blooming. It is spring and Easter even here in Naples.

In a way, however, the very fact that spring as the renewal of life after the seeming death of winter touches us little here gives a special meaning to the importance of Easter for us, the truth of its meaning without the reality of objective material fact. We are sometimes too bound by this objectivity. How do we prove love? Is it by the parts of the brain that are activated, the measure of heart rate? Or is it instead something that we cannot measure, cannot show but merely know the truth of? When Edna St. Vincent Millay writes of April, she says it is apparent that there is no death. She can see the proof of it in the crocuses, in the opening buds. Doubting Thomas could only believe in material reality and could believe only when he touched Jesus’ wounds. This resurrection of the body, whether materially true as in springtime or highly doubtful as in the Easter story is only symbolic of the true resurrection, the important renewal, that of the spirit.

There are few of us who have lived for any length of time who have not had a Good Friday. We may have had a child who has died or another who has meant to us as much, a relationship that has broken — heartbreakingly broken — been ourselves wracked with pain, ready even to die. Those who have suffered like this are those who truly understand Easter with its resurgence, its resurrection of joy, its renewal of the spirit.

I preached recently on my belief that we sometimes put too much value on material life. Do you remember the Terri Schiavo case? I saw a bumper sticker only a short while ago adjuring us to remember. There were many issues there, political and social as well as religious, but the one thing that stood out for me was the peculiar religious argument for keeping the body breathing and the blood circulating. The very people who speak most strongly for the eternal life of the soul are the ones who seemed most passionate about keeping the material body alive, though from all indications its true life left it years before. The body they were trying to maintain was not Terri Schiavo. Her spirit might still be alive in their memories, in the way she lived her life, in whatever way her living changed the world, as all our lives do, but it did not reside in that vegetative body. Medical science has advanced to the state where we all, I suppose, could pretend to cheat death in by keeping enough machines going. But it would be pretense only. The breathing body without the possibility of an Easter of the spirit is of no value. True death has already come to it as it comes at last to us all. It is important to us when we lose those we love, but in the ultimate scheme of things it is simply the inevitable end to which we must all come.

The story of Easter is symbolized in the material reality of springtime, but even if the objective facts that the Baptist seminarians wanted me to affirm were true, it would be of little importance. The thing that mattered was not the physical life of the body of Jesus but the resurrection of love, of joy, of hope for his disciples. However dead his body, his spirit was alive in those who remembered him and could keep his life alive in the consciousness of others to enable their transformation.

Christianity might well have died out as a religion. At that time there were many messiahs, and its greatest rival in the Roman world, Mithraism, also had a story of resurrection. Tragically, what gave it political power, the conversion of Constantine, also changed its message from the joy of Easter to the suffering of Good Friday. This was also Mel Gibson’s focus in his movie that made such an impact, The Passion of the Christ. The message shifted from the teachings of Jesus and the joy of his living spirit to his sufferings as atonement for human guilt. A religion of life, life renewed, life reborn, became a religion of death.

I am not now nor have I ever been a Christian. Even if I believed in the objective truth of all of the miracle stories in the gospels from the virgin birth to the resurrection, it is highly unlikely that my conversion would occur. Miracle stories are available in all the world religions, and some of them include both virgin births and resurrections. Even had it not become so much a religion that celebrates Jesus’ death rather than his life, I do not think that I would be convinced of its peculiar salvific power.

Nevertheless I celebrate the truth of Easter — not just the truth of the objective rebirths, the resurrections, of springtime, but the renewal of the spirit, the resurgence of joy, the eternity of love. Our religion began as two Christian heresies, heresies that rejected the doctrine of the atonement, that held Easter as the real answer to Good Friday. We have gone far from those places, finding truth in other realms than the Christian story, but we still celebrate Easter. No matter how far our theology wanders from its beginnings, no matter how we justify it in terms of nature worship or pagan ritual, we continue to celebrate the kerygma, the saving message of Easter, that the death of the body is not the death of the spirit that lives in our memories and in its effect upon the world, and the truth of resurrection is not the truth of objective fact but of understanding that though suffering is a part of our lives, hope and love are renewed as life is renewed in the springtime.