Editor’s Note: Throughout the month of June our writers will explore the way that God, grace, and the gospel show up in pop culture. This piece originally appeared on Sojourners.
Vain the stone, the watch, the seal, Alleluia! —Charles Wesley
“Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” (Holy Eucharist II, Book of Common Prayer)
I have such a bad habit of brooding around “tombs” looking for Jesus.
It’s much easier for me to live in Good Friday or even Holy Saturday. I’ve grown so used to the privations of the “not yet” that I forget that, after drinking the bitterness this life offered him, Jesus said, “It is finished.”
But for someone who regularly — and joyfully — asserts that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” I tend to look for the living among the dead far too much.
What would the world look like if when I proclaim this crazy and insane and beautiful mystery of our faith, I really meant it? What kind of life might I live if this were true?
These thoughts have been on my mind since November, when I had the privilege of screening the upcoming feature film RISEN. As the Roman tribune Clavius, played by Joseph Fiennes, investigates the disappearance of Jesus’ body in the days after Good Friday, I felt confronted by a compelling question: If the resurrection really happened, then why is it so easy for me to feel and act so fearful and hopeless?
If I believe that, as Charles Wesley’s old hymn proclaims, “Vain the stone, the watch, the seal,” that there is nothing in this world that can stop the good, perfect, and pleasing will of God from coming forth, why do I embrace so much doubt and despair?
Thus the power and beauty of RISEN — by telling the story through perspective of Clavius, a man who worships Mars but doesn’t really believe in anything, viewers are invited to consider what we think about Jesus whether we wear the label Christian or not. As producer Rich Peluso said to me in an interview on Dec. 7, “…Christians who engaged with the film … discovered things in the story and they were pulled along by the story more so than if it was by rote.”
And by telling the story of the resurrection as a detective story, we are indeed drawn in to consider the mystery of our faith.
When Clavius interviews Mary Magdalene about Jesus’ body, she responds with an eerie serenity. The rabbi she followed and worshiped was arrested, humiliated, beaten, and crucified. But Mary is at peace. Later, Clavius interviews Bartholomew — an interesting choice, since he’s a second-tier disciple. Bartholomew, like most of the other disciples, was not present at the crucifixion, a point that Clavius brings up. Momentarily sobered, Bartholomew acknowledges his unfaithfulness. But like Mary’s serenity, there is an eerie joy about him.
How could this man feel joy after abandoning his leader — his supposed Lord — to be crucified?
Seeing Bartholomew and Mary’s trust in the risen Christ made me want to raise my hands and trust him with all of my hopes. If Christ could master death, what limits could there be to what he could do with them?
Seeing the gracious way in which Jesus shows Thomas his wounds, provides fish for his followers, and restores Peter made me remember all the ways he’s lovingly cared for me. He’s not just a vague myth or a good idea — he’s alive.
As Lent is a time of repentance, it’s probably the best time to reconsider what we believe to be true. The longer I am a Christian, the more I see that the gospel is so multifaceted and so vast that this simple statement — Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again — is indeed a mystery of faith that will keep drawing me deeper into its story. And that story will more and more become my own. Thanks be to God for that.
But as we fast and repent of our sins this season, it helps to remember this aspect of the gospel story. Mary Magdalene, Bartholomew, even (and especially) Peter, James, and John (the first-tier disciples) saw and touched and lived with Jesus, they heard his words, and still had no idea what was to come. They saw him crucified and figured that the earthly authorities and powers of hell had the last say. They didn’t believe Jesus would rise again — they probably didn’t even consider it. That Christ is risen is exceedingly abundantly more than they — than we — could have asked or thought.
This Lent, I am celebrating the fact that I am sadly, yet blissfully, no different from those disciples. I still need God’s help to believe that Christ is risen. And yet Jesus is also the same. He will make himself known and seen and come near to us to let us touch his reality.
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!