The First and Second Fires

A Required Honesty

Easter was hard this year. I couldn’t bring myself to put my body in a pew. Imagining the shiny brass trumpets heralding Christ’s victory over sin and death had no more appeal than the silly silky banners waving up and down the aisle to make Easter more festive. Whether Easter felt like a fraud orI felt like the fraud didn’t matter yesterday.

A Ghost named Gus

If we’re honest about the resurrection, many, if not most, of us have some difficulty with one or another of the post-crucifixion stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Although my grandmother swore that our 120 year-old home was haunted by a friendly ghost named Gus, I’ve never gotten into ghostly apparitions.

Photo of Henri Fuseli's painting of Hamlet and his father's ghost
Hamlet and his father’s ghost — Henry Fuseli

Years ago an eccentric older congregant, long since deceased, claimed her deceased husband regularly visited her, standing at the foot of her bed. Even without this claim, there were multiple grounds for concluding that she would have been institutionalized in a previous generation. I never could get into her story, or the story about Gus’s footsteps creaking the steps of my childhood home. They were outside my experience. Like the Apostle Thomas, my faith is suspicious of such claims. “Unless I see for myself…” is second nature to me.

Unless I See

One person’s experience, however, is not the measure of all things, especially in matters that cannot be confirmed by objective verification. The world is full of experiences that are enigmas to my little piece of reality. My slice is not the whole pie, although, come to think of it, if my slice tastes like blueberries, chances are good the pie is blueberry. “To thine own self be true,” Shakespeare’s Polonius advises Laertes.

“And it must follow, as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man . . . ” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III). Being true to oneself leads some honest people to leave the faith. Think Jean-Paul Sartre. Think Albert Camus. It leads others to stay and dig deeper. Though I was once almost one of the former, I am still one of the latter.

An Honest Conversation

Nowhere is the challenge of good faith greater than the resurrection. “Seeing for ourselves” like the Apostle Thomas is a hard way to live; it can be tricky. Sometimes we see things that aren’t there; other times we don’t see what stares us in the face. In a year like this, I rub my eyes in hopes of a clearer view of what is true. Honesty is slipping away in America. So is hope for the nation. The dark clouds of willful ignorance and unabashed dishonesty leave me looking for the light that faith tells me cannot be overcome.

Honesty, or the attempt at it, was what I had, but not much more. Although I could not say, with James Russell Lowell, “I do not fear to follow out the truth,” I know that the search for truth takes place “along the precipice’s edge.”

A Jarring Juxtaposition Between Two Fires

For the likes of those of us who stay, Easter is less accessible in the garden outside an empty tomb than in the encounters with the skeptical Thomas, and with Peter, who has gone back to his fishing nets after the crucifixion. Staying home on Easter for the first time reading the Gospels’ passion narratives, portrayals of Peter caused me to stop and ponder the jarring juxtaposition between two scenes around a fire.

The Denial of Saint Peter by Caravaggio (1610)

The First Fire

The first fire is set in the courtyard of the High Priest’s residence where Peter “The Rock” crumbles like shale. Warming himself by the courtyard fire, two domestic workers identify Peter as Jesus’ disciple. His Galilean accent betrays him. Three times Peter denies it. “I do not know the man!”  “I do not know the man!” “I do not know the man!” The rock crumbles.

The Second Fire

The second fire is lit on the shoreline to which Peter, the fisherman, returns after what would have been a bad night without the miracle shouted by the stranger on the shore. Peter has not become a fisher of fellow-humans; he is a fisher of fish again, not different from before Jesus had called him, except for the guilt he now carries from his denial before the fire in the courtyard. That I understand. That reversal I know by experience. I wasn’t Peter, but the dead, crucified, and buried Jesus whom the Creed claims “descended into hell” reached down into the hell of my own making to blow the remaining embers of the first fire into the charcoal fire of the second. The risen Christ is not an apparition. Christ comes as the stranger we forgot we knew, the host who serves us breakfast on the shoreline.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 20, 2022.

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