Seven Stanzas of Easter
by John Updike
with commentary by Richard Burnett 3-26-2018
John Updike is widely acclaimed as one of America's foremost authors. In October 1982, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine (Only five novelists have appeared twice on the cover of Time: Sinclair Lewis, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and John Updike). After winning the literary Triple Crown: the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, and a commendatory scroll from the National Book Critics Circle, Time stated: "No one else using the English language over the past two and one-half decades has written so well in so many ways as he." He died on Jan. 27, 2009.
John Updike was a complex individual, a man of great ambiguity, and one who struggled in his faith, and this is reflected in his writings. "Earthy" is a word that is often applied to Updike's writing. His novels typically probe theological themes alongside more seamier topics. Updike, nevertheless, especially in his later years, is said to have become a more dedicated churchman. Apparently, he was never able to think his way around the transcendence at stake in one of the central claims of the Christian faith, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As an undergraduate at Harvard University, having been influenced by the theology of Karl Barth, Updike entered the following poem in a religious arts contest in Massachusetts. It won first prize. With the various attempts within and without the church today to celebrate Easter by focusing on lilies and springtime, etc., I invite you to reflect on this poem.
Seven Stanzas of Easter
Make no mistake, if He rose at all
it was as His body.
if the cells disillusion 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 befuddled eyes of the eleven apostles.
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinge, thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that pierced, died, withered, decayed 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 paper-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, for our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
[Written for a religious arts festival sponsored by the Clifton Lutheran Church of Marblehead, MA] Taken from John Updike, Seventy Poems, Penguin Books, 1972.
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