Seven Stanzas At Easter: A Poem for Sunday

I’ve always had something of an ambivalent attitude towards John Updike. I’ve known his work for ages – he grew up in Shillington, PA, just a stone’s throw or so from where I grew up. He was raised a Lutheran, an upbringing that he seemed to struggle with as well as be marked by. I’ve loved his short stories as much as anything I’ve ever read, but sometimes been less than taken by even his celebrated novels. I don’t know why – perhaps they were too “earthy” for this kid. But it’s precisely the “earthiness” of “Seven Stanzas at Easter” that I love about this poem. If you’re going to believe, Updike seems to say, then believe. Stop trying to soften the edges of Christian faith or make it more acceptable. And I think he’s right – “modernize” the resurrection – by making it a metaphor or parable or the disciples’ dream or psychological experience – and you lose something essential not just of the story but of the very promise of God to remake everything as real and tangible and alive as God made it in the first place.

The post image, from the familiar Greek icon Anastasis (Resurrection) is one of my favorite images for Easter because it shows the usually placid Christ actually straining to pull Adam and Eve from the clutches of death and hell. I think it compliments the sensibilities Updike expresses in his poem.

Blessed Easter, one and all!

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution 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 fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, 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 papier-mâché,
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, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

John Updike, 1960.

(Thanks to Adam Thomas for sending this in my direction.)