"And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.
And he that was dead came forth. Bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him and let him go." St. John 11: 43-44
One would think that if Lazarus got such a pardon from Jesus, the Christ himself, that he would get to live forever, right? I mean, if the story I just recounted was told today, it would inspire a science fiction series on television called "Lazarus: The Man Who Couldn't Die". I imagine the series would follow the exploits of Lazarus as he lives on through the eons as a witness to the foibles of humanity.
It's not so absurd a notion. After all, some of you might be familiar with another show called the "Highlander", which followed the life of a man named Duncan McCleod, who was an immortal. He, and a small percentage of humanity like him, could only die if they are beheaded. The life experiences and accumulated powers of the vanquished would then pass to the victor of inevitable fights between these immortals. Of course, according to the series, there were good immortals and, well ... mean unfriendly ones who just wanted to take advantage of us poor humans and lop off other immortal's heads.
For my story, "Lazarus: The Man Who Couldn't Die", to work Lazarus would emerge from the murky haze of antiquity, and over time, evolve into a man with superhuman powers.
My Lazarus, a man who was fortunate enough to die while Jesus was around, would be quite a hero. In fact, he would become a Jesus-like figure of his own. He would do great and wonderful deeds for people as an anonymous benefactor. I know the TV series that aired between 1955 and 1960, "The Millionaire", has already tilled that fertile ground, but we could certainly update the story significantly. John Beresford Tipton, the millionaire was never seen on camera. That wouldn't do these days. We'll have to see Lazarus' face, as he changes it over the years to explain why he's outliving his families. And in a cool twist, unlike immortals from the Highlander series, I'd make sure Lazarus could have children, but just would have to disappear from time to time. He'd skip generations of his progeny only to reappear as their butler or trusted gardener.
This is pretty fantastic, eh? Some might even say my goings on about "Lazarus: The Man Who Couldn't Die" is a silly topic for an Easter sermon. To those I say there are far worse concepts that have actually made it to TV! Think about the stories, in all media over all time, that deal with resurrections and transformation of some kind. I've given this a lot of thought. That's why today's sermon is entitled "The Resurrection Story" instead of "The Story of the Resurrection".
The fact is, stories about resurrection are as old as humanity. And like my "Lazarus: The Man Who Couldn't Die" television character, each generation reinvents the story to suit the concerns and sensibilities of its time. There are many curious things about resurrection stories. For one thing, the story shows up in many different guises, but it always seems to be a fresh concept. It might be because deep down we are all aware that death is the actual end of life and consciousness as we know it. Although science has provided many answers for us — answers our ancestors had no clue of — the idea of coming back to life has always intrigued us.
So what , you might ask, are some of the fresh ways the resurrection story has disguised itself? Well, what about Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, or the millions of mummy stories? How about the Star Trek movies (remember how the first officer in the Start Trek I movie was transformed by merging with Vger, or how about Spock's resurrection in the Star Trek III movie?), not to mention the countless uses of that theme over the many year history of the Star Trek franchise? The Terminator, Robocop, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, The Six Million Dollar Man, Dark Shadows, and the Prisoner are examples from the movies and television. What about almost every superhero from the comics ... Catwoman, for example, comes to mind, (mostly because the image of Halle Berry in form-fitting leather is somewhat stimulating to me), as does a host of other spawns of dark regions or nuclear calamities. It is actually fun to consider all the many examples of the resurrection story.
Have you noticed many of these examples are science fiction-related in some way? We don't wish to be merely entertained by these stories. We want them, so desperately, to provide us with a measure of reassurance that our own deaths will not be the end of existence. Do you suppose the science fiction genre just magically appeared a few hundred years ago? The resurrection story and science fiction are made for each other. The fiction of life after death overcomes the scientific fact of it.
Another curious thing about the resurrection story is that it always requires us to suspend our disbelief. The amazing thing is that we are almost genetically hard-wired to accept the story, no matter how bizarre it is. On a deep psychological level we recognize, and are comforted by the story. We might hate the plot, the characters, the settings, and the cinematography, but we almost always leave the theater with the feeling that there was some redeeming value in the movie!
Why? Well, that's because of the other curious, and powerful thing about the resurrection story. It is almost always accompanied by its sister concept of redemption or transformation. I'll fuse the two words into one, and simply call it transformation from here on out. The Frankenstein monster in Mary Shelly's monumental novel turned into a genuinely nice guy. He was cultured, articulate, and highly sensitive. The sum of his parts was much greater than the whole. He transcended the circumstances of his horrible rebirth. The abomination that was once the monster became humanity's sacrificial lamb. In the end, the Frankenstien monster died as a person superior to other human beings.
The plot doesn't just work for Frankenstein. The Prisoner, Number 6 from the 60's TV show, awakens from a kind of death to experience a surreal world. We discover the entire series is actually an elaborate psychodrama that completely transforms the Prisoner. Number 6 is actually the elusive and all-powerful Number 1, his own greatest nemesis. Barnabas Collins, and his arch rival, Angelique, are transformed from the vilest creatures to walk on the planet into altruistic, wonderfully enlightened beings. It would be difficult to count how many times the two of them died and were resurrected in the Dark Shadows show. Now, closer to our time, what about the "Blade" character played by Wesley Snipes, or "Interview with the Vampire" so well played by Tom Cruise?
What makes us think the resurrection story handed down from many religious traditions is anything other than versions of science fiction? Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, and other incarnations of God-in-Man are all, in my mind, ancient versions of superheroes. It can be reasonably said that the dying-rebirth story has its genesis in ancient mythology. That very assertion makes some people cringe at the idea that their particular faith began as an update to pagan beliefs.
Some say the Bible stands alone among ancient works as being the only one in which people are successfully restored to life from the dead, to continue a normal lifespan. Here are some examples: Genesis 22, when Abraham agrees to sacrifice Isaac because he believes that God will raise him from the dead. In that case God stopped Isaac's execution, but the expectation of resurrection was there. For more examples, Elijah raises the widow's son in 1Kings ; in 2Kings, Elisha raises Shunamite's son, and also in 2Kings a man is raised simply by contact with Elisha's bones. I already mentioned our friend Lazarus, but in the New Testament there was also Jairus' daughter, and a widow's only son. The New Testament also reports that many are raised at the moment of Christ's death. Also, you can't forget about Dorcas being raised by Peter in the book of Acts.
Here's the problem with biblical accounts ... they're simply not believable to most people in the modern world. The accounts are offered as proof to be validated by the fact that they are included in the Bible. Because the Bible is the unerring word of God, and because God doesn't lie, then these accounts must be true.
Many split hairs on the relevance, the exact meanings, and the differences in the various dying-rebirth stories. However you come down on the issue, you've got to admit that the forms of dying-rebirth myths are strikingly similar throughout many religious systems in the world. You might want to visit a very well done website called "Origins of the Christ Myth". There you'll find some plain English comparisons of different religious systems, with an emphasis on explaining how Christianity borrowed extensively from many other, more ancient belief systems.
Early Christians had no problem with the idea that Christianity was an amalgam of other religions. In the second century, the Christian apologist St. Justin Martyr, writing to a Pagan said, "When we say that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter." [Justin Martyr, First Apology, 21]
According to the "Origins of the Christ Myth" website, the Gods of many faiths that featured dying-rebirth myths, variously:
Of course, there is a lot controversy on the subject. But the interesting thing is the runner-up Gods are no slouches. These runner-ups are no less than Attis, born of the Virgin Nana on December 25th, who was both the Father and the Divine Son. Also to be included would be Mithras, who in 70 B.C. traveled far and wide with twelve disciples as a teacher and illuminator of men. According to followers of Mythras, he was buried in a tomb from which he rose again from the dead.
Buddha has the following credentials: born of the Virgin Maya while angels sang heavenly songs. He taught in temple at age 12, was tempted by Mara (the Eastern version of Satan) while fasting, was baptized in water, healed the sick, fed 500 from a small basket of cakes, and also walked on water. Buddha came to fulfill the law, and for the establishment of a kingdom of righteousness. Significantly, Buddha died, and was buried, but arose again after his tomb opened by supernatural powers, then ascended into Nirvana. According to some Buddhist sects, he will return to judge the dead.
The list goes on an on with the likes of the Egyptian God Osiris, the Babylonian God Zoroaster, and the Greek God Dionysos, but I'll conclude with Lord Krishna, the second person of the Hindu trinity. Krishna was born while his foster-father Nanda was in the city to pay his tax to the king. His nativity was also heralded by a star, as he was born of the virgin Devaki in a miraculously illuminated cave. King Kansa sought his life by ordering the massacre of all male children born during the same night. Krishna also raised the dead and performed miraculous healings. Krishna was also crucified (although many sects say he was hung on a tree). He was pierced by an arrow while hanging on the cross and died, but then descended into Hell, rose again on the third day and then ascended into Heaven. He will also return to judge the "quick and the dead".
Okay, so I hope I've established that the resurrection story is "alive and well", if you will. I've also examined how it has changed over time and how it is so curiously persistent in our collective psyche. As you see, there are many "stories of resurrection and transformation". It would not be fair to the world's great religions to lay claim to "the resurrection story" of Jesus as the only legitimate one. We are mostly gathered here today to celebrate our version of the Christian Easter, a celebration we Unitarians Universalists attend, more out of a sense of tradition than belief, and more from a sense of its spiritual significance rather than as a central tenant of our faith.
We have a tendency to apologize for our observances of events that are central to our predecessor church. We have reformed Christmas, Lent, and other liturgical events as our own. I think we can dispense with the apologies when it comes to the issue of Easter. The concept of a man conquering death and being transformed into God is just so sci-fi over the top it can't be the province of just one religious tradition. I think Easter is uniquely up for grabs as one observance we can celebrate without any ties to traditional religions. That is because Easter belongs to all of us, as it did to Jesus, as an Essene cleric two thousand years ago. Lazarus, Jesus, and the whole bunch celebrated Easter with the rest of humanity. Their followers have managed to usurp its meaning for other religions, but I say we should fully embrace the fact that we human beings have been quite successful at morphing it into a human vision for all time.
Easter is time when we bring the resurrection story into sharp focus. That story is, perhaps, the best science fiction story of all time. It will remain with us as long as we exist as a species. And that's a good thing, because it is the ultimate expression of hope. What last frontier is there other than death? If our Gods cannot conquer that frontier for us, then what good are they? If most of us were not able hold on to some example, however symbolic, of our personal journey from death to life again, I'm afraid life would hold little meaning for many people.
We believe in resurrection stories, not because we are naive, but because they comfort us. They put the world into some semblance of order. They give meaning and purpose to our lives, and they transform God from a cold, uncaring, and distant deity into one that cares enough about us to inhabit our realm and provide us with a path towards immortality with God. So, for those who won't be offended by what might seem like blasphemous statements, I say "Live long and prosper Mister Spock, you keep flying high Barnabas Collins, amen to you Frankenstien monster, keep forever sharp Blade, long live form-fitting leather, Catwoman, stay blue Robocop, TV executives, have I got a new show for you, and see you later Gods and demi-Gods ... and good luck to all of us".
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!