Alleluia, Christ is risen! ("The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!")
It was, I think, my freshman year in college when I learned that traditional greeting. I had been a Christian for about 18 months, so I had heard it as a response in church, but I didn’t know that this was actually how Christians greeted each other on Easter. It was a professor of mine who, like me, went to Grace Church, the Episcopal parish just off campus, who taught me. Except, for educational purposes, he insisted on doing it in Greek: he would pursue students around the Grace Church coffee hour, announcing Christos Anesti! and expecting us to respond Alithos Anesti! And most of us learned to. “Don’t say good morning,” he told us; “don’t say happy Easter, say Christ is risen. This is what Christians do on Easter all over the world.” In my first few years of belief, it seemed like some strange Christian behavioral thing I had never heard of turned up every month or so. So here was one more oddness. But OK: Christ is risen! I can say that.
The next year on Easter morning, several friends and I had signed up to sing with the little choir at the church where the college choral director was the organist, and on the walk over I ran into our German exchange student Gabi. I knew she was a Christian and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to test my professor’s claim, so I said, “Gabi! Christ is risen!” Her face took on the absolutely unmistakable look of someone who is trying to translate a stock phrase into a second language, and after a beat or two she replied, “He really is risen!” Not the way we say it in idiomatic English, but a direct rendering of Er ist wahrhaftig auferstanden. Hey, I thought, it works! Easter translates!
Christ is risen. You can say it in German, you can say it in Chinese, you can say it in Farsi, you can say it in English – it’s the truth of the proclamation, not what language you use, that matters.
This Lent our lectionary has offered us a series of monumental Gospel readings from John. The readings we’ve heard have their origin in the way the early church prepared people to be baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter. And today, we get the last of four profound, similar stories, and before I talk about it I just want to review a little. Each of our Lenten Gospel readings so far has involved a debate, turned on a misunderstanding, and dealt with a major human question.
The first Gospel of John character we met was Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to Jesus by night and argued with him about the meaning of spiritual birth. The second week we met the Samaritan woman, who sat with Jesus at a well and argued with him about the meaning of water. Last week we met a man born blind, who was healed by Jesus and argued with the Pharisees about sight. Each of these three learned that the way their religious upbringing had posed those questions wasn’t big enough. That it couldn’t substitute for the living action of God. And most importantly, they realized that Jesus himself was and is the living action of God right in front of us.
Nicodemus learned that Jesus could give him what he was seeking by calling God’s own life to life in him. The woman at the well learned that Jesus could quench her deepest thirst and cause a spring of divine water to well up within her. The man born blind learned that Jesus could make him see what is true, and that to say yes to him is what really clarifies your vision. And all three of them learned that the questions they had been asking were smaller than what God offers.