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.
Earlier this year a large group of Episcopalians from Emmanuel and the Chapel were honored to be invited to the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center to observe worship and share a meal with our Muslim sisters and brothers. Since both Christianity and Islam, like Judaism, descend from the heritage of Abraham, it’s not surprising that there is a strong family resemblance and many things on which the two faiths can agree. One intriguing difference, however, is in this area of translation. For our sisters and brothers in Islam, the Koran was literally given by God word for word in Arabic and dictated, as a perfect document. You can describe in another language what the text means, but the Koran itself only exists in Arabic; it is untranslatable.
Whereas in most of Christian history, translating the Bible has been seen not as a problem but as a priority. Christianity thrives on translation and encourages it, as long as the translators’ only agenda is to render the text faithfully. Even in the long period when Latin was standard in the West, other renderings of parts of the Bible circulated. Chinese in the 7th century, Anglo Saxon in the 8th, Slovakian and Arabic in the 9th, and so forth. The Christian passion for giving people Scripture in their own language rather than asking them to learn a special one has given rise to entire organizations whose reason for being is to get the Bible made available in as many translations as possible. And none of those thousand-plus translations of the New Testament is in any way considered to be more the Word of God than any other. Every version of the Bible in every language is still the real Bible. Translation, for Christians, is a priority, not a problem.
What is it, then, about the Christian message that fuels this drive to translate it? Why is there no one Christian culture or one Christian language, but a tapestry of different languages and cultures among those who follow Jesus? Perhaps exactly because of that: because it’s Jesus we follow. For Christians, in the deepest sense, the Word of God is not a book, but a person. For us, God’s ultimate self-communication to human beings is not in a text, but in a human being, Jesus, whose death and resurrection we announce and enter into today. God, as we’ve heard day by day over all the great services of this past Holy Week, poured his whole self into Jesus Christ, taking on the human condition as one of us. He came to us, rather than asking us to work our way to him.
Just read this past week’s headlines if you want to know what kind of condition the human condition is in of its own accord. How many deaths? How many bombs? How many threats? The human condition is in bad condition. And yet, God entered it. Jesus didn’t ask us to work our way to him, learn his language, assimilate to his culture. No, he came to us within ours. He came to us within the human condition, taking on its limitations, suffering its violence, being stung by its selfishness and apathy, victimized by its bigotry -- and delighted by its beauty. Once God took on our human nature in Jesus, he carried that nature with him through a life of insightful love; he descended into the worst suffering an empire can dole out to a despised minority, losing everything on the Cross, without for a moment letting our humanity go. And he remained united to us, still holding us tight, as God raised him from death into life, breaking into the old world with his new one, and making Jesus Christ the first example ever of the resurrection life he now holds out to us and all the cosmos.
All of this Jesus did in his humanity as well as his divinity. In his body as well as his spirit. Everything Jesus, God incarnate, did, he did carrying human nature with him, including the death we honored last week and the resurrection we began celebrating last night and will continue for the next 50 days. He included all of us – if we agree to be included; he will never force us – in all of it. Our violence, carried and healed in him. Our selfishness and apathy, carried and healed in him. Our beauty, carried and made even more beautiful in him. Our death, turned into resurrection in him. The risen Christ has already done everything that is necessary, and we are included if we let ourselves be. He will never force us, but all the work is already done. It only remains for us to decide whether we want that kind of God.
For Christians, Christ himself is the message, a living person who offers us the unimaginable fullness of God’s undying life. Not a holy book, as brilliant as the Bible is. Not a body of doctrine, as fascinating and fruitful as studying Christian doctrine is. Not a set of behaviors to attempt or avoid, as helpful as such training can be. Our message is a person who has lived and died and risen and is able to take us along.
And people always translate. You may not be able to read a menu in Mexico, but you can smile at the waiter. You may not pass your German proficiency exam on the first shot, but when you realize it’s a poem about the death of your beloved, you know how to feel.
Just so, God in Christ translates. He translated divine nature into human nature in Jesus, and he continues translating himself into every culture, always going outward, always seeking more people who will let him include them in what he has already done. Who will open their hands to receive the gift of his risen life. And the Christians who have received that life cannot but express it by going outward too. Translating what we have received for the benefit of others, moving into ever more neighborhoods, speaking ever more languages, expanding the repertoire of cultures in which human beings can praise and imagine and love our generous and beautiful God.
Christ is risen. This Easter Christians are saying it all over the world, because Christ has entered cultures all over the world with the news of everything he has done to offer us his undying life, now and forever.
Christos anesti! Le Christ est ressuscité! Kristo Amefufuka! Khrystos voskres! Kristos Tenestwal! Cristo ha resucitado!
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!