By Stephen Berg
A fit of cursing at life and its demented incursions into my free time was cut short by the face of my father — appearing as it did on the other side of a Cockshutt 1550 tractor, hooked to a 14-foot International cultivator.
I was refuelling before taking to the field, my plans for a Saturday ruined by a reminder to work the summer fallow, a request I had already put off one week.
Thinking I was alone and out of range, my cursing covered most everything — farming, clear weather, God — with particular attention to paternal connections. In response to this cloud of vitriol, the face of my father carried no anger, a touch of sadness, certainly, but mostly, what I saw was concern, and love.
Nothing unsettles like well-placed mercy. Undone, all I could do was finish refuelling, get on the tractor and drive to the field. And for that day my discomfort was complete. I welcomed the diversion of dust and diesel smoke. But all I saw was my father’s face approaching me in open compassion and forgiveness. And all I could do was recoil from it.
It would take time before I could sink into the potential of that forgiveness. A forgiveness offered before I knew I needed it, and before I could conceive of asking for it. The kind of forgiveness, I’ve discovered, that’s at the heart of Easter.
For most of my life I’ve had a melodramatic understanding of Easter as a kind of emotive theatrical event that played itself out in black and white. The sort of understanding that a film like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ reinforces. Here, if you recall, the categories of good and evil, victim and villain(s) are clear. The in and out groups easily defined, and the choice of where to line up, simple.
Following this logic, Easter, like a theory, was something I could get right. That is, as a result of the fall, (our prideful rejection of God and his gifts at the outset of creation) God, desiring to be merciful while still being held to the demands of Divine justice, enacts a plan of expiation. He sends his Son as a human and divine sacrifice which both appeases his wrath at our offence, and satisfies the payment we could never make. And now, as long as we stay under the cover of that blood sacrifice, within the bubble of right belief, as long as we’re faithful to the formula, we’re saved.
I didn’t see that this formula simply mirrors a kind of Aztec understanding of sacrifice and projects violence on God, a violence that Christ supposedly saves us from. I didn’t understand that Easter exactly reverses this understanding — that at the centre of Easter stands the “lamb of God,” exposing and overcoming our wrath and sacrificial violence through an over-the-top non-violent love.
Easter introduces us to a God entirely without wrath. Easter reveals that it is our wrath that demands appeasing, our cursing and ostracizing violence that Christ takes upon himself. And it is his face that then approaches us in forgiveness and love.
The “atonement” of Easter, far from being a matter of right belief, as James Alison has said, is something that happens toward us. It opens within us a faltering but persistent realization that there is something so dark about us that we can’t see it until we are forgiven of it. But undergoing the mercy of this realization forever unsettles all our old ways of self-preservation — from abject subservience to passive aggression to herd violence. And the degree that we sink into this forgiveness is the degree our world expands into possibility. And not for us alone.
Awake to Easter, we can detect the “crucifixions” played out around us wherever someone is expelled for the sake of the group, party or nation. Far fewer are the resurrections. But they are there. We’ve seen them in Gandhi, King, Bacha Khan, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan who, having been malevolently excluded, stand back up, and without resentment, draw wider human circles — that are open always to their victimizers.
And we see them close to home. My father is long passed on, but I still carry with me the face I saw on the other side of the tractor. I didn’t know it was the face of the resurrected Jesus.
Berg works for Hope Mission, a social care facility for homeless people in Edmonton’s inner city. His poetry and prose have been in staged performances and have appeared in such publications as the Edmonton Journal, Orion, Geez, and Earth Shine. He blogs at growmercy.org