Sunday, March 27, 2016
Five Little Letters: An Easter Reflection
This was originally posted at my InterVarsity Press blog "Strangely Dim," Easter 2011. The other day I found this sheet of paper sitting in the printer. About two thirds of the way down the page, about an inch in from the left margin, were five little letters in tiny little type: J-e-s-u-s. That's it - nothing else. Such a tiny little word, made more weighty by being surrounded by nothing. It was an accident of formatting, I'm sure, that "Jesus" showed up all by himself on that page. Maybe a misplaced hard page break or a cell that spilled over the printable area on the page previous. These things happen in a publishing house. But it's an interesting way of looking at Jesus: five little letters, all by themselves, not where you'd expect them. It's arresting in its simplicity. We're generally uncomfortable with simplicity attached to greatness. Simplicity isn't appropriate to superstars, we figure, and so we try to do them a favor by filling up the space with whatever gravitas we can. I'm reminded of King Saul, dressing up shepherd boy David in his kingly armor to the point that David couldn't even move. I'm reminded of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of a donkey, with random people making all sorts of obsequious gestures in his path. When simplicity is perpetrated upon us by people we admire, we overcompensate a bit; we offer what we can, even if no offering is solicited. Sometimes all we can think to contribute is our own beard-stroking, chin-tapping egos. If our heroes are going to be so stubbornly simple, we'll have to be pretentious on their behalf. I'm reminded of one of the more remarkable meetings of the twentieth century, at least in terms of popular culture: John Lennon's first encounter with Yoko Ono. She, an avant-garde performance artist, was exhibiting at a gallery in London; he, a world-renowned singer-songwriter, was looking for a good time. Two giant personalities filling one room; simplicity was probably the last thing on anyone's mind. Part of the exhibit was a white ladder to the ceiling, where the viewer would find a magnifying glass. Looking at the ceiling through the magnifying glass, the viewer would find three little letters: Y-e-s. Yes. "You feel like a fool," John told an interviewer years later, "you could fall any minute - and you look through it and it just says 'YES.'" It was a stark contrast to the sort of hypercritical vibe that attends to much pretentiousness and characterized the time: "all anti-, anti-, anti-. Anti-art, anti-establishment." Lennon was hooked, and he soon came to be more identified with Yoko than anyone else in his life - even his songwriting partner Paul McCartney, even his iconic band The Beatles. John eventually wrote "The Ballad of John and Yoko," a plainspoken chronicle of their relationship that compared their experience to that of Jesus: misunderstood, expected to behave in ways they were unwilling to behave, persecuted for being countercultural and having convictions and being, for lack of a better word, simple. "The way things are going," Lennon mused as he sang, "they're gonna crucify me." What sustained Lennon in the face of such pretentious backlash was those three little letters, that soft-spoken "Yes." I'm reminded of the apostle Paul's declaration to the Corinthian church, an assurance that sustained them through the early decades of the church's formation, beset with persecution and misunderstanding: "No matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ." Yes is a hard word to come by, to be honest, particularly during a recession or a depression or a natural disaster or a nuclear calamity or whatever. I have a friend who once whispered to me gravely in the wee hours of the night that the world will be devastated within twenty years by at least one of three things: a global weather event, a global economic catastrophe, or a global war. So far it looks as though all he got wrong was the timing. And yet still God has made these promises, and still by faith every Easter we declare with Paul that all those promises are "Yes" in Christ. It's an act of defiance that looks suspiciously like an act of naivete, even delusion, and yet what else can we say? I'm reminded of three little days after the death of God, when a woman named Mary shuffled despondently, in her mourning clothes, into a garden to honor the dead. There, unexpectedly, she found Jesus--no big fanfare, no bold or italic or serifs or 40-point type; just Jesus, plain and simple, all five little letters of him. And while the Scriptures don't report this, I imagine when she cried out in awareness that she saw a resurrected Jesus standing there, he responded simply by whispering three little letters: "Yes."