Monday, April 6, 2009

Philip Yancey: Seeing Easter in a New Light

Note: The following is an article by Philip Yancey that appeared on I offer it for your Holy Week edification:

After years of urban living had ground down my childhood love of nature, I found it suddenly rekindled through my friendship with a young photographer named Bob McQuilkin. I was working as a magazine editor at the time, and Bob seemed determined to drag me out of my stale routine and reintroduce me to the joyous world outside.

Once Bob drove his jeep to my office and insisted that I come see two baby owls he'd just rescued. For months he fussed over those scraggly orphaned owls, chasing barn mice and lizards to feed them, then trying to teach them to hunt on their own, and to fly. (Bob teaching a bird to fly!) They'd flutter in soaking wet from a rainstorm—not wise enough yet to find shelter—and Bob would patiently pull out his electric hair dryer and blow them dry. …

Bob was as fully "alive" as anyone I have ever known. And so when I heard [in the fall of 2000] that Bob had died on a scuba-diving assignment in Lake Michigan, I could hardly absorb the news. Bob, dead? It was inconceivable. I could picture Bob doing anything at all—anything but lying still. But that is my last image of him: a 36-year-old body in a blue-plaid flannel shirt lying in a casket. … I would never ski with Bob again, never sit with him for hours viewing slides, never again eat rattlesnake meat or buffalo burgers at his house.

Susan, his widow, asked me to speak at Bob's memorial service. Without a doubt, it was the hardest thing I have ever done. When I stood before them, the magazine editors and art directors and family and neighbors and friends, they reminded me of little birds—Bob's owls—with their mouths open begging for food. Begging for words of solace, for hope. What could I offer them?

I began by telling them what I had been doing the very afternoon Bob was making his last dive. That Wednesday I was sitting, oblivious, in a café at the University of Chicago, reading The Quest for Beauty, by Rollo May. In that book the famous therapist recalls scenes from his lifelong search for beauty, among them a visit to Mount Athos, a peninsula of monasteries attached to Greece.

One morning, Rollo May happened to stumble upon the celebration of Greek Orthodox Easter, the tail end of a church service that had been proceeding all night long. Incense hung in the air. The only light came from candles. And at the height of that service, the priest gave everyone present three Easter eggs, wonderfully decorated and wrapped in a veil. "Christos Anesti!" he said—"Christ is risen!" Each person there, including Rollo May, responded according to custom, "He is risen indeed!"

Rollo May writes, "I was seized then by a moment of spiritual reality: what would it mean for our world if he had truly risen?"

I read Rollo May's question the afternoon that Bob died, and it kept floating around in my mind, hauntingly, after I heard the news. What did it mean for our world that Christ had risen? Why were monks staying up all night to celebrate it? The early Christians had staked everything on the Resurrection, so much so that the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

In the cloud of grief over Bob's death, I began to see the meaning of Easter in a new light. …
On Friday Jesus' closest friends had let the relentless crush of history snuff out all their dreams. Two days later, when the crazy rumors about Jesus' missing body shot through Jerusalem, they couldn't dare to believe. … Only personal appearances by Jesus convinced them that something new, absolutely new, had broken out on earth. When that sank in, those same men who had slunk away in fear at Calvary were soon preaching to large crowds in the streets of Jerusalem.

At Bob McQuilkin's funeral, I rephrased Rollo May's question in the terms of our own grief. What would it mean for us if Bob rose again? We were sitting in a chapel, numbed by three days of grief and sadness, the weight of death bearing down upon us. What would it be like to walk outside to the parking lot and there, to our utter astonishment, find Bob. Bob! With his bounding walk, his crooked grin, and clear, grey eyes.

That image gave me a hint of what Jesus' disciples felt on the first Easter. They, too, had grieved for three days. But on Sunday they caught a glimpse of something else, a startling clue to the riddle of the universe. Easter hits a new note, a note of hope and faith that what God did once in a graveyard in Jerusalem, he can and will repeat on a grand scale, for the world. For Bob. For us.

Philip Yancey, "The Great Reversal," Christianity Today (April 2000)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this story. I love the Christmas season and the wonderful memories that we share and love, but how I LOVE Easter. For without Easter, Christmas is just another gift giving holiday that we celebrate once a year. Praise God for Easter and how much He truly loves His children.
Renee Maxey

Jeff Berger said...

Amen, He does love us so very much.

Mona said...

the phrase used in Philip Yancey's story, "someone is not lost if you know where they are" about our loved ones who've died is a great one and is especially reassuring to all the friends I've made in The Compassionate Friends support meetings. Parents who've experienced having a child die, do not like to be asked, "How'd you lose your child?" Even such an innocent question carries a doubly whammy by the implication that we somehow misplaced our child or lost him on purpose, or contributed in any way to our child's dying. We don't mind a bit being asked, "How did your child die?" because it expresses a true interest in our child. And we like knowing that our child is not forgotten. We do experience a great loss, but that's not the same as "losing" someone. Though TCF is not a faith-based organization, those of us in it who are Christians, don't mind a bit sharing our faith about our child being in heaven. I think the knowledge that I will see my son again eventully, saved my sanity when Bart died, and now allows me to once again experience joy in my earthly life. I do worry that my sharing my faith will cause some parent to become despondent, if they don't have a certain knowledge of their child's belief before they died, but I hope that God finds a way to comfort them in their grief and loss.
Thanks for sharing the importance of this lesson in semantics.
Mona Follis

Jeff Berger said...


I had no idea that a child of yours had died. Thank you so much for sharing that testimony.