Four years ago this month, my friend Steve and I put on a performance celebrating his chapbook and my EP release. I was on the edge of sleep last night when the memory of that night came back to me and I lay awake most of the night thinking about it: we called the performance “Hope and Memory,” appropriately because the event sat on the cusp of Easter, which as many know is used to mark the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. (Yes, I am aware of the pagan roots of Easter and bunnies and fecundity and how Christians stole the date, and now secularism has it and everyone loves Mini Eggs, etc. etc.) but the topic is pretty much exhausted with this one sentence. We should probably all agree to start calling Easter as it refers to the resurrection of Jesus and the events leading up to it as Pascha; most of the world does anyway.) It sounds rather pious that I spent a sleepless night contemplating Jesus, but that isn’t the truth of it. I lay awake all night because I couldn’t think of a good way of describing eschatology to people who do not believe in Jesus or resurrections or some kind of afterlife. But, I will certainly try.
Much of the Christian story rests on the idea that Jesus will, someday, come back to earth. This is called eschatological tension. The word ‘eschatology’ comes from a Greek stem and can be translated as “the study of last things.” One of my professors explains the spiritual age we live in and the tension experienced as the “already and the not yet,” meaning that we have the collective or historical memory of what has happened, and we are leaning towards the hope of something looked forward to, in this case, the second coming of Jesus. Hence, the motifs of hope and memory at Easter. In the Jewish cycle of feasts and fasts, a lot of time is spent recollecting the deeds that Hashem has done for the Israelites in the Bible; the recollection of those deeds brings hope. Similarly, right before Jesus is taken to be crucified, he shares a last meal with his friends. He breaks the bread, and says the now famous, “Whenever you do this, remember me.” That is, whenever you eat, remember.
It would be simplistic and I think incorrect to say that all of the Christian tradition reaches towards heaven, or an afterlife in general, because I see ethical implications for that in the present. To unpack that, if I truly believe there is a better world or I am going to a better place when I die, it says something about what I think and believe about the world I am in now. I think it begs the question: if there is something better, is this world garbage? Or at the very least, is this world less-than? Will I have the correct attitude of care or stewardship towards the environment if I believe that this world is garbage? I suspect not. Or perhaps that is a tension that has to be worked out at the individual level if you are to subscribe to that kind of belief, a remembrance in itself that although there is something to look forward to, the here and now needs to be cherished and taken care of.
Remember. One of my favourite Over the Rhine songs repeats, “My memory will not fail me now/ and the rest is history.” There’s another early Christian tradition that looks to the Exodus event and the Passover as signs pointing to the death and resurrection of Jesus: they believed that Jesus was the new Passover lamb, the one whose blood would save them from judgement. Interestingly, this is where the word Pascha comes from: the Hebrew word pesach, passover. The early Christians remembered: they had heard this story before of death and salvation, but where? They looked behind them; they looked to the future.
I know I continuously use Judaeo-Christian images to make my points, but eschatological tension exists in any belief system, be it religious or completely anti-religious. Everyone has answers for what happens after this reality, even if the answer is “nothing.” The “already and the not-yet” is where I find living the most difficult. I personally struggle to make sense of history and fit the pieces together into a cogent narrative—narratives, which are what humans are built to create and collect. Perhaps that is why so many people find their place in belief systems that tell stories, even if it’s Carl Sagan’s biography. We listen, we read, we look at history, we remember. We look forward at our own lives, and we hope.