Notes for a Theology of Storms
the irresistible, terrifying, and beautiful force of resurrection
by Reverend Dr. Kate Alexander, a sermon offered
on the vigil of Easter, 2014, a Saturday service
celebrating the resurrection of Jesus
In an article called “Field Notes for an Aesthetic of Storms,” a philosopher named Kathleen Moore wonders why she has chased after storms since childhood, finding them irresistible even as they are frightening. She describes, for example, playing in a lightening storm as a child with her sisters by reaching out their hands toward rocks and watching the rocks buzz more intensely the closer the girls came. “We skipped and spun mindlessly in the electric charges, creating music with our bodies, the way children dance in fountains and make music with splashing light. Certainly this was stupid, but it was also irresistible.” As an adult, Moore finds herself still searching out the wildness of storms, flirting with the edge of them, and wondering why. She considers and then dismisses several possible reasons, from whether the excitement of a storm might be some kind of physiological or cellular “high” to whether the joy of a storm is to be found in the fact that one survived or even that one has been purged in some way of strong emotion, as Aristotle would describe in the experience of watching a Greek tragedy. Finally she arrives at the idea that, despite their destructiveness, storms might attract because there is something beautiful about them.
To examine this theory, Moore invokes the memory of a particularly harsh storm during a camping trip. She found the storm beautiful, even though the experience of the storm had terrifying moments. In the midst of it, she experienced a heightened excitement, a close focus, an intensity close to fear. This was, she believed, an experience of sublimity: “the blow-to-the-gut awareness of chaotic forces unleashed and uncontrolled, the terror – and finally the awe. To experience the sublime is to understand, with an insight so fierce and sudden it makes you duck, that there is power and possibility in the universe greater than anyone can imagine. The sublime blows out the boundaries of human experience.” She asks, “Is this, finally, what we crave?”
Tonight’s Gospel is the ultimate fulfillment of that craving. It is the moment in history that blows out the boundaries of human experience. It has all the elements of sublimity – that sudden insight that there is power and possibility in the universe greater than we can imagine. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary approach the tomb just as dawn is breaking. There is a great earthquake. An angel of the Lord descends from heaven and rolls back the heavy stone that sealed the tomb. He appears as lightening, with dazzling white clothing. And the women come close, terrified and yet unable to resist the encounter with the sublime and the power of God.
The empty tomb is the place where divine forces have been unleashed. That empty tomb is the space where out of the terrifying nothingness of death, God placed breath into the broken body of Jesus, and made his heart to beat again. At the entrance of the empty tomb, the women’s hearts must have been beating faster and faster. The women were terrified, and moved to awe. And then, in what seems to me the ultimate fulfillment of the deepest of human desires, they come to Jesus, hold onto his feet, and worship him. They touched death that had been healed. They touched sublimity. In the midst of a storm of terror and awe, they touched the most beautiful thing the world had ever seen.
Tonight in this Great Vigil of Easter, we are invited to come as close as we can to those forces of sublimity and divine power. We hear of those forces as the dramatic stories of our salvation unfold. We use the elements of fire and water and smoke – storm-like materials to remind us of the power and possibility of God. This is a night that cannot be easily tamed or explained. And I don’t think we are meant to try. Tonight is the night that we come as close as we can to those forces. And we come as close as we dare to the irresistible, terrifying, and beautiful force of resurrection.