By The Rev. J.C. Austin
“Exit, pursued by a bear.” When I say that, you either know exactly what I’m talking about, or you have no idea. There’s not any middle ground on this, and it’s definitely not something that you can figure out just from the line. It actually comes from the play, The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare, and it’s not a line of dialogue, but a stage direction for a character named Antigonus.
In fact, it is often called the most famous stage direction in theatre. The Winter’s Tale is often considered one of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays,” which don’t fit neatly into the standard categories of tragedies or comedies. Rather, the problem plays veer in tone and plot between those conventions; it’s not always clear which will win out in the end, and sometimes it even blurs the lines so that dark developments take on a comic tone.
In this case, Antigonus has just arrived on a distant and desolate shore where he’s been ordered by his king to abandon an infant to die of exposure, which the king believes is the illegitimate child of his wife, the queen (the child is actually his own, of course). Antigonus doesn’t feel great about this, and has even had forboding dreams about what’s going on, which are mirrored by a dangerous storm rising as he walks upon the beach.
But he doesn’t want to go against the king, so he does it anyway, right after having explained all this in a weird sort of monologue directed at the uncomprehending infant whom he sets down on the shore right as the storm breaks. That’s all pretty dark. But then he suddenly exclaims, “This is the hunt! I’m gone forever,” and then the famous stage direction appears to explain what he does next, which is that he exits the scene, pursued by a bear, which is later confirmed to have killed him.
The stage direction is famous for raising sets of questions that are all difficult to answer. The first and most obvious goes like this: “um…a bear? Where did this bear come from?” Shakespeare clearly wanted Antigonus to pay for his facilitation of this horrific plan. (Spoiler alert: the abandoned infant is found almost immediately after this by a shepherd who raises her as his own daughter. That said, it’s still a horrific plan, it just doesn’t work.)
But having a ravenous bear suddenly appear out of nowhere on the beach to chase and kill Antigonus right after he has revealed that he knows what he’s doing is wrong and is going to do it anyway is only slightly more subtle than if one of those anvils from the Road Runner cartoons had suddenly dropped on his head as if he was Wile E. Coyote holding a “help!” sign.
Of course, it’s the sudden and improbable appearance of the bear that is the point. One of the themes of The Winter’s Tale is that human beings are busy doing all kinds of terrible things to control their own destinies, generally without even understanding what’s really going on, and that both the storm and the bear are signs of supernatural powers and greater purposes at work that will ensure that this human-directed tragedy does, in fact, finally resolve into a divinely-ordained comedy.
The jarring nature of the bear’s appearance is actually part of the point, signaling that the malevolent people in the story are not nearly as much in control of things as it seems to the audience or as they themselves want to believe. And with that in mind, this scene takes on an almost comic turn, with this noble being chased offstage and out of the story, elegant robes flapping in indignity and defeat, by the almost miraculous arrival of a hungry bear to exact justice upon him.
I think we’re conditioned to read the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples through somber, stained-glass lenses. In that way, this story plays out with the disciples standing together, hands clasped reverently as they listen to two among them telling the story of having encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus, their eyes wide in wonder and anxiety.
Then suddenly Jesus himself appears to them, greeting them with offers of peace and reassuring them when they respond with fright that he’s not a ghost, as they assume, but really himself in the flesh, and then he assures them that all this is unfolding just as he had told them before his crucifixion, and that they are now witnesses.
The problem is, when we freeze this story in stained glass, literally or figuratively, the life and power of the story all but disappear, which is pretty ironic given that it is, after all, a resurrection story: the whole point is the realized promise of new and abundant and eternal life won by Jesus through his death and resurrection. For one thing, Jesus’s sudden appearance really is analogous to the bear in The Winter’s Tale. If this was your first time reading or hearing this story, and you heard, “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them…”, wouldn’t your reaction be something like, “Um…Jesus himself just…stood among them? Where did Jesus come from?”
That’s certainly the reaction of the disciples to Jesus’ sudden appearance among them, which they do not experience as a moment of peace, despite Jesus’ encouragement. They, pretty understandably, are startled by this and respond with terror because they assume he’s a ghost, and Jesus’ offer of peace seems less like words of comfort, and more like the person who tells you to calm down in an argument, which I think is safe to say has never actually led to someone calming down in the history of the world.
This is a deeply powerful and meaningful scene, but honestly, it’s kind of darkly funny, too. It’s almost like he sneaks up behind them, says “Peace” instead of “Boo!” and then spreads his arms wide like, “ta-dah!” as they jump and turn around, see him, and then really start freaking out.
Seeing that, Jesus assures them that he’s not a ghost and offers his hands and feet as proof. Part of that is presumably showing them the wounds he sustained from the crucifixion, which is something he did in another appearance for Thomas, as we heard Lindsey preach about last week. But apparently the idea of ghosts in the first century was that they didn’t have visible (and certainly not tangible) hands and feet, so he’s actually offering them proof not simply that it’s really him, but also that he’s really not a ghost.
But though they’re starting to come around, that’s not enough to convince them. The reading you heard said, “while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,” which is certainly understandable. But another equally valid (and, I think, more accurate) way of translating the actual Greek text would be, “while they were still disbelieving from joy and marveling…” Do you hear the difference? The reading we heard emphasizes the joy and acknowledges that there is still disbelief in there. But the Greek actually puts the disbelief first, and more than that, says that it comes from the joy they were experiencing.
Can you remember a time that something so good and wonderful was happening to you and you were simultaneously thrilled to bursting and afraid to really believe it because it would hurt so much more if it turned out to be an illusion? The gift that you had always wanted for Christmas as a child that seems to be poking out of the wrapping paper as you start to reveal it. The slightly thick envelope from the college you spent every night imagining yourself attending that you find lying in the mailbox one spring day in your senior year of high school. The smile on the face of the person whom you can’t stop thinking about and finally told how you feel. The notification of a voicemail that you’ve been waiting for ever since you walked out the door from interviewing for your dream job.
Now, multiple that by at least 100, and you’re starting to get a sense of what the disciples seem to be feeling in this moment. And then, as they are buffeted by waves of joy and disbelief and wonder, as they careen between wanting to race forward and embrace him and run away in terror, as they wait to hear what miraculous truth or eloquent explanation he’s going to offer that will make all this make sense, he says…he says…he says: “Got anything to eat?”
It seems so anticlimactic at first; even weird. No explanatory monologue at all, just his fingers reaching out to trembling hands extending him some broiled fish that had just started to blacken on the grill in the hearth that they had forgotten about in all the excitement. Jesus takes it, nods his thanks, pauses for a moment, and takes a bite. He chews for a minute or two, looking around awkwardly at them as they all stand their frozen, watching him as if he was tightrope-walking across the Grand Canyon or something.
He swallows, smiles, and they exhale slowly in growing belief that they are not, in fact, dreaming or hallucinating, and that he is not, in fact, a ghost, but is really him, is really back, is really alive. Only then does he begin to explain things, helping them to understand how Scripture had foretold all that would happen to him, and their responsibility as witnesses to proclaim the good news of his resurrection and salvation in his name.
“You are witnesses of these things,” he concludes. And the most basic responsibility of a witness, of course, is to testify. This is the stage direction that Jesus leaves with them, and it’s just as confusing as the second set of questions raised by Shakespeare’s direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Because in addition to the question about the bear itself inside the story, there are also all the questions it raises outside the story: how, exactly, do you do that?
Literally: how do you depict Antigonus exiting, pursued by a bear, in a live play onstage, in a way that is believable? Some think that perhaps Shakespeare actually wanted a real bear brought onto the stage from the nearby London bear-baiting pits, which was a gruesome but popular form of entertainment at the time. However, there are some obvious problems with bringing an actual hungry and aggressive bear onstage in a crowded theater and expecting it to hit its marks.
So: do you dress someone up in a bear costume to play the part instead? Can the audience suspend enough belief for that to be scary as well as darkly humorous in the play? Or do you just use sound effects and have the actor playing Antigonus act like he’s being chased by a bear that the audience simply has to imagine? How, exactly, do you do it?
Perhaps the overriding question for Christians in responding to Jesus’ commissioning of us as witnesses is, how exactly do we do it? How do we “witness” to Jesus’ resurrection in a way that is believable? Far too often, for far too long, Christians have tried to answer that question through offering eloquent explanations or simply asserting miraculous truths.
But those words, however well-expressed or intense that they are, will never really convince anyone of much of anything about Jesus. Words can clarify truth once we begin to recognize it, but it is in concrete being and action that truth is revealed, and not simply the truth we are trying to communicate, but also the truth about ourselves in terms of whether we really believe it, whether it has made an impact on us.
The answer to how, exactly, we fulfill Jesus’ stage direction to serve as witnesses to these things about Jesus, in a way that is believable, is actually pretty simple. Not easy, of course; but simple: we simply have to embody what we have seen and heard, not just describe it. We have to act it out, live it out; not as a role that we play, not as a character we portray, but as the content of our character as those whose lives are being transformed by our relationship with the risen Lord.
It’s all right there in how Jesus shows up in this story: appearing without fanfare where he is needed most; offering peace to the anxious and despairing; serving God and loving others in concrete acts of faithfulness even when it leaves scars; trusting in the power of God to overcome anything that opposes God’s gracious love, even death itself. Like the bear in Shakespeare, the jarring nature of Jesus’ appearance here, of the resurrection itself, is the point: signaling that the malevolent people and powers in this world are not nearly as much in control of things as it might appear or they want to believe.
And when we don’t simply talk about that, but live it out in embodied ministry in the world, we become true witnesses to these things, in ways that are not only “believable,” but real, revealing nothing short of the very kingdom of God in a world that is desperate for good news. That is our direction; that is our directive; that is our hope and our calling.