Dark Devotional: Resurrections Can Be Messy

by Michelle Arnold

They did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead (John 20:9).

Many Christian families have a favorite movie they enjoy watching at Easter. When I was growing up, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments was shown every year on television and became an Easter tradition. In the last twenty years, other movies have vied for the honor of being the go-to Easter favorite: Mel Gibson’s bloodbath, The Passion of the Christ; the claymation feature, The Miracle Maker; and, for those who prefer the tradition of watching the Exodus at Easter, the Dreamworks animated movie, The Prince of Egypt.

With the exception of the Gibson flick, which I no longer recommend, these are all fine choices for Easter viewing. My own choice, though, is a little different. I love to watch “The Canister,” my favorite holiday episode in the popular sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond.

The storyline centers around a missing canister. Ray’s wife, Debra, swears she returned the canister to his mother, but Marie just as vehemently swears she never got it back. When Debra becomes angry at not being taken at her word, Marie uncharacteristically apologizes and leaves. Then Ray and Debra’s daughter walks in with the canister.

“Is this what Grandma was looking for?” Ally asks as Ray and Debra gasp.

Debra can’t bear to allow Marie to be right because Marie is insufferable enough when she’s wrong. The canister must die, Debra vows. Ray is horrified, as is his brother Robert, but they grudgingly agree to look the other way while Debra disposes of the canister.

“You do what you have to do,” Ray says, refusing to look at Debra.

The next morning, the family is rushing to get over to Ray’s parents’ house for Easter dinner. Suddenly the canister comes tumbling down the stairs, freaking out Ray and Debra at its mysterious reappearance. Turns out that one of their twins dug it out of the trash. Now, all they can do is to try to smuggle the canister back into Marie’s house, hoping that Marie will simply find it and believe she had it all along.

When I listened to the commentary for this episode on DVD, I was amazed that Ray Romano (the show’s lead) and Phil Rosenthal (creator and producer) never mentioned the episode’s setting at Easter. The series had quite a few holiday episodes, and the holidays were always treated as major plot points in the stories. In this episode though, Easter is firmly in the background, hardly mentioned at all.

Which suddenly makes sense when you consider Rosenthal’s offhand comment that the principal writer of the episode, David Regal, is also a magician. Rosenthal’s point was that Regal kept making the canister “reappear,” as a magician would. Rather than pulling a canister out of his sleeve though, perhaps Regal was doing something else magicians are known for—misdirection. He misdirected attention from Easter to draw the audience into a passion play.

This episode, when seen through the lens of its Easter setting, is a story of suffering, death, and resurrection—told in farcical fashion, with an empty canister symbolizing an empty tomb.

Mel Gibson’s film had its devotees at the time of its release, many of them willing to sit through two hours of blood and sweat flying everywhere. But the movie failed to win over a widespread audience. By contrast, the canister in Everybody Loves Raymond is the object of plotting, destruction, abandonment—yet mysteriously keeps returning from the “dead.” And the episode became an audience favorite.

Quite an accomplishment for a secular television show aimed at a general audience.

“All very interesting, Michelle. So, what’s your point?” Glad you asked.

One reason I keep watching this episode every Easter is because I’m fascinated by its depiction of just how “messy” resurrection can be. We tend to think of resurrection as a joyful event, bathed in a golden glow.

I haven’t watched Gibson’s movie in nearly twenty years, but I checked out a clip of its resurrection scene on YouTube. As I suspected Gibson’s Jesus is covered in sunlight, his eyes glowing, as he rises with determination and purpose. No one is whipping him again, that’s for sure. He went to the tomb, bloodied and beaten; he rose from the dead, a warrior striding off into battle.

By contrast, nobody’s happy when the canister returns from the “dead.” The conspirators are both bewildered and horrified. Their plotting has been foiled, and now they must figure out a way back to status quo ante while covering their own backsides. In the end, when Marie finds her canister, Ray’s father surprises everyone by taking the blame to protect Debra from his wife’s wrath.

In the Gospels, the Resurrection of Christ isn’t entirely a joyful event. It’s messy. When the women show up at the tomb, there’s confusion. Is there a single man? Two men? Angels? What happened to the body? Has it been stolen? Mary Magdalene begs someone she believes is the gardener to tell her where her teacher’s body is, presumably so she can bury him again.

Meanwhile, John and Peter race each other to the tomb, with John bragging a bit that he got there first. They’re puzzled by the burial cloths left behind. John made sure to tell us he believed without having yet seen Jesus (an important detail when you consider his account of Jesus’ subsequent discussion with John’s fellow apostle, Thomas). Peter, on the other hand, evidently needed to see Jesus before he believed (Luke 24:34). The disciples walking to Emmaus seemed to be heading back to their “real lives” when they meet the resurrected Jesus along the way.

When you think about it, the Resurrection itself is a glorious event (as distinguished from a joyful event), but the hijinks surrounding Christ’s reappearance from the dead have more in common with a situation comedy than they do with pretentious melodrama.

Christ is risen indeed, alleluia, Scripture seems to say. And now we must find a way to live with this new reality.

Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.

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