Five Meditations on Resurrection
I am visiting with a woman whose husband of almost fifty years died the summer before last. The woman was young when she and her husband met and married, she was only a handful of years into her twenties. The two of them were together for just about all of her adult life.
Now he is gone.
Maybe it is because I want everything to be okay for her. Or maybe it’s a little more selfish. Maybe I want everything to be okay for me. My wife, Phoebe, and I were more or less the same age when we got together as the woman was when she and her husband met. I’m not sure that I know how to be a grown-up without Phoebe. I’m not sure that I remember how to live life without her.
And so I say something facile, something neat and simple and clean about the importance of reengaging with life after the death of a loved one. I offer the woman this advice – and I am embarrassed to confess this to you – in much the same way that I might tell a child who has fallen off of her bike to climb back on and start peddling again.
I guess that am trying to reassure at least one of us that such a reengagement is possible.
The woman responds to the foolishness of my words not with anger or disappointment, but with a tired wisdom (is “tired wisdom” a category that even makes sense?) with the insight that comes from carrying a barrelful of grief for a long time.
It’s hard, she says to me.
It is hard to decide that life is still worth it.
And in that instant I catch a glimpse, a fleeting glimpse, of just how hard the woman is working. I don’t think that I had guessed before. I don’t think that I had guessed that she is like a marathon runner, her knees almost buckling as the miles move further and further into the double digits; that she is like a swimmer pulled by the current far, far out into the ocean, beginning to wonder if she can keep the struggle going, if she wants to keep the struggle going, knowing that sinking beneath the waves promises rest.
The woman has chosen to keep on living. She has chosen life. She has made this choice at great cost to herself.
The story says that there is a stone in front of the tomb.
You have to push hard if you want to move the stone.
The farmer and poet and prophet Wendell Berry ends one of his most famous poems with a two-word invitation or command:
Practice resurrection. Resurrection, Berry suggests through the unexpected intersection of these two words, is something more than a piece of history, something more than an idea to which you and I are expected to agree, something more than a 2000-year-old fact to which you and I, because we are sitting in a church, are expected to intellectually assent. Resurrection, somehow, is about you and me.
Around the year 33, the women find the tomb empty.
Around the year 2017, you and I find the tomb empty.
The tomb is opening still. It is opening right now.
If Wendell Berry is right, then you and I are called to witness its opening.
If Wendell Berry is right, then you and I are called to practice resurrection and to participate in its opening.
A United Airlines flight sits on the tarmac. And a man of Asian descent who has bought and paid for a ticket is inside. The staff managing the flight realises that United has sold more tickets than they have seats. And so, aided by a computer algorithm that randomly selects his seat number, they tell the man to get up and get off the plane. When the man refuses to do so, when he says that he needs to get to his destination, the flight staff summon United’s security team. And the security guards drag the man from the plane. His fellow passengers get out their mobile phones and film as he is pulled down the aisle like a sack of garbage. The man’s lawyer will later explain that the security team broke his nose and knocked out two of his teeth.
This is the data. How shall we interpret it? What story shall we tell about it?
Maybe this is a story about a group of employees forgetting the dignity of a customer and, in so doing, forgetting their own dignity. Maybe this is a story about the danger of uncritically following orders. Maybe this is a story about a business culture that dehumanises its customers and employees alike, about a business that studies its spreadsheets hard but has forgotten how to study morality. Maybe this is a story about the erosion of community, about neglecting our duty to our neighbour. Maybe it’s a story about still another official act of violence directed against a person of colour.
All of these stories are true.
The story that I am curious about this morning, however, is another one. It is the story of you and me watching the cell phone video of the man being pulled from the plane. James Martin, the wonderful Jesuit writer, invites us to listen to ourselves as we watch, to notice the voice inside of us that says:
Pay attention to that voice, James Martin says. Pay attention to the voice that says, “That’s wrong.”
Because that voice is your conscience.
That voice – and the similar voices inside of the millions of others people watching this video – is the good news hiding within this story. When we see something wrong or evil or broken, there is a temptation to interpret what we are seeing as a fundamental indictment of creation, as evidence that God is absent and that the world is fractured beyond repair, as an invitation into despair and rage and apathy.
But actually, the very intensity of our reaction is good news. The world might be hopelessly broken if we watched the video from the airplane or the footage from Syria or – we don’t even need a screen here – the evidence of poverty in our own neighbourhoods and we shrugged, and we said, “That’s just the way things are.”
But we don’t shrug. Our consciences speak. And through our consciences, Christ speaks. Through our consciences, Christ invites us into action.
Sometimes the voice inside of us that says that’s wrong is the beginning of new life.
An elderly man sits at home. The man has gotten to be older than most people get. He doesn’t leave home much any more, his body is reluctant to take him too far into the world. But he remains lucid, his mind clear. He sits by the window in the sunshine and watches the marvel of creation in the back yard.
A younger friend comes to visit the man – although to be this man’s friend means that, even though you are younger than him, you yourself are beginning to be old.
The two of them talk. And the younger person asks the questions that friends ask when they get together: How are you? How is your life?
The old man responds.
Now I am almost entirely love.
The women come to the tomb before the sun rises. Much as they stood at the foot of the cross, their plan today is to stand outside of his grave.
What do you notice about their story?
Notice that the women come before dawn. In the cold and the dark and the lonely confusion of this night, there is the absence of light in every sense.
Notice that, in this short reading, we hear about fear over and over For fear of the angel, the soldiers guarding the tomb become like dead men. The angel says to the women, fear not. And Jesus says the same words to the rest of the disciples.
Notice that, notwithstanding the darkness and the fear, the women go towards the tomb. Somehow, part of meeting God involves overcoming our anxiety and, as Jesus did throughout his life, going towards the pain.
Notice that resurrection begins with an earthquake. That it begins when the very ground beneath our feet shakes and we are not sure anymore what is stable and what is true and real and what is up and what is down.
Notice that the angel says to the women:
You are looking for Jesus
who was crucified.
Resurrection is something other than optimism, it is something other than a happy ending to a movie. Jesus does not come out of the tomb saying, “Don’t cry: it was all a bad dream. See? I’m fine!”
Jesus is risen. But the reality of his crucifixion remains. The wounds remain on his hands and his feet and in his side. Resurrection does not say that the hurt or the injustice or the grief or the trauma never happened. It does not say that the bomb did not fall or that the man was not dragged from the plane or that the one that we loved did not die. It says that these hard, hard truths remain. And that, somehow, somehow, there is new life even as we continue to carry them.
Last of all, notice that resurrection means being with Jesus. At its simplest level – and at its most staggering level – this is what resurrection is. When the women brave going to the tomb, when we brave going to our own tombs, who we fid there is Jesus Christ himself.
At the beginning of the Gospel, we learned that Jesus is Emmanuel: God with us. At the end of the Gospel, we learn the same thing. God is with us in our searching and our grief our lostness as suredly as God is with us in our triumph and our ecstasy and our jubilation.
Before he died, Jesus said to us, I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.
Outside of the tomb, we know that abundant life is ours.
Before he died, Jesus said to us, I am the way and the truth and the life.
Outside of the tomb, we know that Jesus will show us the way to the Father.
And today. Today Jesus says to us, Fear not.
And amazingly, in the cold of the early dawn light, we notice that we are not shaking anymore. We notice that our fear is gone.
This is resurrection.