Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
Sixteen days ago, our longtime cat, Maggie, died. Maggie had been with my wife, Phoebe, and me since 1999, she was very nearly seventeen years old, and she was a kind of living link to another time in our lives: a time when we were in our twenties, a time when we lived in Vancouver, BC, a time before we had kids, a time when we worked with some pretty amazing performing arts companies. Up until pretty recently, Maggie was spry and full of life, running around the house and jumping up on the furniture. I would have said that she had a good shot at turning twenty, at living into her third decade. But then, a couple of months ago, the first indication appeared that something was wrong. We found blood in her urine.
The veterinarian initially thought that Maggie had a Urinary Tract Infection, but when antibiotics made no discernable difference, he revised his guess to kidney cancer – entirely untreatable in a cat, even if you have thousands and thousands of dollars to spend on interventions. I suspect that the vet’s guess was right, because Maggie’s decline looked very nearly identical to the declines of the several people whom I have known with aggressive and terminal abdominal cancers: her weight loss was precipitous, she was less and less inclined to eat or to drink, and it was harder and harder for her to walk around the house. By the final day of her life, she didn’t move from the blanket that Phoebe had set up for her on top of our bed.
I was by myself when she died. I had put our youngest child, Timothy, to bed and Phoebe and the two older children were out. I was in another room when (and I admit to feeling somehow goofy or awkward or embarrassed about sharing this rest of this story with you, but I’m going to anyway) Maggie called out to me. She meowed loudly and forcefully five or six times, a message that indisputably said: Come here.
And so I did.
Again, the resemblance to the death of a human being was remarkable. You and I, well, I guess that we aren’t so different from a cat. Maggie’s pupils were dilated, her eyes fixed and staring hard at something only she could see. Her breathing was gasping and laboured, and there were long and longer pauses between each breath. I stroked her fur and sang to her and told her stories about when she was a kitten and she first came to live with us.
And then she shuddered and breathed for the last time.
Nurses and doctors and other people who hang around in hospices and hospitals tells us that they often know when someone has died not because they have taken their pulse or consulted a machine but because that they can actually see the life leave his or her body, that they can see the departure of what some religious traditions, this one included, calls the soul. That instant of departure – it isn’t a figure of speech or a poetical notion. It is a reality – a profoundly mysterious reality, an unmeasurable reality – but a reality nonetheless. One moment, Maggie was lying before me. The next, she was gone, and only her body remained. I saw her go. I knew that she was home and safe.
Her departure was beautiful and terrible. It was awesome in the old-school sense of that word.
Friends, as many of you know, there has been a lot of loss and grief this past year for Phoebe and me. And somehow, the death of Maggie functioned as a symbol, as a sacrament, an outward and visible sign for all of that loss and all of that grief. Somehow, all of that loss and all of that grief was contained in her dying. I more or less kept my act together when it came time for our family say goodbye to the parish at which we used to serve in Spokane in order to come here to Grace, when we departed from that beloved community. I more or less kept my act together when Phoebe’s Dad, Bob, died this past summer. I more or less kept my act together when, over a three-month span this winter, four of our friends from Spokane died, none of whom were especially old.
But I didn’t keep my act together at all when that cat’s soul left the room. I sat beside her now empty little body on the bed. And I sobbed, just sobbed. I cried chest-shaking tears.
The next morning, our four-year-old child Timothy, got up, out of bed. And we told him that Maggie had died and showed him her body. His first question for Phoebe and me was, “When will she be alive again?”
I guess that I am sharing this story with you this Easter morning because, in its own, small way, the story of Maggie’s death is an Easter story. One of the great themes of Easter, maybe the great theme of Easter, is that, in choosing to go towards grief and suffering and loss, we will also find our way towards clarity and healing and revelation and freedom. Towards resurrection.
In the story of Jesus’ death, it is the women who go towards the grief and the suffering first. It is the women who remain with Jesus during his torturous execution while most of the men flee. And it is the women who come to the tomb now, bringing the spices for anointing his body. Sometimes – in Jesus’ time and in ours – women are willing to go stay with pain in a way that men cannot or will not.
Early in the morn, the women walk towards the tomb. Scripture doesn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about appearance or emotional states, but we may imagine that, in the early dawn light, we can see the sorrow that they are carrying, that their steps are heavy not just with the weight of their spices but also with the weight of their loss. Perhaps they are crying. Or perhaps, after standing at the cross, after crying the same kind of chest-shaking tears that I cried at Maggie’s death, they have no tears left.
In the half-light of dawn, they squint their eyes at the tomb. And one by one, they realise that it is open, that the stone has been rolled away. When they go inside, it is empty. Jesus is gone. In John’s telling of this story, Mary Magdalene is by herself outside of the tomb. And she demands of Jesus, whom she mistakes for the gardener, “What have you done with his body?” Mary and the other women have witnessed so much violence. And so Mary makes the an entirely reasonable – if entirely heartbreaking – assumption that, even in death, the violence against Jesus has not ended, that his body has been dragged from the tomb to be desecrated or dumped in a ditch, to be left for the crows and the dogs.
But because the women have made the brave and hard decision to go towards grief and suffering, they experience something else. Something beyond violence and death, something bigger than violence and death. Two men in dazzling clothes appear and they ask the women the staggering question, Why do you look for the living among the dead?
Jesus is risen.
The women rush home to tell the eleven remaining apostles the wondrous news. But the men greet them with scepticism, they roll their eyes. As Luke tells it, the rising of Jesus strikes the men as an “idle tale.” Peter is the only one who allows that they might be telling the truth. The rest of the apostles say to Mary and the other women, “We don’t mean to be unkind. But that thing you said that happened at the tomb? It’s just your imagination.”
A lot of things have changed in 2,000 years. But this interaction? It could have happened yesterday. I don’t know how many people I’ve visited with who have dropped their voice to a hush, leaned forward and said, “You’ll think I’m crazy, but…” or “I never tell anyone this, but…” and then they will relate time when they went towards grief and suffering and there had a profound encounter with the numinous, with a world beyond our measuring. A widow will explain how her late husband came to see her and comfort her after his death. A dying person will explain that one of the visitors who came to see him in his hospice room was a friend who died years ago. A man or a woman will explain how, during a time of deep lostness, someone – someone, perhaps, a lot like the two men in the tomb with their dazzling clothes – came and shepherded him or her to safety.
These folks speak in whispers, they begin their stories with apologies, because when they have shared them in the past, they have gotten the very same reaction that the women get from the apostles.
If there is a change between 2,000 years ago and now, it is that today we are even more reflexively dismissive, even more reflexively sceptical, of these encounters than we were then. Patricia Pearson, in her wonderful book Opening Heaven’s Door, argues that these sort of mystical, unmeasurable meetings with the Divine in the midst of suffering and lostness have always been part of humanity’s experience. But that, starting in the last 150 years or so, we eradicated the vocabulary for talking about them.
And so we self-censor. We tell no one about our encounters, except in hushed voices. Sometimes we don’t even tell ourselves about these experiences, we dismiss them as flights of fancy, as tricks of the light, as without meaning. I suppose that is why I was reluctant to tell you about my dying cat calling out to me, about watching her soul leave her body. I didn’t want you to think that I was silly.
Here’s the problem. When we engage in this sort of self-censorship, when we deny the transformation that can happen when we go towards grief, we also deny the wisdom and growth and freedom that we can find by paying attention to these experiences.
Easter proclaims that resurrection happens not instead of the tomb or in spite of the tomb. Easter proclaims that resurrection happens in the tomb. We cannot get to Easter except via Good Friday. We cannot get to the risen Christ except through the cross. That is true in the Gospel. And it is true for you and me.
It is in the tomb, in the midst of going towards unfairness and suffering, that we find possibility and freedom, that we find the clarity to ask questions like Timothy’s holy question, “When will she be alive again?” That isn’t a naïve question or a foolish question. It is one of the great questions of life. It’s just that, sometimes, only a four-year-old is brave enough to ask it.
In the tomb, we find healing and agency and resurrection. It is in the tomb that we find that Timothy’s question might have a wondrous answer. It is in the tomb that we find the power to shout:
Alleluia, Christ is risen!