To their great credit, homilists often acknowledge that that no words are going to change anything, and nothing can really ease the pain. Sometimes, mutual presence can ease the pain. Sometimes, for some of us, we can make peace with the passing of someone we love dearly. But even the death that some euphemistically call “a blessing” is for one who loves a ripping-away, a wrenching. I remember my stepmother talking to me, years after the death of my father from Pick’s disease at the age of 61, that she would rather have had him alive in his debilitated state, with impaired reason and memory and lapses of violent behavior, than for him to be dead and away from her. On the edges of death, we make rituals, eulogize, and write poetry; in the valley of death, we only wail and wander in the chaos.
My experience has been that there is a lot that the church shouldn’t say, I mean, that we shouldn’t try to say too much. Often, priests tell personal or anecdotal stories of how the deceased is “given back to us” or that they are still present with us somehow. I guess, “somehow,” that that is true, but one person’s sense of presence is another person’s delusion. It’s one thing to believe in the resurrection and the communion of saints; it seems to me quite another to be too explicit about what that means.
Still, for the church, “life is changed, not ended.” Part of the mystery of that changed life is that the change is complete. We don’t know what it’s like, no one told us. All of the biblical stories of resurrection in the new testament (resurrection, not resuscitation) indicate that the resurrected one is not known by his friends, he is mistaken for a gardener, a stranger, or a ghost. I don’t want to make too much of that, just that “change” means “changed completely,” and we don’t know what that means.
What can we say, then? Well, we can surely say what we know by faith, that God is just, and that the injustice of death will be rectified. In fact, what we say is that is has been rectified for the Christian, that in baptism, the old self died with Christ and rose as a new creation, so that Paul is able to say, “I live now no longer I, but it is Christ who lives in me.” What we can say is that from the moment of baptism, we were claimed for Christ, and that death had no more power over us. We were drowned in the paschal mystery of God, where there is only life. To say it differently, death and sin are the problem, and God’s answer is the covenant that began with Abraham and Moses and blossomed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Messiah, when the Spirit of God was poured out onto the world from the cross. Baptism gives us that Spirit, it lives in us as the community of Christ as we live that community. We are alive to the extent that we give ourselves away, or, to say it more starkly, we live to the extent that we die in God.
Also, as we disabuse ourselves of the imperial god and become aware of God as the abba of Jesus, the God who is agape, we can begin to see that death and life are somehow related, and that what appears to be death is a beginning of life. If we see God as one-who-gives-life-away, and yet one who is the fullness of life, we can begin to grapple with possibility that it is death that is illusory. We have to hold that in tension with the truth that the reign of God is here, in this world, and for this world, now, and that this world is meant for life, here and now. Death isn’t a solution, but it is not the awful enemy we may think it to be. (My spiritual guru, James Alison, speaks differently, preferring to say that God has nothing to do with death, that God is completely life, and anything of death cannot be of God. I don’t find these points of view so much opposed as residing in different semantic arenas. If our image of God is not imperial, that is, hoarding life and making a show of it, but is rather based on a view of God’s kenotic life as agape, that is, always giving life away, it seems to me that we can authentically speak of death as being part of the divine economy.)
A little book I recently read, Resurrection, by Geza Vermes, does a survey of biblical texts on resurrection and tries to come to some conclusion about its meaning for Christianity and Christians today. Vermes, a leading biblical scholar, professor at Oxford, and the lead translator of and authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, covers many of the same foundational texts touched on by Crossan in his work on Jesus: Job, Maccabees, Daniel and Wisdom especially. Like Crossan, he concludes that the concept of resurrection from the dead arose late in the consciousness of Judaism and was anything but widespread even by time of Christ. This would particularly be true in Galilee, a world away from the more cosmopolitan Jerusalem with its thousands of priests who would be the ones most likely to be dealing with these conclusions and reflections. What Vermes seems to find most intriguing is that, whatever happened to Jesus, whatever the explanation of the empty tomb, the resurrection seems to have been a complete surprise to everyone. Everyone’s first thought was that something else had happened. If Jesus had known about his death and resurrection, and if he had prepared the apostles to expect it, how is that they were so flabbergasted by it when it happened?
“Life is changed, not ended.” It was first changed at baptism into something greater than we suspect, it was changed from the life of a single person, an individual, into the life of Christ, God’s cosmic response to sin and death in every time and place. What life will be after death we don’t know, and I feel we should be very circumspect about the claims we make about it. We can be certain that it will surprise us, it will change us completely. It may be as different from life we know as an ocean differs from a molecule of water vapor; it is only certain that it is the vapor we experience now, and the ocean lies beyond our present life. Still, the gospel insists that we look here, in this world, for signs of that ocean of divine presence all around us, because it is “at hand, indeed, it is here already.”
These latter days of Lent remind us to be wary of our thoughts about the “imperial” god, whose reign looks like the rulers’ of this world, wielding power and might, arrayed in gold, and dominated by maleness and aggression. Jesus, and him crucified, is the image of the invisible God. Looking upon him, we might catch a glimpse of what life truly is, agape, life-as-love-given-completely, and have our ideas of both life and death transformed. We might come to a new understanding that perhaps God’s nature shares somehow in suffering and death, that suffering is a part of God’s nature and memory, as hymnist Brian Wren has written:
God remembers pain;￼
Nail by nail, thorn by thorn,
Hunger, thirst, and muscles torn.
Time may dull our griefs and heal our lesser wounds,
But in eternal love yesterday is now,
And pain is in the heart of God.
God remembers us;
All we were, all we are,
Lives within our lover's care.
Time may dull our minds and death will take us all,
But in eternal love ev'ry day is now;
Our life is hid with Christ in God.