“The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but [the two men dressed in dazzling clothes who met them at the empty tomb] said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. ”
That little flock of women who first spread the message of the resurrection were, of course—in their own time and place—the very ones least likely to be believed. But God gives us the good news and tells us to share it. It doesn’t seem to matter to him whether or not we are believed. It is the telling that matters. And predictably the disciples who first heard the story regarded it as “an idle tale.” The resurrection news is just so bizarre, going as it does against all expectation and all common sense, and in so many ways so unsettling and so uncanny.
No wonder Easter is still, from the commercial point of view, such a hard sell. While each year the goblin market of Halloween, Easter’s “bizarro twin” at the other side of the calendar, continues to break its own records for the consumption of its wares—costumes, candy, cards—Easter lags far, far behind. And it is worth asking just why exactly. Shouldn’t the news that death is dying be easier to market?
The problem is with that very word. Because you cannot talk about the resurrection of Jesus without bringing up You Know What. Even papered over with the imagery of cute rabbits and drenched in the scent of spring flowers, Easter retains that tell-tale whiff of mortality. And in a time when pretty much anything can be talked about openly, death remains strictly off limits. For modern people death-talk has about it the same forbidden quality as sex-talk had for our Victorian great-grandparents. It is our big No-No. As far as humanly possible we have banished from our lives any mention of their Great Opposite, and we discuss it with our children only with the greatest reluctance.
That does not mean, however, that death has been banished entirely from the popular consciousness. I know this because every Halloween I act the part of the talking corpse at Honeymoon Island State Park. On the stage of this world some are given the great parts—King Lear and Prince Hamlet. I play the Dead Cowboy. My face is smeared with grease paint and fake blood. An open wound is carved in my bosom. Made up I present indeed an alarming sight—I have pictures to prove it. Then night falls and I lie down in a coffin of my own building, waiting for a gaggle of silly geese to come waddling down the haunted path. And when they do happen by, I sit up and speak in a hollow, sepulchral voice—like Lazarus returned from the grave to tell all. Oh, and you should hear them squeal and squawk when they spy me there in my coffin. I scare the ever-livin’ goose-poop out of that goofy gaggle. Still they must enjoy it, because each year they come back for more.
What is disturbing is that they often they bring with them their young offspring, who are genuinely terrified by what they see along the haunted path. They scream with real terror when I sit up and start to speak, and I hear their goosey parents saying, “It’s not real. He’s just an actor.” They say this because they want to believe it themselves, and they want their children to share that belief, that death isn’t real. That it’s all grease paint and pretend. That our mortality is a mere fiction, the Biggest Joke of All–but never, ever a reality, present to us at every moment of our lives. The gooselings, however, know better. They scream and cry because they know that there is a fearful reality hidden under all the silliness of Halloween.
In that regard that little flock of women who dutifully trooped off to the tomb on first day of the week to anoint the body of Jesus with spices have it all over on us modern people. They never doubted that death was real. They knew it intimately well. They had seen and touched and smelled it. In their society it was always there, all around them, undeniable. In ours it is a deep, dark secret hidden even from ourselves.
But in order to experience the painful joy of Easter you and I have to stop pretending, beloved. In order to really hear the cheering news of his resurrection we have to acknowledge that Jesus really died—dead as a door nail—and so will we. If his cross drives home any point at all, it is that death is factual and personal to each one us. And only through that dark glass of that realization can we glimpse the eternal meaning of Christ’s rising, and understand why it was necessary for the women to find the tomb so absolutely empty, so totally vacated. Rising, he left the winding sheets behind him. Because the risen Lord was not a friendly ghost like Casper. When he arose it was as The Paschal God, naked and alive in an utterly new way, as no one had ever been alive before.
Sigmund Freud said that we human beings are fundamentally, constitutionally unable to imagine our own death, and he was probably right. Some have done their darndest to confront their death head-on. John Donne, the seventeenth century English poet and preacher, went so far as to sleep the last years of his life in his own coffin. Nice try, you must admit! But on the whole, we find it well-nigh impossible to picture a world in which we ourselves are not present. Even the boldest spirit among us is death-shy. The fear of nothingness is our deepest human dread, beloved, and we hide it from ourselves at all costs, papering it over whenever possible with nervous laughter and maudlin sentimentality. So the news that Jesus died and rose again must always confound and terrify us as much as it did that little flock of women who were its first witnesses.
But The Paschal God–bless him!—does not leave us in our terror and confusion. He comes to us, through the doors we close and lock behind us, in the upstairs rooms where we hide ourselves from reality. He comes still marked with the gristly signs of his own death and says, “Peace be with you. Do not be afraid.” Not that there is nothing to be afraid of—there are still plenty of things in life to fear. But we are not left by ourselves to face its Great Opposite. Whatever lies before us, Jesus has been there already. He has gone ahead as “the pioneer and perfector of our faith,” as the Book of Hebrews puts it (12:2). Or as the Apostles’ Creed boldly puts it, “He descended into hell,” and then “on the third day he rose again.” The Lord knows where we are going and he knows the way back.
And his resurrection turns everything “bizzaro.” That thing that most frightened us has become the door to eternal life. And the universe, which had seemed dark and meaningless, has revealed itself to be chock-a-block with light and possibility. The Resurrection of Jesus makes everything possible. We will be all right. Better than all right. Therefore, beloved, let us keep the feast. Have an extra Cadbury crème egg on me. In spite of the shocking Trumpism of our time and its sometimes triumphant vulgarity, Christ is still risen. Nothing can alter that. And just as a thousand thousand candles can be lit by a single flame, the news of his resurrection continues to kindle human hearts with hope and courage. So to those of you who share that hope with me, I wish you great joy this Easter.