I hadn’t expected it when I drove out to our local funeral home that Saturday afternoon.
I had just officiated at the memorial service of a man. They were not showing his body, in fact he was soon to be cremated, and so close family stayed around after the service so as to go and view him one more time. I asked if they wanted me to go with them and since they did I walked behind them. We made our way through the garage of our local funeral home into a room I had never entered before: that mysterious place where the bodies of our loved ones are received and made presentable to us so that on the day of their burial we can have, perhaps, a better chance of remembering them as they once were.
As we were making our way back out the funeral director stopped me to ask if I would like to see Annie. Annie was in her 90’s when she had died a few days before. Although I did not know her well, still I had known Annie for probably thirty years. I knew that my own schedule would probably keep me from attending her funeral a few days later so I quickly said yes.
It turns out she was on the other side of the plastic curtain from the man we had just stood beside, already in her casket. She was wearing a beautiful turquoise jacket and her hair was nicely done. She looked as much like herself as one who has died, can, in fact. It was as we paused there that the funeral director drew my attention to her hands – commenting that he had not yet had a chance to tend those yet. And to be sure, they were not ‘done’ yet — they were bruised and discolored — not at all the hands of one who is alive.
I was taken back in that moment to another time, another family, another vigil where the one they loved had just died. As we waited for the hospice nurse to arrive that afternoon, they stayed close by and, unlike most I have known, marveled to watch the hands of their loved one change … to see the color of life itself receding and disappearing.
Oh to be sure, in her hands I could see the suffering that had been Annie’s to bear in her last days. Her hands were surely not alive, but of course, the rest of her was not either. Funeral directors are often able to do wonders, but all of their padding and make-up only offers the illusion of life as we remember it. They do not, of course, actually bring back to life what moments before was dead.
And so it is Easter, this day when the women made their way to the tomb to prepare for burial the body of Jesus which had already been buried in the rush of the Sabbath which had been bearing down upon them that late Friday afternoon. Only when they got there, there was no plastic curtain to push aside, there was no stone to roll away, for the one on the other side had already made his way out. If we stand still within this, it is so that the story shared by the “two men in dazzling clothes” was utterly unbelievable. Of course Jesus was dead. Why wouldn’t they look for him there, for that was precisely where they had left him not more than three days before. And indeed, by the time they left him there, life had already left his hands, his feet, his face, his heart.
It would have been as though we had stepped back to see Annie that Saturday a few months back and the curtain had already been pulled aside and her casket empty. We would have been confused, angry, and no doubt every bit as terrified as those women were so long ago. Indeed, it’s a wonder to me at all that those first witnesses to the resurrection were even able to begin to comprehend and repeat the amazing words of these two strangers. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
It is, indeed, a wondrous announcement that is ours to share again this Easter. For any of us who have stared at the hands of a loved one and watched life leave them, we can imagine the amazement they must have felt as the women and Peter approached the empty tomb that first Easter morning. Oh yes, I have to say that for me, too, sometimes this wondrous truth that Jesus defeats even death is still sinking in. For all of the times I have joined in the Easter Alleluias, it still is hard to comprehend that God does what is in no human way possible and to realize that death no longer has the last word for God really does bring life again. The sort of life that not only has blood coursing through our hands and feet and hearts again. The sort of life which never again will leave its mark of suffering on us. Oh yes, that day will come when there will never again be a need to cover up the marks of death, those lifeless, bruised, discolored hands of Annie or anyone else. For death itself will be no more.
How do you think you would have reacted had you accompanied the women on their trip to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter day?
What is the meaning of the Easter story for God’s people today? How about for your neighbors? Your community? The world?
How is it that we communicate what our imaginations can only begin to grasp ourselves? How do we speak of resurrection in a world which is so very familiar with death?
What is the gift of the Resurrection Promise for you this year? How do the words “He is not here, but has risen,” come as gift to you now?