So after Jesus died, his body was placed in a tomb. Just another human being (or so it seemed at the time); unjustly treated, tortured, mocked and horribly killed. Yes an everyday occurrence in our world. Very little has changed over the last two thousand years. Christians themselves, as history testifies, my own church (Roman Catholic) has done great evils in the past, like most (or is it all) other human institutions. The longer any social entity exists the longer the list of evils done in the name of one cause or another, an endless line of skeletons in a very large closet. It is not really amazing at all, in fact it is quite common, that in the past people were killed and tortured so that the “kingdom of God’ would reach to the ends of the earth. One thing can be said about our species, we are not boring in the least, though we have a strong tendency to spread death and destruction if the power is there to be used. Jesus had the power, but he did not use it. No, he washed the feet of his disciples, even those of Judas, his betrayer, he lived out the paradox of being a servant to all and did not lord it over his disciples.
How cold tombs are and very frightening to think about…. cold meat is what lies within; all that is left of what was once a vital human being. Pitch blackness in the tomb, alone, quiet, no noise, just nothingness. Each person alive today as it was true in the past will also have their Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday experience. Unique to each, but in the end we all have “Via Delarosa” to travel, there is no escape. This trinity of isolation, suffering and finally death, can be lived out slowly over many years, few go through it quickly.
People have told me that they do not fear death. I get this from believers as well as atheist; such brave words and yes, I have at times stated that I did not fear my own physical extinction. It is like a man once told me who was a heavy smoker, which he knew at the time because of the many warnings from his doctor that he may get lung cancer if he did not stop. Yet he bravely told me, “We all have to die from something”. Then a few years after that remark, he told me on his 50th birthday, that his doctor gave him the news; he had lung cancer, stage three. The news took away the shield that protected him from the actual reality of death and also the difficult death that lung cancer brings. There was fear in his eyes, for he was of course terrified and he stopped smoking. Though of course it was too late, too much damage done; he died one year after his diagnosis. He died bravely, though he never told me again that he did not fear his demise. It is one thing to say, “Well we all have to die of something”, then to actually live that reality when walking ones last mile.
Cold stone, what an embrace death has over us all. Holy Saturday truly plays that out in those churches that have the Sacrament; for on this day, the tabernacle is empty, there is a cold feeling in the church, a void, and no light up near the altar. Perhaps on this day people do think about their own tombs, the darkness, the emptiness, the utter nothingness that the dead body seems to point to. I sit with that reality on this day after Good Friday. When, as Christians believe, God died, taking on all deaths and suffering into the tomb. It is easy to think that is all there is to it. We live and then like the flowers of the field we are gone.
Part of me believes that, that death is the absolute end, for I am not one of those who easily believe in a life after death. Yet my faith sustains me, for human understanding about the true nature of our life and what it is about is limited. I don’t believe in personal infallibility, just because I believe something does not make it true, yet my faith tradition does sustain me. I choose to believe that the New Testament is a faith document, presented to the reader of the early churches experiences of the Risen Lord. That the tomb, as I sit now in its dark, cold, and terrifying presence is not in fact the final destination for anyone of us.
I feel called, embraced and pursued all at the same time. While it is true that as a Christian I fail more often than I actually live my faith, yet grace works in secret, a gift freely given by a God who took flesh and bore all that we do, yet did not give into the desire for power, or for revenge over enemies. For the one of the last things Jesus said on the cross was “Father, forgive them for they know what they do”. As a self destructive species, prone to war and scape goating, it is a true wonder that we are loved in an infinite manner, freely and completely by the God revealed in Christ Jesus. All things are in flux in this world, unstable and temporal, yet it is love as St. Paul says that will remain, an eternal constant. There is faith, hope and love, in the end there will come a time that faith and hope will no longer be needed….but love…..well that is the greatest gift of all and will last for eternity. For the reward for loving, is to be able to love ever more deeply and fully, and eternal process, that is what I feel we are made for.
In forgiving those who beat, tortured and imprisoned him, rejecting the rationale for revenge and the will to power, Jesus broke the self destructive cycle that humans seem to be caught up in. He was fully human, a being of love, compassion and empathy towards all. The seed has been planted.