I always get tongue-tied when it comes time to talk about the Resurrection.
I’m famous, or infamous, for writing about the Passion and Death of Christ. I’m good at commenting on suffering– I’ve seen more of it than I care to. I’ve written some passable things about death. When we come to resurrection, I never know quite what to say. Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, and then… something else happened. Something I believe but don’t understand and can’t describe. Heaven descended to Earth, suffered with us, died with us, and then made a change.
Even the Gospel passages on this point are odd; the people who saw, touched, spoke and ate with the risen Christ didn’t recognize their dear friend at first.
Maybe that mystery is all bound up in what the angel at the tomb had to say: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
The disciples knew about death. They’d watched that horrendous trauma happen, at least from a distance. Dear Mary Magdalene and Saint John had been up close to hear and smell it as well. Imagine again the horror of a Roman Crucifixion, from the viewpoint of those standing on the ground– the noise. The flies. The reek. His sweet old mother who never hurt a soul, leaning on you. The other condemned men taunting with obscenities you can understand as they bleed out. The occupying forces you’ve been warned not to engage your whole life, leering at you, leering at Him, taunting in a language you don’t speak. He screams that God has abandoned Him. And then he gives up the Ghost and it’s still not enough. The spear goes through what’s left of the skin on His side and you get hit with the splash. It isn’t all blood. Some of it’s water, or the substance that looks like water which builds up in the lungs of a suffocating man.
They cut Him down and flop the body into His mother’s arms like a great big bag of trash. Disposing of bodies isn’t their business. Let her take care of it. A stranger arranges for the burial plot. They put Him inside quickly. And they go somewhere to hide out for Shabbat, and try to comfort His distraught mother, all the while realizing that they might well be the mob’s next target.
And then they go to the gravesite and find it empty.
Of course they’re seeking their beloved friend and rabbi among the dead. “Dead” is all they can think of right now, for obvious reasons. Here comes Somebody living, really living, that eternal and invincible Life which is so much better than the kind we’re accustomed to, a kind the human race has never even seen before, and they don’t even recognize Him. I wouldn’t either.
I was trying to write out these thoughts two days ago, running them through my mind while I was stumbling my way through the other Easter festivities– hiding the plastic eggs, driving the family to Mass, coming home and pretending I knew how to cook a fancy roast. But somewhere in the middle of it all I got the message that a family member had died early in the afternoon– my Great Aunt Patty, my beloved gardener grandfather’s last surviving sister. She was the one who my grandpa said set the fire in the vacant lot when they were children– the one who grew up to have an antique shop and collected wedding cake figurines. She was a hippie vegetarian who always read the label on the package of doughnuts at family get-togethers “just in case there are any critters in there.”
She’d had Alzheimer’s for a long time, and she’d had COVID-19 last year. We knew it wouldn’t be long. Now that whole generation of siblings is together somewhere else for Easter, and I’m not. I won’t see them again– not in this life, at least. I believe there’s another one coming, but right at the moment all I can see is death.
Another aunt once told me a story about Aunt Patty. She said that one year, they’d all gathered on the first day of their annual week-long family reunion at Watoga State Park, deep in the heart of West Virginia. Patty was sitting in a rocking chair with her back to the wall of one of those old log cabins built by the CCC– a layer cake of shiny brown logs between thick white stripes of plaster. Those cabins are very well built, but this one had a crack in the plaster layer. And out of the crack popped the head and flicking tongue of a live snake.
My other great aunt saw it. She was terrified. She tried to be as calm as she could, so that Patty wouldn’t be alarmed. She pointed, feigning calm but with her eyes wide as saucers. The snake popped back into the hole. The family got up and snapped into action– instead of running to get a park ranger, for some reason, they opted to put duct tape over the hole. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Presently, the duct tape started to move. It turned out that the hole in the plaster was the home of an enormous black rat snake, now stuck to the tape, and his entire family of squirming, shiny, wriggling children.
Some people really like snakes, but my family in general does not. They were overwhelmed with revulsion– except for Aunt Patty. Her response was that they had to save the unwanted guests.
Somehow she got them outside the cabin to slither off into the woods, though the one stuck to the tape didn’t make it. That’s probably not at all what you’re supposed to do if you see a hole full of black rat snakes in your cabin, but she tried. Her thought was not for her safety but for the animals. She never met an animal she didn’t want to save.
That’s the story that’s been ringing through my head for a day and a half now.
I suppose that, if you want to think about the resurrection, you have to think about it from a completely radical perspective. Of course it begins with taking a hard unflinching view of death, but you can’t remain there. You have to be willing to see with Heaven’s eyes and not your own. And Heaven sees so differently. Heaven doesn’t look away from death; Heaven sees death clearer and more starkly than we do, but Heaven draws other conclusions.
My great aunt was not a religious woman, but if I could draw the comparison: Heaven is standing there with everybody else, looking at the repulsive hole full of wriggling snakes. Everyone else is trying to force duct tape over the dark dreadful hole so we don’t have to think about it or its consequences anymore. But all Heaven wants to do is reach into the plaster and set us free.
What that looks like, I don’t know, but I believe.
May we all be set free.
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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