“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5)
These words, spoken by an angel at the empty tomb on Easter morning, haunt us—don’t they? They are words of hope but also of chastisement. We are people of the empty cross—we claim to celebrate the Resurrection every Sunday—and yet so often, we look for the living and breathing Christ only in the pages of record of a history that is dead and gone. We look for the living among the dead when we try to trap Jesus in the pages of the Bible only, and we fail to see him in the everyday world that we inhabit. As Jesus himself said, “God is a God of the living, not the dead.” That isn’t to say we should have no appreciation for the story of what happened. On the contrary, we gather together in the first week of April on Thursday and on Friday nights to remember that story that so often moves us to tears.
On Thursday we hear about the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples. It was a celebration of the Passover meal, that yearly ritual in which all Jews remembered together with friends and family the powerful events of their own history, in which God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and carried them into the Promised Land. God had commanded his people to remember this event by participating in a meal each year. God knows us so well because God created us. And isn’t it true that sometimes a smell or a taste can cue a memory in our minds so vividly? Remembering is re-membering the past and how it continues to shape us. In our service, the stories of each of the disciples will be “re-membered” by a person in our congregation portraying that person in a “Living Last Supper” inspired by DaVinci’s masterpiece.
On Friday, we hear the story of Jesus’ passion in the Tenebrae service. “Tenebrae” means darkness, and as the story unfolds and candles on the bare altar are extinguished, we’ll experience together perhaps a small taste of the darkness that must have been experienced that day by Jesus and his followers. That darkness is important. Darkness is integral to a deep and vibrant spirituality. St. John of the Cross was a 16th century Spanish priest who wrote about a “dark night of the soul” when describing the spiritual journey toward God. It is our fate to suffer and to grieve and to not comprehend the depth and breadth of the Truth and Love which envelops us. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that we suffer and grieve on our own or remain ignorant forever. So on Good Friday we gather in the darkness together. We huddle beneath the cross and hear the last words a loving savior gave his faithful followers.
On Easter Sunday, the Good News breaks open like that jar of nard that Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet for burial. The Good News “fills the whole” place, as we hear of the surprised wonder of the disciples. But, as the angel said, we do not look for the living among the dead. The miracle of the resurrection, for us, is not only that Christ conquers death and returns to his disciples in a living and breathing body. It is the miracle that continues 50 days later, at Pentecost, when Jesus imparts his Spirit on the group that is gathered in his name and changes them into a living, collective, body. So, when we only seek Jesus in the pages of a story, however rich and beautiful and life-giving that story is—if our gaze is only directed toward the scriptures to try and find the meaning and power of a Living and Loving God, we are looking for the living among the dead. When we enact those scriptures, when we respond to them by living lives that are inspired (literally “breathed into”) by them, they become the “Living Word” that we so often call the Bible. Those words tell us to look around for God—look in our daily lives. Look especially at the poor and mourning. Pay close attention to those who are oppressed or maligned. It is easy to be inspired by the beauty of creation—and I can attest to the power of finding God’s presence in a magnificent sunset or in a grand mountain vista. But Jesus reminds us to not forget about the underbelly of creation too. Do we see God’s presence in the people the world says are repulsive? Jesus says, “I am there.” It is when we open our eyes to this truth that we seek the living among the living.