As you know, the Jewish day begins with sundown, and so now it is already Easter Day. The Easter Vigil is not waiting for Easter, but a part of Easter waiting for the resurrection to happen or be discovered. We know, of course, what happened and what is going to be celebrated at the resurrection service later on today, in the morning. The liturgical calendar sets our knowing of the Easter events in the mode of memory.
I would like to call attention, however, to the day that has just passed, the Jewish Sabbath, which our calendar calls Holy Saturday. You will recall that the soldiers had to hurry up the crucifixion so that the bodies could be disposed of before Good Friday’s sundown, which began the Sabbath on which no one could work. The gospels differ over whether Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus anointed Jesus’ body with spices on Friday afternoon before placing it in the tomb, or the women came to do that Easter morning. But they agree that all observed the Sabbath.
Think what that must have been like. The Sabbath, according to the Genesis passage read earlier, means that God is resting, and surely for the friends of Jesus this must have meant that God was just plain gone. We don’t really know what the disciples thought about Jesus prior to the resurrection, because all our Gospels reflect the subsequent theological interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life. But surely, whatever their religious interpretation, they were personally devastated by his crucifixion. They loved him. Their community was one of love and affection. Just before Palm Sunday they had had a big party for him at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. His following went far beyond the Twelve, including not only the women commonly mentioned but important people such as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and probably many others. Some of them, the leading women and the disciple Jesus loved, had been at the crucifixion and had watched him writhe against the nails until he died. How could they live with that visual memory on Saturday while sitting still for the Sabbath? The other disciples had fled, abandoning Jesus in his mortal pain; some such as Peter had denied him; at least one other, Judas, had betrayed him. How much worse that must have been for them: guilt, compounded by loss, compounded by guilt. If you are not rejoicing over the completion of the glorious creation, which Jesus’ friends certainly were not doing, the Sabbath is a dead day. Jesus was dead. God was gone, as good as dead. And the disciples had no life in them.
Sometimes we have times like that. Something happens, someone dies, some duty passes wholly unfulfilled, some project or hope is suddenly cut off utterly, and we are like dead. The strange thing about times like this is the numbness of our response. Serious trauma often brings amnesia. Or at least we have very selective memory, blocking out many of the parts with which we should come to terms. We know we should be grief-stricken, but strangely can’t feel anything. We occupy ourselves with distractions: you know how funeral times are preoccupied with cooking food and making arrangements for visiting relatives. I was twelve when my grandmother died and spent the funeral time, dry-eyed, memorizing the names of the hundred fifty gathered mourners. Truly grieving the trauma of these death-in-life experiences requires time and work. The disciples on Saturday had little time and were forbidden work.
For Jesus’ friends, the experiences of his re-appearance came quickly. Doubting Thomas gets special mention in the gospels because he missed one of the early appearances and said he needed convincing. Nevertheless, the significance of those resurrection appearances could never be appreciated fully until Jesus’ friends had come to terms with his devastatingly traumatic death in the first place. The experience could not be just a Friday of death, a Saturday of numb grief, and a Sunday of joy ever-after, even though that is the way we epitomize it in our liturgical calendar. No, the meaning of the resurrection for the community of Jesus’ friends could only be grasped as they slowly came to terms with the meaning of his death in the first place. Who knows how many years that took?
The Christian recognition of this is expressed in Paul’s point that baptism means that we are baptized into the death of Christ Jesus. Baptism in ancient times, and even now in the case of adults, comes at the end of a process of learning what it means to be a Christian. One of the things it means is that we personally re-experience the death of Jesus, come to terms with that in deep existential ways, and accept that death for ourselves.
The beginning way to experience the death of Jesus, of course, is to study Jesus’ story in the gospels. This is always our context for thinking of death. But we also have to understand our own experience as containing death within it, and learn to grieve it. Sometimes this occurs with our experience of the death of people we love, such as grandparents or other relatives. In my case, I simply finessed the existential meaning of my grandmother’s death and never did properly recognize or grieve it. When our daughter died, however, there was no escaping death’s pain and I’ve spent nearly 40 years learning to grieve that. I also know grief in the death of my father, brother, and mother, all subsequent to our daughter’s death. The literal death of friends and relatives is not the only way by which we come to share in Jesus’ death. Traumatic illness and the threat of death for ourselves and those we love might also occasion death’s grief. So might traumatic changes in fortune and career, or the dissolution of a marriage. Wars dislocate people. Poverty stamps out hope. Hatred destroys families. In the case of Jesus, he had drempt of a recovery of righteousness for the people of Israel and the establishment of communities of love of God and neighbor, and he gave his life to that cause. He must have experienced his trial and slow execution as the death of that mission: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” Surely the disciples at first experienced Jesus’ death as that mission’s failure. Some of us feel strongly about the death of our dreams for our society, and coming to terms with that is a way of experiencing a prophet’s death.
For St. Paul, we experience the trauma of death when we come to recognition of our sins. To be sinners, for him, is to be the walking dead, dead to God and matters of the spirit, live only to the bondage of fleshly exaggeration: greed, selfishness, gluttony, sexual impropriety, and the love of secrets of the night. That sinful state defines who we are, and when we recognize this we see ourselves to be spiritually dead. Therefore, we need to kill off that self, which we do by sharing in Jesus’ death. The death of our sinful selves is very painful, because we love those sins. Becoming a baptized Christian means going with Jesus down into the waters of death where we put to death our sinful souls. This means that we have to know what death means, and grieve it.
Paul’s point is that, whereas going down into the waters of death kills the sinful self and lets us know what death truly means, including Jesus’ death, rising from the waters of baptism as a new Christian means rising to newness of life. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his,” Paul said, “we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Note that Paul does not say that we will sin no more after baptism. Quite the contrary, much of what he writes in his letters has to do with sin management. Dying with Jesus frees us from bondage to sin, not from the habits of sinning themselves. But the sin that remains in us is like a zombie, a dead body with enough animation to still cause trouble. Sanctification, in its negative moments, is killing off the remaining zombies of sin. In its positive moments, sanctification is building the new life in Christ.
Baptism, in an important but superficial sense, is an initiation rite into the Christian Church. Its more profound meaning is that it is a continuing spiritual exercise of dying and rising that lasts a lifetime. The exercise is learning to die by learning what Jesus’ death meant, by grieving it so that we know how to grieve our own death, by learning how to enter into Jesus’ death so as to die with him and be grieved by Jesus’ friends. The spiritual exercise of baptism also means learning how to live in the newness of life that comes out of Jesus’ death. This spiritual exercise is never over, for we are always finding new forms of death to undergo and grieve, and new challenges of resurrected life. This is why the controversies over infant baptism are silly: the liturgy of baptism is a momentary event whose deeper reality is never finished in the moment, no matter when the moment happens. The baptized infant has all of life’s deaths and renewals to learn, whereas older people might have come through some already. One of the orders of the Christian Church is to foster a continuous deepening of the baptism of death and resurrection. Our resurrected life is never more profound than the death from which it arises. This is why some of us are impatient with the spiritual culture of praise music that seeks to get to life without much death.
The Easter Vigil celebrates the newness of life that arises from death. In this borderline moment marking the passage from death to life, let us understand that the depth of life to which we can come is strictly parallel to the depth of death that we have faced. May we be protected from the fatuous joy of an Easter without cost!
The new life in Christ Jesus flashes with astonishing freedom. But the freedom requires first dying to the bondage of sin. Without atonement, our new life is not free. The new life in Christ Jesus sparkles with commitment to bring peace, help the poor, release the oppressed, and bring sight to the blind. But until we have faced the failure of our ethical and political commitments, the commitments of the resurrected life are not strong enough to help us bear their deadly consequences. The new life in Christ gives us the courage and joy that triumphs over death, over the death of our loved ones and even over our own death. But if we have not faced those deaths head-on, tasted the the grave’s victory and death’s sting, then our hope for the new life that triumphs over death will never taste the real victory of the resurrection. Whereas we might hope that salvation consists only in reforming our ways and doing better, the paradoxical Christian gospel is that salvation is as extreme as death on the one hand and resurrection to new life on the other.
Let us think carefully on our hates and lost loves, our pains and sufferings, our frustrations and depressions, our mistakes and failures, our confusions and doubts, our self-delusions and self-hatred, our fragility and impending death: these are not our enemies—they are our friends. For our new life in Christ depends on facing them and grieving the death in them. Newness of life can come only from deaths such as these. Let us taste them.
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Be there. Amen