Why do you look for the living among the dead?

By Daniel Sarell
Posted 4/2/13

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  Empty tomb.  These words and images have been haunting my prayer and reflection throughout the past several days in a way that I had not dwelled upon them in Easters past.  Typically, I reflect on the reality of the resurrection, but these words and the image of the empty tomb has stuck with me now for some time. 

For a lengthy stretch of time, the “wallpaper” on my computer was Caravaggio’s painting of St. Thomas inserting his finger into the spear wound in the side of the Risen Christ.  This skepticism – which I have always deemed to be a healthy part of my humanness – has largely characterized my own journey of faith, since the moment I encountered Christ and accepted His invitation to faith at the age of fifteen.  My questions have persisted.

Throughout this past Lent, and now into Easter, I have been trying to convey to my five year-old daughter the reality of the Paschal Mystery in an age appropriate way.  Like many of us, let alone five year-old children, she struggles with making heads or tails of the mysteries of our faith. 

On Easter Sunday, as she found, then hid and re-hid her plastic Easter eggs at Grandma’s house, the History Channel’s “The Bible” series was playing a marathon, leading up to the conclusion that included the scenes of crucifixion and resurrection.  An ongoing debate among the adults was whether or not my parents should record the episode and watch it later (after we had left) to spare my daughter the gory details, or go ahead and watch it.  The debate in my own head was, “How else is she going to learn it?”  This is our faith.  We left the TV on and let the episode play.

I tried to recall my own “exposure” to the reality of Christ’s death.  The book of bible stories with which I was most familiar showed an anguished but bloodless crucified Jesus.  When I was about six or seven, I saw Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” mini-series.  Over the years, I have known children who were terrified to see the corpus on the cross in church, and their parents’ reactions, which ranged from doing nothing and letting the children get over it in time, to no longer taking them to Church or going down to the parish across town that had the sanitized cross with the Risen Jesus emerging off of it.  My daughter is just generally silent on the subject, but I know when the wheels are turning inside her head. 

She came into the living room at a few different points, where we were watching the portrayal of Jesus carrying the cross and then his crucifixion.  She kept pretty silent, but was only stopping into the living room to talk to me, while busying herself with more important things, like Easter candy and blowing bubbles elsewhere. I asked her if seeing what was happening to Jesus bothered her.  She said that it did not; she knows that Jesus died on the cross and that he did nothing wrong.

A few minutes later, when the two Marys approached the empty tomb, I caught her attention and told her that this is what we were celebrating today.  I had told her this several times throughout Lent and leading up to Easter.  The responses were not terribly engaged, but I knew the wheels were turning.

This morning (Easter Monday), I deliberately revisited the subject.  She far prefers the Baby Jesus of Christmas, and for now, Easter will have to remain mostly about bunnies, eggs, candy and hiding things.  Nevertheless, the wheels are turning, and I am being called to be a patient and present father.

As the Holy Spirit would have it, Pope Francis’ homily on the Easter Vigil was specifically on the unsettled nature of the two Marys approaching the empty tomb to grieve and anoint their dead rabbi (or “teacher”).  The “newness” leads to “fear,” reluctance and hesitance, naturally, as it does for all of us.  The reality of resurrection, of victory over sin and death, poses an inevitable challenge for all of us, sinners who will more than likely experience death.

The words for my prayerful “haunting” and my struggle to share my Catholic faith with my daughter found their voice in none other than our new Holy Father, virtually simultaneously. 

The Pope preached, “Dear brothers and sisters, we are afraid of God’s surprises! He always surprises us! The Lord is like that.”  He continued, “… let us never give up: there are no situations which God cannot change, there is no sin which he cannot forgive if only we open ourselves to him.”

Pope Francis revisits the women at the tomb.  He states, “The body of Jesus is not there, something new has happened, but all this still doesn’t tell them anything certain: it raises questions; it leaves them confused, without offering an answer.”  This is in many respects the shared experience of my daughter and me on this Easter Sunday.  I join my own questions with her early stages of just figuring it out.  Though I have faith – I have made the leap – to believe in the resurrection of Christ, I think many (dare I say “most”) of us struggle at some level with what is in the end a mystery, but one on which hinges our most profound hope, the promise of eternal life, the reconciliation of our sins, and the sharing in the divine life as adopted sons and daughters of God.

The Holy Father continues in his homily, and perhaps I can find some ‘open door’ to my own state of uneasiness.  He quotes the Gospel of Luke, "‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; but has risen’ (Lk 24:5-6).  He does not simply return to life; rather, he is life itself, because he is the Son of God, the living God.”  The text of the Holy Father’s homily provides several supporting scriptures. 

In Numbers, chapter 14, The Lord, speaking to Moses, refers to His “life” and his fidelity to the Chosen People.  He will keep his promises to them, but in His divine justice, the generation who ‘put God to the test’ will not see the promised land.

In Deuteronomy 5:26, Moses is grappling with the Lord revealing his glory – his presence – as fire on the mountain.  Moses is chosen as the mediator to receive God’s commandments directly, and then convey them to the Israelites.

Fidelity, covenants, divine awesomeness, justice, deliverance, law … These are the ingredients in the biblical stew, which can be summarized fairly succinctly in the last of the three supporting scriptures.  Joshua 3:9-10 reads, “Joshua said to the Israelites, ‘Come here and listen to the words of the LORD, your God … By this you will know that there is a living God in your midst.’”

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Pope Francis continues in his homily, “Jesus no longer belongs to the past, but lives in the present and is projected towards the future; Jesus is the everlasting ‘today’ of God.”

Two early and formative themes in my journey of faith included the verse from the Letter to the Hebrews (13:8), “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”  Verse 9 continues, “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching.  It is good to have our hearts strengthened by grace and not by foods, which do not benefit those who live by them.”

A very prominent figure in my early faith journey died very recently, Bishop John Michael D’Arcy of the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.  The title of his pastoral letter in preparation for the New Advent of the Year 2000 was no less than “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.”  The letter was promulgated just as I was hired to support Bishop D’Arcy’s diocesan catechetical ministry in 1998.  Preparing for the “Great Jubilee” of 2000 was framed around the emerging pastoral concept of evangelization, specifically “New Evangelization,” which was finally moving from the abstract of papal encyclicals to pastoral strategies “in the trenches” of everyday parish life.  We’re still at it, and we are called to patience and presence in our missionary work, while grappling with what it means to actually evangelize, to turn the strategies into action.

The other related theme in my faith journey is that of understanding the theological concept of “memory,” or “anamnesis.”  Pope Francis continues his Easter Vigil homily by stating,

…The two men in dazzling clothes tell [the women at the tomb] something of crucial importance: remember. "Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee… And they remembered his words" (Lk 24:6,8). This is the invitation to remember their encounter with Jesus, to remember his words, his actions, his life; and it is precisely this loving remembrance of their experience with the Master that enables the women to master their fear and to bring the message of the Resurrection to the Apostles and all the others (cf. Lk 24:9). To remember what God has done and continues to do for me, for us, to remember the road we have travelled; this is what opens our hearts to hope for the future.  

When I was a younger lay ecclesial minister, I recall a nationally known liturgist speaking at a conference, where he described the Jewish concept of memory as rowing a boat along and away from a shoreline.  The future is to one’s back, unknown, but we continue to row into it.  The past is the shoreline, which becomes increasingly distant.  However, when the shoreline is kept in site, one does not lose one’s bearings, one’s reference point.  In this sense, the past and future play a vital role in our eternal present.  

In Communion with Jesus, the “everlasting ‘today’ of God,” as the Holy Father reminds us, Christ’s resurrection, the reality of his victory over sin and death eases the inevitable burdens of our present, right here and now, a living memory.  This is the meaning of words from the Eucharist, “do this in remembrance of me.”  This is the meaning of words of Jesus, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28 – 30).

Pope Francis preaches, “If following [the Risen Christ] seems difficult, don’t be afraid, trust him, be confident that he is close to you, he is with you and he will give you the peace you are looking for and the strength to live as he would have you do.”

The Holy Father continues,

This is the invitation to remember their encounter with Jesus, to remember his words, his actions, his life; and it is precisely this loving remembrance of their experience with the Master that enables the women to master their fear and to bring the message of the Resurrection to the Apostles and all the others (cf. Lk 24:9). To remember what God has done and continues to do for me, for us, to remember the road we have travelled; this is what opens our hearts to hope for the future. May we learn to remember everything that God has done in our lives.

‘Patience and presence’ buy us much needed space and time to let the Holy Spirit speak to us, but we are also being called to take the leap of faith, to take what Pope Francis refers to as the “one step further” of the women at the tomb, for whom it was not enough to simply remember the deceased, but to make the Living Christ present by all of the gifts he has given, continues to give and will give again.

We continue to grapple with mysteries.  We continue to struggle with communicating faith in Christ to our children – in our own families and in our parishes.  We are often stuck between patience and the need to act.  Some leap without thinking, while others think without leaping.

Where are we this Easter day?  Right here in the present, with God’s eternal “Today,” guided by our faith heritage, with tomorrow at our backs.  Jesus Christ is Risen Today, Alleluia.