At nearly all funerals, the Gospel reading begins, “Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1). If, as these words are recited, the whole congregation recalls that the deceased lived a long life, had some measure of success and happiness, and shared love and kindness with others, the words of Jesus will sound duly consoling, an acknowledgment of present sorrow and a solemn promise of comfort and life “in me.” “I will come again, and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). It is a beautiful promise, and absolutely true. It marks an end and opens a beginning.
A funeral is quite different, however, when sorrow is mixed with a heavy portion of bitterness, when the cause of death is violent or brutal, or life is cut short by disease, disability, war, or accident. In this setting, which is all too common still, death comes as the ancient enemy, not the natural end of mortal life, but the thief who breaks in and steals. In this setting, Jesus is heard in a different way, heard perhaps in many ways. He acknowledges the terrible loss, his heart breaks, he weeps, and still he says, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” The promise lingers over the bereaved, and unless the Spirit moves over the face of the deep, it will fall flat upon the floor of the nave.
Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, not merely from natural death, but from a cross, a bitter death, an inhumane and unjust execution, a life brutally cut short. Contracted in his agony and death are all human sufferings, and from this hell-like prison he burst forth on the eighth and final day. This story is reenacted again and again in the members of Christ’s body.
St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, retraces in obvious detail the moments of Christ’s death. A violent crowd turns against him, he is dragged out of the city, he is stoned to death. He prays in a manner like Jesus: “Lord … receive my Spirit. … Do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60). He is in the eye of a storm, and somehow, God knows, the heavens are rent as they were torn at the baptism of Jesus. Stephen sees the Son of Man at the right hand of the Father. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). In the critical moment of his end, Stephen beholds a dwelling place (John 14:2) secure in the heavens that cannot be taken from him.
Viewed from the perspective of Christ’s victory over death, the brutality, though not denied, is muted, just as the Gospels are nearly silent about the torturous details and pain of crucifixion. So, to give but one example, Carlo Crivelli’s famous depiction of St. Stephen shows a calm and victorious deacon of the Church, his face peaceful, bent downward in silent reflection, his eyes soft, his left hand holding the martyr’s palm, his right hand the Gospel book. Three stones are placed on his body, one on each shoulder, and one on his head, forming a triangle, thus suggestive of the Trinity. The one on his head, however, is most striking. It sits inside the nimbus, the luminous orb of glory and sanctity. Thus, even these stones are living (1 Pet. 2:4). Used for violence by violent men, God has made a triune victory.
Resurrection is resurrection from the abode and grip of death.
Look It Up
Read Ps. 31:1-5, 15-16. Save me.
Think About It
When he had said this, he died. What will you say?
Image: St. Stephen by Carlo Crevelli • National Gallery, London