“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5)
There’s a custom in south Louisiana of observing All Saints’ Day as “the day of the dead.” It probably dates back to the Spanish Colonial period: a custom of visiting the graves of deceased loved ones, placing wreaths and flowers, and whitewashing the above-ground tombs that are a part of the local landscape. In the evening, the eve of All Souls’, lighted candles are placed in the cemeteries and the community gathers there for a blessing. In Louisiana, even the Baptists are Catholics, as they say, and the ones who aren’t practice voodoo, so this is a phenomenon widely shared in that culture.
About the closest analog that we have in American society is Memorial Day, an observance rooted in the Civil War and the loss that flowed from it. Some of our civic monuments build upon this same sensibility: think of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, or the 9/11 Memorial in New York. There, too, we connect with what we’ve lost. Of course, there’s also a cyber analog, the website commemorating a lost loved one that you can visit along with others, creating a virtual community of tribute to and communion with the dead. This observance is not limited to a single day, but in the world of cyber reality can in theory last forever.
It’s a sober place to begin this Easter sermon, but that’s in fact where Easter begins: in a cemetery, in the necropolis, in the grief of loss. When the women come to the tomb in our Gospel reading this morning, they do so out of love, out of piety, out of a laudable wish to honor the dead. They are just like us in our various ways of remembering and commemorating what we’ve lost. They are grieving and expecting nothing else but the quiet of the tomb.
This is what makes the Day of Resurrection so extraordinary and unexpected. The women find a tomb that is empty, the stone rolled away; also, two men in dazzling clothes standing by. The women are first perplexed and then terrified; they bow their faces toward the ground in what is apparently a gesture of worship. The men have this message for them: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” (Luke 24:5-7).
What makes their experience so extraordinary is the message that Jesus is alive. The man they had known has been raised from the dead. The women were expecting to honor his memory, but God gives them something else instead. You might say he gives them someone else instead; that is, not a timeless truth or an abstract reality that will inspire them. Those are the sorts of things they put on gravestones. What they get is the man himself, the truth himself, reality itself, piercing through the veil of death. Jesus Christ cannot be reduced to some bromide about the unconquerable human spirit. He is, simply speaking, alive.
Why do we look for the living among the dead? Human beings want to neutralize what is extraordinary, domesticate the incredible, and tame the truth, because we are less threatened by what is familiar. We have grown comfortable with our old world of the empirically verifiable and the scientifically ascertainable. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “With all your science can you tell how it is, and whence it is, that light comes into the soul?”
At the same time, we continue to look for what is life-giving among things that cannot give life, in the catacombs of sin and in the dead ends of the human spirit. Even the three worthy women of Easter morning might have missed the Resurrection if they had been subject to the deadening distractions of our own modern lives. We need rebirth and renewal. We need God’s grace in our lives. If we seek the living among things that are dead, we will never find the Prince of Life.
We will need to look for the living among the living, out there in the world where life is being lived and where the Church is called to mission and ministry. That’s where we will find him. Jesus Christ is alive: notice the present tense of the verb. He is more nimble and resourceful than we think. We keep trying to stuff him back into the tomb, keeping him locked up there; but when we do that, we keep ourselves locked up too.
His life means new life for us, here and now and forever. “Who wants flowers when you’re dead?” Holden Caulfield asks in The Catcher in the Rye. “Nobody” is the answer that J.D. Salinger supplies. And that’s the point. This celebration, this Easter Day, is wholly in order, because Jesus Christ is alive, not dead.
The Rev. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.