One of the things that has ever been true for the whole of history is that the tyrant always holds out death as the final word. They hold the power of death and depend on our fear of it. They yield the specter of death to bend us to their will. You see it in the dictatorial rule of strongarm dictators using death squads to disappear enemies and their associates. You see it in the bombing of civilian infrastructure, utilities, and housing. A reign of terror so that whoever is not killed in the onslaught, will face the terror of a Ukrainian winter without shelter or heat. As ballistic missiles continue to fall, it adds to the toll of death and despair. The tyrant presents the such power as ultimate and the resulting death as the end.
It is what the Selucid powers occupying Israel attempt during the Maccabean revolt as they try to coerce a mother and her seven sons into, not just abandoning their faith, but bowing to the power of the dictator as ultimate and tacitly agreeing that death is the end.
It is what the Romans attempted in their occupation of countries and people: Pax Romana, Roman peace brought about by the ultimate power of Caesar. Challenge that power and face crucifixion and an excruciating death – from the Latin ex cruces; from the cross. Caesar is the ultimate power and death is the end where life disappears into nihilist nothingness. Love, Hope, Faith, memory – all lost – from dust to dust. And nothing more. It is the despair of the two disciples leaving Jerusalem on the road to Emaus.
During the time of Jesus there were several thoughts about the end of life:
- Death is the end, that’s it, back to dust and it’s over
- The dead go to Sheol, a shadowy underworld. They’re alive but only dimly so. It is from there that the Witch of Endor calls forth the “shade of Samuel” as the expression goes. Not a full person, but only a shade.
- In one of the most often used readings at funerals we hear from the Book of Daniel – “the souls of the just are in the hand of God. At the time that was written, it meant the body in the ground decomposing, but soul/spirit returned to God – a type of Gnosticism or Platonism in which the soul escapes from the mortal prison of the body and this corrupt world.
- At the end of time, all the righteous dead will come back to life in the Kingdom of God, but it is more akin to Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones rising up to live in a restored earth.
Perhaps this latter idea is what hope expressed by the Maccabean brothers: “the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever” and “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him.” But the experience of the disciples on Easter Sunday was more.
In the gospel of Luke, after the encounter on the Road to Emmaus, when the disciples are gathered in the Upper Room with the door locked, Jesus enters. It is Jesus in the flesh, one who can be touched, who eats some baked fish, who is fully present to them. He is not a metaphor or a symbol. He is not a shade of Sheol, a disembodied spirit, and not a resuscitated person. Perhaps the closest description concerns the end of time – but it is not the end of time. It is the definitive sign that the promised Kingdom of God has come to pass in the here and now in the person of Jesus, present body and soul, alive in their midst. Alive in a way that speaks of ultimate power over death. Alive in a way that speaks not of a nihilistic end, but of life where hope is fulfilled, faith becomes knowledge of what is, and of all these what remains is love.
The disciples witnessed resurrection. What was their reaction? They were “incredulous for joy and were amazed” (Luke 24:41). Joy, unbridled, unexpected joy!
How about you? Do you believe? Are you incredulous with how this can be, but filled with joy that is true and proved in the person of Jesus who connects heaven and earth in his life, death, Resurrection and Ascension. The humanity of Jesus has now been raised to a participation in the very life of heaven – and that is the context in which we pray: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom has come in the person of the Resurrected Jesus. The Kingdom’s inevitable in breaking has already occurred. Do you believe?
As we come to the end of the liturgical year, today’s readings all speak to the resurrection and highlights, not just its importance, but its centrality in our belief as Christians. How central? Here is what St. Paul had to offer: “For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” (1 Cor 15:16-19) The most pitiful of people and I have made a horrible poor choice in my life to become a Franciscan and a Catholic priest.
But if Jesus was raised from the dead then tyrants do not have the final word. Their power is overtaken by God’s mercy which conquers death and the fear of death. If Jesus was raised from the dead then this world is not ultimate. Resurrection is the door through which we peer into a world in which the Reign of God is total, where death and tyrants have no power. And so we need not fear death.
Listen to the words of the English poet John Donne in Holy Sonnet 10:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. (Holy Sonnet 10)
This is the power of the Resurrection. Do you believe?