It struck me, as I was standing at the graveside of a family friend last week, what a truly staggering thing it is to proclaim the resurrection of the dead.
I was staring at the wet, squishy ground, wiggling my toes, trying to stay warm in the typical British Columbia November drizzle, listening to the pastor reciting familiar words from the Psalms, from the Gospels, words about how death is a beginning not an end, words about how this person is with Jesus now, about how we have a living hope. I looked at the coffin and thought about the person we all knew and loved who was about to be lowered into the ground. I stared back at my shoes. More words from the pastor. I remember thinking, “God, I’m glad I’m not in his shoes today. I’m glad I am not faced with the task of speaking these wildly counterintuitive resurrection words into the yawning chasm of death today.”
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, what’s so weighty about speaking words of comfort and hope at a funeral? Isn’t that what supposed to happen when someone dies? Who cares if any of that religious stuff is true or not (and let’s face it, it’s probably not)? Those words are for the people standing there in the cemetery. Those words are to make them feel better, to ease their pain.” I get it. I know that a healthy percentage of people at most funerals secretly (or not so secretly) believe that all this stuff about God and heaven and resurrection is just a bunch of stuff that we tell ourselves to dull the pain of loss and the permanence of death. I know that many look at these coffins and these holes in the ground and think that there’s nothing more to the story. The chapter is closed, we say a few poetic words about heaven, and we move on.
Perhaps it is because I understand these sentiments (and because I feel them, whenever I stand in the shadowy presence of death) that this business of speaking words of resurrection into the void fills me with a kind of holy, trembling fear. I wonder if we have any idea of what we are really saying. When we speak resurrection words, we are saying that the God who breathed a world into being can breathe new life again. We are saying that the bodies that lie peacefully embalmed in caskets—bodies that have been ravaged by cancer, bodies that have suffered and loved and played and worked and gradually, inevitably, fallen apart, bodies that change so much over time, bodies through which we experience indescribable pleasure and death-dealing pain—will one day be strong and whole. We are saying that newness trumps oldness. We are saying that what is lost can be found. We are saying—in open defiance of nearly everything that we see around us—that what dies can live again.
When we speak resurrection words, we are speaking the most powerful, spectacularly unlikely, sometimes even barely believable words there could be. These resurrection words that we lean on when death invades, they are not flowery expressions of a vague hope for whatever might come next. They are not mere bulletin fodder destined to be printed in elegant cursive script and surrounded with appropriately inspiring images of flowers and sunsets. These resurrection words are not synonymous with vacuous images of harps and clouds and eternal golf courses in the sky. They are not a different way of saying that our souls have migrated from our bodies to their true spiritual home. We gravitate to these kinds of images because they are easier to digest when we are already dealing with so much pain and confusion. But resurrection words will not let us off that easy.
Resurrection words are gritty, specific, physical, and, above all, grounded in the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead as the firstborn of the new creation. If we’re wrong about this—if the tomb wasn’t empty and Jesus actually rotted in the ground—we are above all people most to be pitied, says the apostle Paul. If we’re wrong about this, lyrical language and fuzzy hope be damned. All we can do at the graveside is stand and stare, struck mute by the brutal finality of death.
That’s why I didn’t envy that pastor proclaiming those resurrection words last week. Of course, I have spoken words like that in situations like that before and I will probably speak them again. But those words seemed somehow beyond me as I thought of a joyful, kind, generous human being who was gone far too soon. I wanted them. I needed them. But I’m not sure I could have spoken them.
That’s the other thing about resurrection words, though. When we can’t speak them ourselves, we can let others speak them for us. And we can pray for the grace to return the favour sometime when our hearts are more alive to the jaw-dropping reality to which they point.