Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3)
Guido Calabresi was a legendary dean of Yale Law School, relishing the bravura of his Italian heritage, even while insisting that everyone—including the lowliest first year students—simply call him Guido. He was especially famous for having once posed this question to one of his classes in law and economics: Suppose that a new machine could be invented that would contribute dramatically to the general population’s happiness and freedom—a machine that could be made available to every household, at a relatively modest price, and from which each and every person in the country could benefit. Suppose, however, that the gift of this new machine would also require the regular sacrifice of some 30,000 lives per year. Would you accept the gift?
After the class had debated the seemingly hypothetical issue for some time, with most students coming down on the side of the obvious injustice of acquiescing in the deaths of 30,000 people each year, Dean Calabresi would rather wryly say, “Ladies and gentlemen, what I have described for you, is the automobile.”
It’s odd, how we human beings choose to make the calculus that we do about what to accept and what not to accept in life. Yet there are many aspects of what we choose to do that contain within them similar bargains with fate as our maleficent love affair with the automobile.
Among the most profound of these bargains is with life itself. When we bear children, for instance, we are choosing to bring into being a person about whom one thing is absolutely certain: he or she will die, and most likely someone’s heart will be broken as a result, perhaps even our own. And yet knowing that inescapable truth, that life ends in death, we still choose to bear children nonetheless. Why? Why begin a life, only to know it will someday be ended?
Of course, the biologists among us would point to brute instinct as the reason. Life in all forms is programmed to reproduce, in order to continue. And that is indeed true enough, as far as it goes.
But because we human beings consciously make the decision to bear children, something more has to be at work as well. Some greater appreciation for what life is, other than merely its own continuation. Some intuitive grasp that the physical cycle of life and death is only an intimation of something much greater.
And this is where Easter enters in. I was struck, last Sunday, when we read the passion story from Matthew’s gospel, that Matthew is very clear that the experience of resurrection—the breaking down of the wall of separation between life and death—begins before Easter. If you were here, did you notice that at the moment of Jesus’ death, Matthew records that there was an earthquake, and the tombs of Jerusalem were opened then (on Good Friday), and “many bodies of the saints were raised.” So even before we get to Easter, the dead are mysteriously present again in an astonishing breakdown of what we think is the inviolable boundary between life and death.
And then today, in Matthew’s account of the resurrection itself, perhaps you noticed a telling detail in the sequence of events: again, there is a great earthquake, and this time an angel descends to roll back the stone that encloses Jesus’ tomb—but it is not to let Jesus out, but to let the women who come looking for him in to see the empty tomb. The resurrection preceded the opening of the tomb! So whatever the resurrection is, it is about something more than the resuscitation of a corpse: it is about revealing a dimension of life that cannot be held captive even by the grave.
In fact, many theologians will refer to the resurrection rather obliquely as “the empty tomb tradition,” hinting that it is about something deeper and more mysterious than mere resuscitation. Even the most holy site in the Christian faith, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, witnesses to this observable absence as somehow at the heart of the matter.
So what are we to make of this? It seems to me that Matthew is above all intent to help us to understand that in God, life and death are on a continuous and intertwined relationship, rather than life simply leading inexorably in the single direction of death. In other words, we come from God in our birth, and return to God in our death, so that the spiritual and physical dimensions of life are unbroken. They are intimate companions of one another, rather than intractable enemies.
Let me give you an image. If you were to take a thin strip of paper, give it a 180-degree twist, and then join both ends, you would have the famous Mobius strip which has the peculiar property of being single-sided; that is, if you run your finger around its entire surface, you never cross from one side to another. What was two-sided, has by a single twist become one-sided, and its surface now lies on an uninterrupted continuum. If you can’t quite visualize that, make one for yourself when you get home today: a strip of paper, twisted once, ends put together …
And what if life and death are like that? What if the two, which we think of as opposites, run continuously in and through one another, like the twin surfaces made one in the Mobius strip?
What if the message of Easter is not the counterintuitive two-sided idea that a physical body comes back to life, but the single-sided idea that our physical self is not the limit of the life that God shares with us?
What if the calculation that we make in choosing to have children, is a deeply intuitive response to the fact that in God, life and love are not exhaustible, but that our experience of them opens us to participate in the divine mystery that is at the heart of the universe?
What if, in the calculus by which we choose to create life, we are not faced with a hapless and inescapable rendezvous with death—like the pact we make with the automobile—but rather are entering into the bargain offered in the resurrection: that, as St. Paul says, though we be dead, our lives are hid with God in Christ. And with life’s greatest dilemma resolved—which is death itself—the resurrection makes us free to address our other challenges with a certain confidence and equanimity: whether illness, divorce, disappointment, loneliness, or whatever else may weigh upon us. As we pray time and time again in that well-known prayer offered at the time of burial: “Life is immortal, and love is eternal, and death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.” Amen.