The Church of the Transfiguration - Palos Park, IL
“The dead man sat up and began to speak.” Stories like this morning’s first reading and the gospel for today have always puzzled me. On the one hand, I am fascinated by a God who is so powerful that he can revive the dead. On the other hand, I am skeptical of the veracity of these accounts which fly squarely in the face of what most of us in this room consider to be the reality of our world – people die. And, sure, from time to time, they are resuscitated through the miracles of modern medicine (and don’t get me wrong, I do believe that God’s hand is at work when that happens too); but, by and large, death is final. So, just what are we to make of these two stories?
My puzzling over the meaning of these texts and our understanding of life and death have been brought to the forefront over the past couple of weeks as SB and BS, two members of our Transfiguration family, have begun receiving care from hospice and as Lane, John and I have been in conversation about their pastoral needs. These conversations led me back to a book I had read prior to seminary by Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox theologian who died in 1983. This book, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, points to two primary, but conflicting, views about life and death held by those of us in the western world.
The first of these lifts up life as something to be celebrated – achievements recognized, technological advances lauded, and milestones reached held up as human victories – and as an unspoken corollary to this celebration of life is an attempt to deny the realities of death. The flip side of this exuberance about life is seen when the sick are isolated and alone, the dead are dressed up neatly by morticians to mask death and make them look alive, and funeral arrangements are solemnly managed by directors in funeral homes that look, from the outside at least, much like the homes you and I live in and that present, from the inside, all the hospitality and personality of a fancy hotel lobby. Schmemann writes, “Christ’s victory over death” is a message we hear and celebrate during the season of Easter and yet it seems to “have had no real impact on the basic human attitudes toward death.”[i]
There are those too who reject this secular understanding of life and death, embracing instead, what is erroneously called the religious view. In this view, our earthly life is merely a pain-filled period of preparation for the promises of paradise which we shall reach after death. The problem with this point of view is that it denies the fullness or our life as we know it – as it was created, in all its splendor and goodness, by God.
So, two conceptions of life and death – the one which denies – or at least seeks to avoid - the reality of death and the one which denies the fullness of the only life we have ever known. But, reflecting on this morning’s readings, it seems that neither of these views of life and death is sufficient to make sense of these two stories. In each story a widow’s only son dies and in each story – God revives the dead son – in the first story through the prophet Elijah, in the second Jesus himself. Why is this significant? “Out In Scripture,” a weekly conversation about the lectionary published by the Humans Right Committee, points to the significance of the widows in these stories.
In ancient Israel a woman’s worth was measured by her procreative ability. She was valued as an unmarried virgin in her father’s household, or a child-producing wife in her husband’s household. Therefore widows were considered worthless by patriarchal Israel’s standards and often found themselves on the margins of society. The only way a widow might have worth was if she had sons.[ii]By the death of these widows’ sons, their last chance at worth in society was stripped away. God revives these sons because their physical death will result in the complete separation of these women from society – they will become the living dead. What is significant in these stories is not only that the physically dead sons are brought back to life, but also that the widows, now completely marginalized by the death of their sons, are brought back to life. If death is understood in this way, as separation from community, as separation from God, then death can be experienced in this life or beyond this life. Death can be spiritual as well as it can be physical. In the same way, life can be experienced in this life or beyond this life. Because when life is understood as being alive in God, alive in Christ, then life is more than just breathing in and out, life is about being in community with one another and with God.
Because I am concerned that my words may have become a bit confusing at this point and I am even more concerned that an attempt to make them clearer will only make them less clear, I want to leave you with an image from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead. To set the scene: the main character is writing about a trip he has taken with his father to find the grave of his grandfather in rural Kansas. As the scene unfolds, you get the sense that the grandfather went to Kansas (away from his family in Iowa) to separate himself from the world – to die in spirit as well as in body. Upon finding the grandfather’s grave, the father and son set about cutting down weeds that have grown over it and setting up the marker and the marker of graves surrounding it. When they have finished this exhausting work which takes the better part of a day, the father begins to pray and here is what his son writes:
Every prayer seemed long to me at that age, and I was truly bone tired. I tried to keep my eyes closed, but after a while I had to look around a little. And this is something I remember very well. At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them. I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I’d have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it. And then I said, ‘Look at the moon.’ And he did. We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up. They seemed to float on the horizon for quite a long time, I suppose because they were both so bright you couldn’t get a clear look at them. And that grave, and my father and I, were exactly between them, which seemed amazing to me at the time, since I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of the horizon.“It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend," writes Schmemann, "when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.”[iv] As we, as a community, continue to pray with and for S and B, I hope we will recognize that we stand in a place of beauty, a place where the sun sets and the moon rises, a place where the love of God and our life in Christ together are only the first signs of God’s victory over death.
My father said, ‘I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.’[iii]
[i] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 96.
[ii] “The Power of Our Touch: 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 5), Year C,” Out In Scripture, (Human Rights Campaign) accessed online on June 5, 2007.
[iii] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, (New York: Picador, 2004), 14-5.
[iv] Schmemann, 100.