Death and Resurrection: Hope in the Age of Pandemic

The empty tomb, the three crosses, and the resurrection of Jesus

Resurrection happens when life and death, darkness and light, converge. Because as Saint Francis said, “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

In the midst of this pandemic, so much death. The number of deaths from COVID-19 headlines the news. How many people in the U. S. have been killed by the coronavirus today? How many more are likely to suffer the same fate? In ordinary times we like to forget that our lives on this earth end with death—100 percent of the time. 

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when it is impossible to ignore death, the calendar took us to Easter, Resurrection Sunday. Resurrection—the original reason for the celebration that came to be known as Easter. In our culture, it’s a time for family gatherings, egg hunts, new spring outfits, joyous worship. 

Easter arrives with spring, the annual resurrection of nature. It’s a time for baby chicks, baby bunnies, newborn leaves. Blossoming trees and bushes put on their yearly extravaganza, followed by flowers in myriad varieties and hues. Birds nest and chatter non-stop. All nature sings. 

In the Christian tradition, Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, the founder of the faith. 

According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus was familiar with resurrection. He had brought life to the dead son of a widow, stopped them on the way to the burial, in fact; and he had raised the young daughter of Jairus, a religious leader. These two were newly dead and a skeptic might argue they were simply resuscitated, or perhaps having one of those out of body experiences we hear about. 

And then there was Lazarus. Jesus was known to spend time with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Their home was a place of refuge and rest for Jesus and his disciples. But when Lazarus died Jesus was far away. Even though his sisters sent a message letting him know that his friend was gravely ill, he waited two more days to check on them. 

By the time Jesus got there, Lazarus was dead for sure. Dead four days. Dead and buried. Lazarus’ sister, Martha, confronted him on the road before he could even get into town. You remember Martha, the one who was always in charge, telling everyone what to do. She was distraught, angry.

 “If you had been here,” she cried, “If you had been here my brother would not have died!” Subtext: Why weren’t you here? How could you let us down like this? We are your friends. You healed all those other people. Why not Lazarus? Did you forget us? 

Jesus’ reply went to the heart of the matter.

 “Your brother will rise again.”

 “I know, I know. He’ll be resurrected on the last day,” Martha spluttered. Thinking perhaps, whenever that is, we need him here now!

That’s when Jesus owned it.

 “I am the resurrection,” he said. “I am the life.” Don’t you get it? I didn’t need to be here then. Because I’m here now. 

“Whoever believes in me, even though he dies, will live again.” 

The fury went out of Martha and a spark of hope ignited in her heart. “I know that even now, God will give you whatever you ask.” she said, and hurried to find her sister, Mary. Mary who hung on Jesus’ every word, flaunting convention to listen to him teach, leaving Martha to do all the heavy labor of preparing dinner for more than a dozen hungry men. When Mary met Jesus, she said exactly the same thing,

 “If you had been here….” 

It’s the cry of broken hearts through the centuries. Where was God? Why did he let it happen? Why weren’t you here? Don’t you care? Do you even exist?

For these siblings and friends of Jesus the answer was soon apparent. Lazarus came out of his tomb, gloriously alive. It’s not usually so for us. Yes, there are times when someone thought surely dead recovers and we are filled with joy and gratitude. We talk of miracles. 

And yet, thousands infected with the coronavirus die, while thousands more recover. Why this one and not that one? We can point to reasons like age and underlying conditions—usually, but not always. For instance, why would a 104-year-old woman recover and an infant and a seemingly healthy 28-year-old die? Any human answer is simply inadequate.

 In the age of pandemic, people die for all the ‘normal’ reasons too. My deepest grief in this season has been for a dear friend who lost her 40-something son, suddenly, shockingly. Wanting to comfort her, I find I have no words. And neither does she. 

Only a few weeks after astounding people by raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus himself died in a very public execution. To say that Jesus’ friends and followers were devastated is an understatement. Their hopes and dreams for the future, their very world, had ended. 

But, I wonder, did Mary, Martha, and Lazarus have a different view? Perhaps to them a resurrection seemed possible. 

At the graveside of loved ones we often hear Jesus’ words, “if anyone believes in me, he will live even after dying.” Yet, in the midst of bereavement, resurrection can seem so distant, so unreal, so doubtful. 

We buried my mother on a blustery October day years ago. Notwithstanding my long-held belief in life after life, the only picture in my mind for months was of the coffin and the gravesite. I could only imagine my mom in the cold, in the dark. Unmoving. Unalive. Dead. At 94 years of age her passing had been expected, peaceful. And yet….

It was only with the advent of Easter and the celebration of resurrection the next spring, that I could at last see her as she always imagined herself—joyfully reuniting with loved ones, meeting Jesus in person. Alive! 

We will all experience loss. And we will be distressed and sorrowful. But we do not need to mourn without hope. Death is something we have to come to terms with as we grieve and come to accept it. The historical event of Jesus’ resurrection is the foundation for trusting that life after life is reality. And therein lies my hope. Hope for this life and the next.

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