Death and triumph

Christ Enthroned : Vivarini

Christ Enthroned / Bartolomeo Vivarini (1450)

What human experience is more common than death? It happens to everyone, but nothing is more mysterious. Some of us regard it with despair, stoicism, or bewildered resignation.

Some of us have the faith to rise above all that and look past death. Wishful thinking or delusion? No. It’s the expectation of a certain triumph.

It occurs to me that there is one human experience as common as death, and that’s birth. If a child in the womb has any thoughts or feelings or expectations about birth, no one knows what they are.

We cannot recall our own birth as we experienced it, so we can only experience someone else’s birth. We all have certain expectations of what lies in store for the newborn.

As we were all born, so we will all die. The only thing we can observe is that whenever anyone else has ever died, his or her body stops functioning.

Eventually, it will rot. Nothing will be left but bones. The process is so offensive to watch and to smell that we have to bury the dead body to keep it out of sight and to keep it from making anyone else sick.

Throughout history and before, most people have had some notion that the spirit that once animated the body that dies continues to live somehow. Others have figured that whatever life departed from the body simply ceased to exist.

No one knows by experience what has happened. Societies that expect the spirits of the dead to return do everything they can to avoid meeting them.

Actually, that’s not quite right, is it? Jesus knows by experience what happens after death. It’s a different kind of life. Knowing the power of his resurrection, we can face death with different expectations

Expectations before Jesus’ death

Christ cleansing the temple

Christ Cleansing the Temple / Luca Giordano, mid 1670s

The bulk of the gospels concern the last week of Jesus’ life. It is in part the story of expectations and the frustration of expectations. John 16:16-24 took place after what we know as the Last Supper.

The previous Sunday, Jesus had entered Jerusalem triumphantly. His admirers expected that he would eventually be crowned king. The twelve disciples expected to occupy important cabinet posts in the kingdom.

What a shock the next couple of days were. Jesus did nothing to build support, nothing to create a power base. He did things, like driving the money changers out of the temple, that offended the rulers of the temple who were already hostile to him.

By Thursday night, the plan to establish a new kingdom did not seem to be working.

At supper, Jesus acted especially strangely.

  • He insisted on washing everyone’s feet, as if he were a common servant.
  • He announced that one of the twelve would betray him and fingered Judas by paying him a high honor.
  •  He predicted that bold, impetuous Peter would deny even knowing him.
  • And then, he said, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.”

What kind of a statement is that? Who can blame the disciples for being so totally out of it that they asked each other, instead of him, what he meant by it?

Jesus did not directly answer the question. Remember, he had told them on at least three earlier occasions that he would die and rise again on the third day.

Instead, he added that they would weep and mourn while the world rejoiced.

That is, those who loved Jesus would experience deep pain while he was dead, and the world would think it had finally gotten rid of him.

After the resurrection, those who loved him would rejoice to see him again. He compared the experience to a woman in childbirth. Jesus would experience death and then live again.

They still didn’t get it.

Judas came to betray Jesus. The temple guards arrested him, and in the chaos, all the disciples scattered. As predicted, Peter denied Jesus three times. When the rooster crowed and Peter remembered what Jesus said, he wept bitterly.

Scripture does not tell us anyone else’s story, but surely they each had their own memories.

Thoughts of the dead Jesus

Entombment of Christ

The Entombment of Christ / Caravaggio, 1602-03

I suppose Jesus’ followers thought of a lot of things as Jesus died and over the next few days. One thought tumbled after another.

They remembered the good times and all of the promises that now seemed dashed. The death of their dreams, as much as the death of Jesus himself, put them in despair.

They remembered their personal failings, the times Jesus scolded them, the times he told them what they would do. They didn’t believe him at the time any more than Peter did, but everything happened just as Jesus said it would. That, too, put them in despair.

I suppose that whatever else they thought about, they thought mostly about themselves. Their thoughts mostly followed the same pattern they had followed for three years.

Surely it never occurred to a one of them that if Jesus had correctly predicted what they would do, that perhaps he had also correctly predicted the outcome of his own death: resurrection.

They did not allow themselves the luxury of supposing that they would indeed see him again and rejoice. That thought would have comforted them immensely.

But no one believed it.

And Mary Magdelene faced Easter morning, as recorded in John 20:11-16, with the expectations of unbelief. She expected to finish the work of embalming the corpse. She expected to have trouble moving the stone from the entrance to the tomb, and to have trouble finding anyone to help.

John says it was still dark. That has two meanings. It was still dark because the sun hadn’t come up yet, and it was still dark because of the unbelief that clouded everyone’s spiritual vision.

Resurrection and the dawn of reality

Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Women at the empty tomb, by Fra Angelico, 1437-1446.

Mary ran to tell Peter that Jesus’ body was missing. Peter and John ran to the tomb. Then they went back home without ever considering the possibility that Jesus had arisen.

Mary stuck around, still crying. When she looked back in the tomb, she saw two angels and spoke with them briefly.

That did not turn her thoughts to the possibility of resurrection.

When she turned around and saw Jesus, she thought he was the gardener. She recognized him only after he spoke her name.

Then she ran back to tell the others. They did not believe her.

Isn’t it odd: a week before, they had all expected high-ranking positions in Jesus’ kingdom. Events dashed all of those hopes. Jesus told them he would be gone for a while and return, but all they expected was that the dead would stay dead and they’d spend the rest of their lives in regret.

Jesus had a different set of expectations all along. He expected to suffer humiliation and great physical pain. He expected to die, descend into hell, and rise victoriously.

More than that,

  • He expected that his disciples would eventually understand what he had spent three years trying to show them.
  • He expected they would accomplish many things after his resurrection that they could never have envisioned before his death.
  • He expected the church to come together and transform the world as a result of their new understanding and bold commitment.

Things turned out exactly as Jesus expected. If we can learn to remember what he has said, truly believe it, and act on it, we will not be disappointed, either.

That’s such a hard lesson to learn that hardly anyone gets it right very consistently. Fortunately, the fulfillment of Jesus’ expectations does not depend on us doing anything right.

One day, we will turn away from looking at reflections in a dirty mirror and see him face to face. No one in the world can imagine the joy. In the mean time, we can cling to the promises, however cluelessly.

He who has spoken is faithful.

Illustrations are public domain from Wikimedia Commons.


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