Matthew 27:45-53; 27:55-61; 28:1-10
If death were a dance, what would it look like?
When death dances with you, what will it feel like? What does it feel like?
When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it looked like… a meeting with Pilate – a rare conference with the political authority who held in his hand the power of life and death. Who had withdrawn his power to protect life, and handed yet another subject over to a tortured death. Who had been swayed by the fickle crowd. Whose soldiers had done their job, carried out their duty, ensuring the security of the state.
When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it looked like asking for a body, a dead body, from the one with power to grant or withhold that body. With the wave of his hand, Pilate granted Joseph his request.
When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it felt like new linen cloth, clean and slightly course, wrapped tight around the body. It smelled like myrrh and aloes. It felt like stone, cold and hard. A new tomb, hewn in the rock. He laid the body in the rock tomb. “Then,” Matthew writes, “he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and went away.
When Abbie and I danced with death it sounded like… nothing. Our first two children were born the way we’d hoped and expected. The work of labor was followed by the yelp of life and a flurry of activity – doctor and nurses who had done this many times before, skilled at attending to a child in the first minutes after birth. As the father, who had not felt life slowly growing within me, one minute there was nothing, and then there was something, someone, very real, very real, and very alive.
But with our third child, we danced with death, something we had not expected. The work of labor was followed by a deafening silence as our daughter Belle was stillborn at 22 weeks. There was no flurry of activity afterwards because there was nothing to do. We held her and sat with her, talked and didn’t talk for long stretches of time. We received visitors who sat with us in silence, talking, and not talking, moving about and being still. Eventually, hours and hours later, it was time to go. Eventually, we walked out and drove away. Back home, where life was very much the same, and very much different.
The two Marys danced with death from a distance. They’d followed Jesus from Galilee and provided for him out of their own means. They had invested their resources, their money, their time in this man and his message about the kingdom of God. They’d invested their hopes in the way he moved among the people, the way he touched people with his words and his hands. People who hadn’t been touched for years. The way he lifted them up, women!, as partners in this work.
The two Marys were there with “many women,” Matthew says, as witnesses to death, watching from a distance. When Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” danced with death they strained their eyes to make it out. It was happening, over there. Jesus’ other companions had fled for their own safety. But Mary, and the other Mary, were there, with many women, watching.
They were distant, and then they came near. The Sabbath had ended. It was dawn, the first day of the week. They came together to see the tomb. They came near to see, when they danced with death.
What’s it like to be distant, and then to come near to death, to see. Like walking into the labyrinth, winding your way along the only path there is. Eventually you make your way into the center, surrounded on all sides by the path that got you there. And there you are.
When Jesus and death had their day to dance, Jesus was silent when commanded to speak. “Do you not hear the accusations they make against you?” Pilate demanded.
He was nonresistant when expected to fight back. “Put away your sword Peter. For all who live by the sword, die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
For one who had demonstrated such power, he was remarkably powerless. “He saved others, why can’t he save himself?” Matthew 27:42
Matthew narrates Jesus’s last moments this way: “Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit.” Jesus gave up…his spirit, his breath, that thing through which the body has life. He gave it up, let it go.
There’s a great mystery in that moment. When the miracle of birth meets its mirror image. Life is there, then it’s not.
As Matthew tells it, Jesus’ dance with death was a moment of rupture. “At that moment,” he writes, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” Temple, earth, rocks. That which represents the most sacred, the most sure, the most solid thing we can imagine. Is torn, shaken, and split. The earth moves under our feet and we can only try to keep our balance. Or sometimes, not even try.
If you were to dance with resurrection, what would it look like?
When resurrection dances you, what will it feel like? What does it feel like?
For Matthew, there is not one cataclysmic rupture, but two. After the death of Jesus, the rock splitting earthquake, after Joseph of Arimathea’s careful attention to the body, after the women have looked on from a distance, they come near after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning. It was Mary Magdelene and the other Mary who came to see the tomb.
“And suddenly there was an earthquake.”
And again that which was most sure and solid is torn, shaken, and split. Only rather than life being shaken, this time it’s death.
When Mary and Mary dance with resurrection, it looks a stone being rolled away. It looks like flashes of lightning. It looks like guards becoming like dead men and a dead man becoming like… Life itself.
It feels like fear and great joy, and leaving the tomb because what you were looking for is not there. It looks like running out of the labyrinth without paying any attention to the lines. The way has opened up ahead of you in all directions.
It sounds like being out of breath from running and still running into the light of day. It sounds like encountering Life itself which says, “Greetings!” and, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:9,10). It looks like running to tell your friends. Christ, and you, are on the loose.
About a month ago I was putting Ila to bed and she surprised me by asking “Where’s Belle?” I told her that Belle had died when she was born. We buried her ashes on grandpa and grandma’s farm and planted a tree there. We can go and see the tree, but we can’t see Belle. Ila wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer. Neither was I.
I imagine one day, not too long from now, she’ll ask me an even more loaded question. “If Belle hadn’t died, would I have been born?” I’m not ready with an answer on that one yet. What I want to tell her, eventually, is that it might not be the right question to get stuck on. Whether the life you are living would have been entirely different, or would not have been at all, had death not intervened somewhere along the way. I’d like to tell her the same thing I tell myself. That we are surrounded by mysteries, and that one of the most wonderful mysteries of all is that we are alive right now, and that “now” keeps changing, even though it’s still now. That Christ is Risen, on the loose, and is not confined to any singular package of cells and organs. All to which Ila might respond: “Geeze Dad. It’s like you’re preaching a sermon.”
The March 9 issue of Christian Century magazine included an obituary for Richard Reinhold Niebuhr. He was the son of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr and himself a long time professor at Harvard Divinity School. It included a quote from him he had written in 1960. “The problem of preaching at Easter (is that) it is a relatively easy thing to muse on the story of the first Easter, for it is not Easter as such that is a scandal,” even to modern people. “The difficulty arises at the juncture in which the humanity of Christ and our own humanity are equated or not equated, at the juncture in which we either do or do not recognize ourselves in him and him in ourselves.”
To recognize ourselves in the one who was dead but is risen is an act of faith. To acknowledge that even though death is at work within us, so is life, which includes and transcends the power of death.
When resurrection dances you, what will it feel like? What does it feel like now?
Matthew includes in his gospel a brief anecdote not mentioned anywhere in the other accounts. It is as delightful as it is bizarre. It happens right after Jesus’ death. Right after the temple curtain is torn, the earth shakes, and the rocks are split. Right in the midst of the disruption.
Matthew writes: “(And) the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After (Jesus’) resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52).
Now imagine this scene. Many bodies of the saints have been risen to life. They are waiting, just waiting in those tombs that held them for so long. And after Jesus’ resurrection they start to come out, to dance their way into the holy city. To move their way through the streets, making unannounced appearances to unsuspecting people going about their daily lives. To appear to many. To dance their way into the marketplace. To dance their way into homes. To dance their way in and out of the paths that people tread every day.
Matthew makes very clear that resurrection is not confined to Jesus. The same Power that raised Jesus from the dead raises others from the dead.
Now, imagine that we are the others. Even though death is at work within us, so is life, which includes and transcends the power of death. Imagine resurrection dancing its way all around you and towards you.