The Gospel of the Grave

By Julian Waldner, 28 September 2021
'Holy Women at Christ's Tomb' by Annibale Carracci (1560–1609). Image: Wikimedia Commons

 

In Loving Memory. August 6, 1965 – August 6, 2020.

The cords of Death have entangled me; the torrents of destruction have overwhelmed me. The ropes of the grave have coiled around me; the snares of Death have confronted me. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead.

The human condition is one of slavery. We find ourselves shackled into forms of life which empty us of our humanity and have us chasing superficiality. We live lives alienated from that which makes us human, and exist in socially constructed false realities. These social constructions buffer us from vulnerability and the suffering inherent in the human condition, allowing us to live lives of ease, comfort and self-sufficiency.

In this sense, no one is more a slave than the supposedly free consumerist individual of 21st century modernity. We live in a glittering, constructed shell of a world in which real reality—death, suffering, and the potential of true life—is locked underneath. We shut ourselves into the noise and din of politics and pop culture. Our entire existence is built in a sense, on the denial of death, on a continuous attempt to distract us from this reality.

We live our lives attempting to hold others at a distance, we do not want their suffering, their pettiness and their vulnerability, to encroach on our autonomy, productivity or popularity. We have, all of us, negotiated a sort of contract for invulnerability in which we can all sink into our self-enclosed bubbles. Hidden behind spiritual walls of convention, ideology and prejudice; and buffered by physical walls; shut in our rooms, alone on our phones, encased by our earbuds. And so we make our home in a place of nowhere, and amble through time in a misty haze. Bumping into bodies, pushing them aside. Work, do your lord’s bidding, sleep, repeat. We exist without existing and we hopelessly hope.

Our lives, one could say, exist under the subjugation of what the bible calls the Principalities and Powers. The Powers hide their slavery in the innocuous everyday. They encroach on our lives while passing off their slavery as what is “normal.” The Powers are legion. Perhaps the most insidious is the lure of Mammon. Many exist under its mastery and are led to trample humanity and nature in their one-eyed pursuit of wealth. Others pursue power, and tell lies to maintain it. Some find their fulfillment in some great cause or movement, an ideology that tells them that they are right and those others are wrong. Others fill their void by slurping desire from human bodies. Some are enslaved to religion, codes, laws, ironclad rules. They scowl at their neighbour and believe that God smiles upon them. Still others fall prey to work and sacrifice all on the altar of productivity, efficiency and career. Others find a deep sense of belonging in nationalism and can be led to lie, exclude and even kill on behalf of the volk. Those that belong to various institutions—government, church, cooperation—justify all manner of injustice for the sake of maintaining the system or “the greater good.” The interests of our own race, tribe, and gender pit us against those who are other. And on and on it goes. The Powers demand that we pledge allegiance to them and that we sacrifice on their behalf. They bind our perceptions and make us see reality through their perverted eyes so that it seems simply ‘right’, ‘just’, ‘normal’ to do their bidding. And so we sink even deeper into our mire, even deeper into our slavery, even further away from freedom. The bible would call this the bondage of Sin.

And then, one day, we people who walk in darkness have seen a great light. On those of us who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on us a light is shone.

And then, One day, God is born in a barn. God has a mother named Mary and he suckles at her breast, depending on her for his sustenance. While God is still in the cradle, people aren’t happy that he has showed up and been born. Indeed, the rulers and the Powers are troubled by the birth of God. They recognize, with the clear sense of those who want to maintain their power, that this God so weak is a threat.

That God Himself—the only one who stands above, as rightful Lord over all of Creation, the one who is free in and of himself—has now come in the most stupendous act of weakness, in the perfect picture of poverty, servitude, vulnerability: this is the threat. God himself is now subject to Caesar and the religious authorities, and yet, he is their only rightful Lord. God the baby has come, right into the midst of the human condition. He has arrived right underneath the slavery of the Rulers. What in God’s name is this outrage? What is God himself doing there, in the midst of the dung and straw? Why does he look like a little baby? God surely can be up to no good. It is as if a tank has been wheeled into the midst of Times Square, and just stands there, ominously. What next? And so, from his very conception, the Powers want God dead.

They have good reason to be afraid. For God has come to show the strength of his arm, to scatter the proud, to bring the powerful down from their thrones. God has come to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things and to send the rich away empty. God has come to confront and defeat the Powers, to proclaim the release of the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind.

Yet God had come in the form of a Galilean peasant.

When God grew up and became a man, he began to proclaim that the kingdom of God was come amongst us. With the words he spoke and the deeds he performed, he sowed seeds of liberation, planting a new world in the cracks of empire. This man, though subjugated like all of us, was utterly free from the slavery of the Powers. He was not pulled into their perverse perceptions, distorted desires, or diabolical doings, but lived in obedience to the Spirit. He lived His life in that terrifying place of Faith, that uncertain space that lies beyond the grasp of the Powers, beyond all techniques and machinations of control, heeding the beckoning of the Spirit. And so he moved in life-giving freedom.

And I see him, never too busy to take time for others. Living his life in service—feeding, healing, loving, binding up the wounds of all who come to him. I see no grander plot, no diabolical efficiency; there is just a trust in the providence of God as he spreads the seeds of the kingdom. And all around him, through the love he shares with those he encounters, I see networks of agape take root and slowly bubble up, breaking down walls between us, and letting the light seep through. His is an irresponsible freedom, not concerned with the agendas of the Powers; he is alone faithful to his Heavenly Father.

And the Kingdom grows.

He invited his followers into the same life of freedom that is the kingdom of God. He called them to resist the lure of Mammon by holding loosely to possessions, lending freely and living in radical dependence on their Heavenly Father. He called them to guard against the lustful, objectifying gaze and instead to be remade by the loving gaze of the Heavenly Father. So that then they can gaze at all of humanity and all of creation with the love of the Creator God. He told them not to be anxious about controlling the future, but to rest in the now of faithfulness. He called them to renounce the pursuit of power and status, choosing instead to be the lowest, and to serve. He told them not to resist evil, but to end the cycle of violence by turning the other cheek. He warned them against identifying too closely with a nation, group, tribe or ideology, and called them instead into the broader solidarity of the kingdom of God.

To explain what he was up to, he told the story of a Jewish man who went on a journey. On the way, the Jew was attacked by a group of highway robbers who beat him up, stole his money, and left him to die alongside the road. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too a Levite when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. And then, a despised Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was, and when he sees him, is moved in his guts with compassion. He comes to the man’s side, binds his wounds, carries him to the hospital and cares for him.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

“Go and do likewise.”

The despised Samaritan was the one who was a neighbour to the Jew. In the moment of decision, he moves to reach across and underneath the barriers between him and the Jew in a “network of agape.” Between these two men—previously divided by law, culture, hate and prejudice—there is now a friendship that subverts the Powers that hold them in hostility. Those others, the priest and the Levite, were too deeply invested in the maintenance of their own institutions and too caught up in the agendas of the Powers to be moved. And so we see the strange business of the kingdom at work, coming underneath the systems of oppression to form strange friendships, pockets of freedom, places of life.

In his proclamation of the kingdom of God, and his training of disciples, he is involved in an invasion of the empire. He came not with armies of men, and does not hurl bombs from the sky, but instead comes with a strange way of weakness. Driven by the Spirit, he brought a new kingdom of freedom into the world that frees those who are caught up in it from the logic of the Powers, so that they cannot help but undermine their domination. The apostle Paul himself was up to this same kind of subversive business when he told a master to treat his slave “like a brother.” This was no revolutionary call to end slavery (maybe Paul didn’t even think such a thing was possible) but how long could this oppressive institution stand if masters treated their ‘slaves’ like brothers?

And the kingdom grows.

But God knew that he had to die. He reminded his followers of his coming death, telling them that he must be handed over to the Powers and be crucified. And everyday he remembered that he must die and that all will die, and he remembered the fragility of life. For he knew that only by seeing the finitude of all things—this person, this moment, this meal—could eternity be glimpsed in time. He knew that “the day of the Lord” comes for all of us “like a thief in the night.”

You are sleeping and then suddenly you are woken up and Death crouches over you. “There’s been an accident.” And in that instant, my world is turned, flipped, rolling, turning, crashing, upside down. And then the thin lies we tell ourselves, our comfortable fantasies, the contract for invulnerability we share with others, suddenly these are all gone and we are left in that cold open sea of uncertainty. I had forgotten that all must die, and now I remember. 

For the most enslaving lie the Powers whisper into the ears of men is the first: “You will surely not die.” This vague sense that our corpses will be left to stagger on for an earthly eternity: this is the slavery. You can work here in the factory all day because you will never die. You must hurry past your child and get to the factory because you will never die. The one who whispers these words and envelops our lives under that thick, sweet, sleepy fog of complacency is the murderer from the beginning, the father of lies. To this god of worldliness, the one true God is forever opposed, and he forever shouts to wake us from our slumber. He calls us to “beware”, “to watch”, to “keep awake”, to remember the day of the Lord and the time of our death, so that we do not fall asleep, but find true life.

And I see him live as if every moment could be the last, as if this person before him would drop dead tomorrow. Because he knows today could be his last day, he always has time. For those of us who live anxiously—who worry about death, or think we will live forever—time is a resource to be hoarded. Not so for him. He always has enough, and he gives it lavishly. I notice that as he gives us his time and patience, we have more to give to others. I watch with wonder as eternity spreads out around him. 

And the kingdom grows.

But the rulers and the authorities didn’t like what God was up to. And so, they decided to kill him. It was a strange moment. Usually the church and the state, locked as they are in the culture wars, can’t agree on anything. But when it came to this free, troublesome Galilean, they could agree that life would be better if he was dead. Maybe we’re right to be suspicious whenever the church and the state get too cushy.

They caught him in the garden of Gethsemane, then they seized him and led him away. They brought him before the high priest and then before Pilate. They accused him saying: “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea.” And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Jesus Barabbas who had been put in prison for insurrection and for murder. So after the people had gathered before him, Pilate asked them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus the revolutionary, or Jesus who is called the Christ? And the crowds shouted: “Away with Christ! Release Barabbas for us!” And they shouted “Crucify, Crucify him!” And Pilate consented to the will of the people and gave him over to be crucified. And they took him away to the hill of Golgotha, stripped him naked, and nailed him to the cross.

There, exalted above the earth, crowned with thorns and hung on his throne—there is God himself. Revealed in such glorious weakness is the God of the cosmos that one can only avert one’s gaze or worship him with tears. And there on that cross, in this man, Jesus Christ, is the truest icon of the invisible God that our mortal eyes can behold. There—in that sweat and agony, in that mournful cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—there is God. And there, in the suffering of the human condition, in genocide, in cancer, in the accident, there is God himself.

And as I watch him suspended there, my world turning, turning, turning, around this decisive point, I am struck by the absurdity of it all. That such a life, this story, this breath, this person, that it should all just cease to be. That Death should just grip him in its ugly talons and squeeze the air from him. It all comes as such a shock. Just yesterday, I sat with him on our new chairs. And when I brushed him aside, I never thought that would be the last. Now, Death has crashed in like a car crash and sent our whole world spinning, turned around and upside down around this decisive point. It is a spectacle I cannot fathom. A spectacle I cannot look in the face, for the ugly face of Death looks back at me. And I hear it’s cold laughter echo down the ages. 

They took down his corpse from the cross, washed him with oil and laid him in the tomb.

God died.

And then, God went to hell. He fell like a mustard seed into the pit. But little did Death and the Powers know, but God had them right where he wanted them. They thought they had finally put an end to him and his kingdom, but now, like the horse of Troy, he had breached their defences. He had gone to the far country, to the very end of human suffering and depravity, and now penetrated into the heart of enemy territory. He came into the darkest hours of the human story, the depraved depths of the human soul and the full gamut of human Sin. In and through these darkest places and hopeless hours, God weaved a path of liberation. The love of God reached down into Death itself and turned Death into life. By Death, he defeated Death. The end became a new beginning. And Christ came into the pangs of alienation wrought by Sin, Death and the Powers; and over these great destroyers of God and his creation, the Maker of life now triumphed. He decisively loosened their grip on us, freed us from their slavery, and opened us up to the life of God. And now, neither Death, nor life, nor principalities, nor Powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

And I watch with wonder as the hideous power of Death is turned against itself, and now works to undo the curse. I watch with wonder as life spreads out from the grave. And my enemy opens up his arms and pulls me into his embrace, a love that is deeper than us both, unites us. And the walls between us crash down, the lion lays down with the lamb and a new community is born from the tomb. And the seed that fell into the ground dies and grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Then, on the third day, he rose from the dead. As his disciples were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marvelling he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.

And something strange and wonderful and utterly beyond history has happened in this resurrected Jesus. Those who knew him, can recognize him and yet, he is changed. Walls, time, space, no longer contain him and yet he can eat, be touched, and be seen. He is flesh and bone, and yet, he is more real than real. In the resurrection, nothing less than a new world has sprung forth in the old. Death found that it could not hold the Creator God, and he came bursting through the barricades. In the midst of history, witnessed by the testimony of the church, now stands a tangible sign the defeat of Death. A new world is born and we are called to enter into it.

After the resurrection, a new Spirit of freedom is unleashed in human history and it brings a community of the new world into existence. It calls those who are humble and poor enough to listen, into the freedom of Christ and the life he shares with his Father. And yet. Yet though we are free, yet though the victory is won, yet though the Resurrection has happened in time, though Death is but the door to life. But not yet. Death, though tampered by hope, still ravages our world. The Powers, though undermined, continue their slavery. And though we know the outcome, the battle between the creator God and the forces of Death opposed to life and his creation, still goes on.

And we must choose a side.

We are beckoned by this Spirit into this great way of liberation, and pulled underneath the cold, hard Possible, so that the impossible may break through. As Christ did before us, and as so many great witnesses have done after him, the Spirit moves us to plant the seeds of the kingdom in the concrete cracks of the empire. To penetrate into the depths of the enemy territory and to thread the path of life through the suffering and slavery of the human condition. And in humble ways we see that the thrones are toppled, the captives set free and the blind made to see. And we wait with longing for that glorious day, when all the Powers are brought low and then, the last enemy to be destroyed is Death itself.

This article from Julian Waldner, a young Canadian Hutterite, originally was originally posted on Coffee With Kierkgaard on 24 December 2020. Reproduced with permission.

 

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