God walks among the dead on Holy Saturday, resting from Creation, touching those who also rest, kissing their cheeks gently, inviting us to leave our regrets behind and begin our walk back toward the light. As John Chrysostom says, “On Easter, all are forgiven.”
There are not many people who have walked among the dead and lived to tell the tale. Myth gives us a few names: Coyote, Savitri, Inanna, Orpheus, Odysseus, Aeneas, Psyche, but although they visited with the dead, they returned alone and empty handed. Psyche came closest to being an exception when she emerged with Persephone’s cosmetics box, but a cosmetics box is well, just a box. Only Jesus broke both into history and into death, and according to legend, when he came up from below, he brought others with him.
Philip Pullman, whose scorn for Christianity is legendary, attempts to “improve” upon the Easter story by having his heroine Lyra descend to the underworld in the third volume of His Dark Materials trilogy. Lyra is a liberator, but she is not a bestower of life. Lyra’s liberation is to allow the dead to finally die, to dissolve back into atoms, into the copious nothingness promised by classical rationalism and science, into a world which says “what you see is what you get, and if you get nothing, well, too bad.”
When death becomes more redemptive than life, I know only that I am living in a miasma of survivors’ guilt.
The Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) lived at a time when the materialist propaganda of the Soviet Union had reduced all religious truths to “primitive superstitions” and “opiates.” I do not know how aware he was to what extent Soviet Power built its small elite upon economic injustice and mass death, but he was very aware of how godlessness, by its denial of basic human truths, breeds a culture of fear. Death is fear’s indispensable ally. In a penetrating little essay on the subject, Schmemann wrote: “Antireligious propaganda likes to claim that one of the sources of religion is fear of death: people were afraid of death and so they invented immortality of the soul, the world to come, and so forth. The reality, of course, is that none of this exists. With physical death, human beings utterly disappear and turn into nothingness. It has always surprised me how fiercely and with what inexpressible inspiration propaganda fights for this nothingness.” (Celebration of Faith, pp. 111-12)
Today, it has been revealed that the entire financial catastrophe that impoverished Africa, created an unbridgeable gap between rich and poor, that provides life and health for the rich and suffering and death for the poor was created by those same atheists whose belief in scientific materialism inspired them to use the so-called universal language of mathematics to craft “market models” that masked the greatest and most efficient machinery of greed and self-interest that has ever been created. While the rest of the world faces an abyss of despoiled land and sea, a world that has been sold to the highest bidder and the money supply gone, those who created this disaster in the name of enlightened progress have enough wealth to last for several generations. It does not matter to them what happens now. They have their reward.
Such is the ethic of nothingness. Perhaps the Soviets articulated it first, but it took American know how to bring it off.
To live in today’s world is to have a more than passing familiarity with the underworld. We have all seen justice crucified on a dead tree in a clear-cut rain forest.
Today, more than ever, we need Easter. In another essay, Schmemann wrote: “What does it mean to celebrate Easter in a world filled with suffering, hatred, triviality and war? What does it mean to sing of trampling down death by death and to hear that ‘not one dead remains in the grave’ when death, disregarding all our day-to-day hurry, still remains the one earthly certainty?” (pp. 119-20)
Easter tells the story of one who fought against that certainty and who won. Someone who says that death is nothing more than the illusion of an easy way out, the wide road of social control and perdition. For too long we have lived in a world obsessed with security. As long ago as Ancient Egypt, the wise ones have known that it is not security, but change, the Nile’s flood, that gives life. Stability in Egypt is death. In the desert, mummies last forever.
Jesus was wrapped in winding sheets with a hundred pounds of aloe and spices, brought by Nicodemus who had come to him by night. He refused to stay wrapped up. In his refusal lies a key for all the rest of us.
On Easter Sunday, I invite us all to ponder what we are wrapped up in.
The emptiness into which the greedy have plunged us is a terrible thing, but, as this very old celebration of Easter suggests, if we are willing to really look into it, as Mary Magdalene looked into the empty tomb, we might just hear the words of angels. We might even be reunited with God in the Garden.