Before and After: While It Was Still Dark

The movie Before and After (1996) opens with the quiet narration of a young girl. Sitting alone in her tree house, she reflects that life may be going along fine until suddenly something happens that changes everything. From that moment on you date your life as being lived either before or after. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff makes a similar observation in his book Lament For a Son (1987). About his son’s death he writes: “The world looks different now. . . . Something is over. In the deepest levels of my existence something is finished, done. My life is divided into before and after.”

In the film the event that splits the little girl’s history in two is the death of her brother’s girlfriend. She is murdered, and police suspect the brother. Even as we watch a police cruiser approach the family home, the young girl continues to reflect that sometimes this divide can occur without anyone guessing it could possibly happen. While eating breakfast and riding the school bus and listening to the teacher, something enters of which you are unaware, and that something will change your own life forever. You are already living in the after, only you do not yet know it.

On April third, some thirty-nine years ago, my dad started his day as he started every day. He put on his work clothes, milked cows, and set out hay. But on that April morning, hefting another bale, he gashed his finger with the hay hook. The cut was deep, but it did not appear serious. For a whole day he lived and worked as though he would see his children marry, as if the third of April would no more stand out in our minds than the second. Neither he nor anyone else suspected that later that day, in the evening, to avoid infection, he would take the penicillin that triggered the massive reaction that claimed his life, dividing our life into before and after.

 

Darkness

John’s Gospel tells that “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance” (v. 1). Mary does not yet know that something has happened that has made life altogether different. For her it is still dark: this world is still the place where all the living can do is bring spices to lessen the stench of death. Finding the tomb empty, Mary runs for the disciples. When she locates Peter and the other disciple, John, she announces that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (v. 2)

Peter and John, despite their weariness from two nights with little sleep, make a dash for the tomb. John arrives at the entrance first and pauses. Once his eyes adjust he sees the strips of linen lying where he had expected the body. John looks over his shoulder and awaits Peter who approaches, red-faced. Showing none of John’s hesitation, Peter barges into death’s chamber. He sees the linen draped over the cold stone. There too he finds the burial cloth, once wrapped about Jesus’ head, now neatly folded, separate from the linen.

When John finally enters, we’re told that “He saw and believed” (v. 8). Occasionally a commentator or a preacher cites these words as the dawning of John’s understanding of the resurrection. But the text does not warrant such an interpretation. Both Peter and John stand in the tomb dumbfounded, unaware that life has entered a wholly new phase. All they see are the scraps of fabric, and they believe with Mary that some scoundrel has made off with Jesus’ body. In fact, verse 8 is followed by this parenthetical note, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”

In fact, all the Gospel accounts emphasize the unbelief that greeted the first Easter morning: Mary, Peter and John immediately assume the body’s been stolen. Those who initially see Jesus fail to place his face. This emphasis is intended for a number of reasons. The first is apologetical. Such skepticism defends the credibility of witnesses to the resurrection. These are not people anticipating an encounter with a scarred but breathing Jesus. Luke’s Gospel, in fact, reports that some disciples rejected the story as too good to be true. They are not the type taken in by a good ghost story. Far from gullible, they are reliable.

This lack of recognition is important for a second reason. The scriptures want to make clear that this life here, our meanderings in the shadow of death, differs greatly from the risen life, the life Christ received after the resurrection. The apostle Paul, you may recall, refers to our resurrected forms as “spiritual bodies.” These bodies will possess recognizable similarities with this flesh and blood existence, but they are radically different. So different that Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener, and the two on the road to Emmaus consider him a stranger. Not one recognizes him right off.

But the most obvious reason for this unbelief is realism. The fact is that once death has someone in its clutches, its stranglehold is permanent. We all know this. I, for example, do not expect my Dad to pick up the phone when I call my Mom. The dead stay dead. Not one casket lowered into this grave-littered planet is rented. This is a fact we try to sentimentalize or just plain deny. All sorts of people associate the Resurrection and Easter with the Spring season in which it falls. Spring, they say, shows life’s ability to rise from the dead. Buds sprout open on limbs naked and brittle for months. Flowers break the surface of ground swept barren by winter winds. And yet, fitting as it may seem, one must not forget the reality of death. After all, this Spring’s buds and flowers reaching for sunlight are not last year’s, and they won’t be next year’s. In our gardens and in our families, death plays for keeps.

In a sermon for Easter, William Willimon, the dean of chapel at Duke University, referred to a campus tragedy. Amy, a student, had recently died in a freak bus accident. Willimon said that many students, particularly her friends and dorm-mates found themselves grief-stricken. In response, the university brought in a therapist. The therapist invited the students to gather and express together their grief and anger. The therapist’s assessment, after listening to them, was positive: “You’re doing exactly what you should be doing, you’re grieving. You’re progressing quite nicely. You’re adjusting to the fact of death.” To this gesture, Willimon comments that therapy is often little more than an attempt to help the living adjust to dying. Death tells everyone to grow up and become adults. Be realistic, it says: adjust to death. Gather your posies, snatch life’s pleasures, but always remember that death stands all about whispering, ‘Save the last dance for me.’

 

Dawn

The two disciples leave the tomb frustrated and confused, their realism holding fast. Mary stays. Left alone at the tomb she continues the “adjustment.” She stumbles to her knees from sobbing and catches a glimpse inside the tomb. In what was empty sit two figures in white, one of whom asks the question, “Woman, why are you crying?” It is a surprising thing to ask; after all, crying is to be expected in graveyards.

Mary responds as before, “They have taken my Lord away.”

The writer notes no response from the angels before Mary turns. There stands another figure, as much a stranger in Mary’s eyes as the two reclining inside. This one also asks, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Under the influence of realism, she thinks it’s the gardener and she hopes that maybe he can end this agony, maybe point her to another tomb. “Sir,” she says, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Of course, in this most wonderful scene, he doesn’t answer the question. He simply calls her by name, “Mary,” and thereby reveals his own identity.

“Rabboni (teacher)!” she cries, and she falls at his feet to embrace him with
all the passionate feeling she possesses. Again we must not suppose that Mary fully sees that that she is already living in the after. Jesus has to tell her in effect, “Mary, let go of me. We cannot return to the days before. Things are different now. And you are to tell the disciples that I will ascend to your Father and my Father, to My God and your God.” We are, with and through Jesus, sons and daughters of the Most High, the One who raises the dead.

Mary does as Jesus commands. She lets go and returns to the disciples. “I have seen the Lord!” she shouts. The cry heralds the news that life is now divided into before and after. When God raised Jesus from the grave He split human history in two.

 

The After

Historians contend that belief in the Resurrection was spawned by that little community in first-century Palestine. The truth, however, is more wonderful. It was the resurrection that spawned the community. Without that one empty grave, this world’s greatest treasure, they would never have made it into the second century. The late German Marxist philosopher Ernst Block observed that

It wasn’t the morality of the Sermon on the Mount which enabled Christianity to conquer Roman paganism, but the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In an age when Roman senators vied to see who could get the most blood of a steer on their togas–thinking that would prevent death–Christianity was in competition for eternal life, not morality.

Jesus is a death-conqueror. Easter celebrates to tell all the world of the fact that death has lost its hold. The last dance belongs to Christ. Things have changed. We are living in the after.

Still the darkness holds. In his Lament For a Son, Nick Wolterstorff confesses that he longs, with every fiber of his being, to talk again with his son Eric. He says he wonders, and sometimes doubts, whether that talk will ever take place. Though encouraged by the voice that insists: “Remember, I made all this and raised my own Son from the dead, so I can also . . .” he laments the waiting, the agonizingly slow dawning of the new day.

To sustain the conviction that we are living in the after while it is still dark, we gather on Sunday. Christ appeared to the disciples on that day; he made himself known to them in the breaking of bread. In our gatherings we pray for Christ’s presence–that he will speak to us through Word and Spirit–and for eyes that will recognize him in the breaking of bread.

The authors of a book on prayer, Sleeping With Bread (1995), report that the bombing raids of World War II orphaned thousands of children who then fell prey to starvation. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and hungry. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone came upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”

Christ’s resurrection is humankind’s loaf of bread. We still bring fathers and mothers to the grave and sometimes even sons and daughters. It is still dark. Yet with bread in hand we live in the confidence that “just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven” (I Corinthians 15:49).

Something is over. In the deepest levels of our existence, something is finished. Done. All of life must be divided into before and after.

“Christ is risen,” says the church.

To which we respond, “Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.”

Jack Roeda is minister of Church of the Servant (CRC) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.