- What happens to the old Christian practice of Memento Mori (Remember that you will die) in light of Easter?
- Is Easter with its resurrection only interesting to the gullible?
- Ernest Becker taught us what “denial of death” looks like. Is there such a thing as “denial of life?”
Some longer reflections:
Get out your Greek New Testament. Look at the words of this scene. You don’t even have to really read them. Just look at them.
Do you see all the words that have a mu followed by a nu?
That’s an M sound followed by and N sound. That pair of sounds in Greek means that something is being remembered.
As in a “mnemonic device.”
Notice that some of those words are translated into English as “they remembered.”
Notice that some of those words are not translated that way. All those “mn” words are linked together. They all interpret each other.
The words that aren’t translated as “remember” are words that refer to tombs
Tombs are sites for memorials, for remembrance, for phrases like “In memoriam,” or “memento mori,” that old Latin phrase that teaches us to remember that we are mortal beings, that we die.
Only in this scene, the tomb is empty. The dead body of Jesus, seen to be commonly mortal, is gone, which complicates the matter of the memorial.
This kind of memorial will take some practice. It has to re-member both death and life simultaneously. Of course Christians are well-trained in this: every Sunday is a resurrection day. I learned that as a child. I studied that as a student in seminary. I practiced that a s pastor sharing communion with our community of memory. We have lots of practice in this kind of abstract memorializing. But for Easter to be more than a pious abstraction, we have to go deeper.
By the time you are my age, there are a lot of memorials to be tended
My father died just after New Year’s Day this year, joining not only his parents and most of his siblings, but also two of my sisters. People my age start discovering that the old stories that we know are becoming memorials for the people in those stories who are now dead. The stories I remember from my childhood with two of my sisters are now stories that I remember alone. In such circumstances, remembering reminds me of how much I wish I could just have one more conversation, one more chance to check the story and get it right, get it rich enough, or funny enough. I am reminded that many of those memorialized stories I misremember, and now there is no one to correct the way I tell them, so my grandchildren will be stuck with misremembered memorials. It cannot be avoided.
By the time you are my age, still relatively young, but old enough to have seen some of the patterns in things, you learn that some necessary things are also impossible. It will not do to wish otherwise. Sometimes we can push back against impossibility and win back a little stability. But other times we cannot. Other times safety erodes inevitably and we find ourselves remembering death and limitation. That gives us much of our adult strength, but is is a memorialization of death.
This scene is different
It embodies an act of memorializing. It takes place at a place of remembrance. But the act of remembrance encompasses a shocking death and an utterly improbable life. It is not simply a celebration of life, as people sometimes request in place of a funeral. Some of those “celebrations of life” seem to proceed as if death were something one could simply leap over, skip through, vault across with grace and good humor. A good friend once asked that there be only funny songs at her funeral; she had even picked them out. She wanted to direct the audience to laugh, only laugh, and never cry at her death. Her motivation made sense, at least to her. But one of her closest friend sat with her, listened to the whole proposal, and then said, quite simply, but with an truthful authority that changed everything: “You cannot forbid me to cry. I love you and I will miss you, and I will cry.”
The memorial of Easter remembers a death by torture, and no uplifting song will erase that reality. Mortal bodies can be tortured until they shriek, until they beg, until they collapse, until they die. This scene remembers that.
But the memorial in this scene also remembers resurrection, together with the horrifying death
The two are linked, inseparable.
Christian theology has woven its most elaborate theologies around this pairing of death and life. Some of those theologies sound to me like relics of eras long-gone. Some sound like attempts to deny the reality of the death, or even (sometimes, as in the case of some extreme mutations of the theology of the cross) to deny life. Some just sound odd and unpersuasive, at least to me. And some have an elegance that is inspiring, maybe to anybody.
But just for now, leave those theologies, elegant and otherwise, to the side for another day.
For now, look at the scene
Imagine what it would take for the mortal bodies in the scene to memorialize that death and that resurrection. The mortal bodies that are there are women. There are three with names: the Magdalene Mary, Johanna, and another Mary who is somehow related to someone named Jacob. But there are others with them, possibly a great many others, and the context clearly implies that they had come with Jesus out of Galilee, all of them together, all of them women. Perhaps when the daughters of Jerusalem wept for Jesus as he was led out to be tortured and killed, perhaps this group from Galilee joined in the weeping. They have come into this scene together to do for Jesus’ mortal body what Joseph of Arimathea had not done when he laid the body in the tomb without the spices that would spare visitors the smell of decaying flesh. Women were in charge of giving the mortal body, once a vital member of the community, the dignity of not smelling like carrion. Perhaps Joseph was out of his depth here, so it was good that the women saw where he laid the body.
But what does resurrection do to the bodies of these women?
They come to the tomb with the spices they will give as a gift to both the dead and the living. What does it do to their bodies to hear of resurrection? The death was not something they could simply stride across, but resurrection might have made it impossible for some of them to stand. Death and life do not fit together like that. They do not succeed each other in that order: death follows life, not the other way around. Reversing the order disrupts everything.
Just how disruptive this is may be seen when the women carry the news to the apostles. English translations say that the apostles thought the women’s news was an “idle tale.” The Greek says that they thought it was “women’s trifles,” and then they probably “mansplained” to them how such things could never happen, as if women who had washed and perfumed the dead bodies of parents, siblings, and their own children (in all likelihood) might not understand the irreversibility of death.
Maybe the apostles were, in fact, exactly right (though not intentionally)
These women know how real death is. Maybe only women could ever establish remembrance of death and life together.
Before you preach or teach this scene, explore what news of resurrection will have done to these bodies who know death the way they would have known it: as a physical reality that involves washing a cooling body, arranging an inert body, and wrapping it with perfumes chosen to cover the smell of putrefaction. Do not preach or teach this scene so that resurrection will only make sense to the gullible. Do not preach or teach this scene until you can take death as seriously as these women will have learned to take it.
Before you preach or teach this scene, explore what it would mean to hold death and life together in the same act of remembrance.