I don’t remember when I first heard the hypothetical theological question, maybe when I was in seminary. The question was posed, “If archeologists went back and discovered the tomb and found the body, what difference would it make in your faith. I hadn’t thought about the question in years, but recently it came to mind. I was taking a long walk on the coast of Ecuador and ended up wandering down a dusty road in a small town around noon. The town was empty, maybe because the residents were out gathering fishing nets or working in the fields; who knows. There was a big church on the street that drew me in because on the cross atop the steeple two huge buzzards were perched. I wanted to get a better look, but I could see the arched thick wooden front doors were locked with heavy chains. All the glassless windows had wrought iron vertical bars covering them, so the best I could do was hold on to the bars, and peer into the grey, unlit chancel. The silent sanctuary looked completely abandoned. The only one left in the church was Jesus, hanging life-size on the cross above the altar. It looked as though he had been hanging there for a hundred years. At first glance, with buzzards, locked doors, and old dusty crucifixes, the whole scene looked like death incarnate. The question of what would you do if they found the body popped into my head and transformed into other versions of the same issue, “What if death has the last word?” “What if Good Friday was all there was?” “What if God was done after the death of love?’ “What if in grieving people we love dearly, there is no hope of resurrection?”
Death is powerful to be sure. It is as ominous and foreboding as buzzards on a steeple overhead. It is so powerful it seems like it seals the stone over the tomb and kills that which we hold most dear. That church looked like death to me, and it scared me to look at it. It was symbolic of all the places in our world and in us that feel hopeless. It feels like sometimes in the face of death nothing is left to be said; so we stumble over words at funerals and pretend that is not where we are headed. Death is present in the midst of life and it comes around unexpected turns on roads we travel alone. Death packs a pretty hard punch despite Paul’s conviction in 1Corinthians that it has lost its sting. Standing in places like that church and letting the word of death fill our minds with the possibility that it may have the last word can sink the bravest hearts. Mary, John and Peter, were almost undone by the fear and power it invokes in our lives and thoughts. To be without the hope of resurrection seems the worst.
There are four versions of the resurrection narratives in the Gospels. The details of each vary, but what is consistent is the way they each begin with a group of grieving women with Mary Magdalene preparing to encounter the body. They head out as soon as the day of preparation is over, packed with spices and all kinds of perfumed oils, the same as those used just a few weeks back. The women are full of grief and in each of the scenes of Easter morning painted for the communities of faith, we get the picture that even when they saw the stone rolled away, they are still looking for the body. The resurrection scene in John’s gospel offers us plenty of questions to ponder; “What if Mary had not looked again?” , “what if Mary went out at dawn, saw the stone rolled away and ran away as far and fast as she could and never looked back? What if John and Peter had not looked into the tomb and seen it empty? What if Mary had not dared to look again and walk through death’s door and weep in the presence of Angels? What if Jesus had not lingered for her?
The realization came like a flash, turned stone to flesh, and spun the question on its heels: “What if it’s real?” What if there is no body?” “What if death doesn’t have the last word?” And in that moment of truth that love has the last word, Mary hears her Lord.
I looked again though the barred windows under the buzzard’s perch with more faithful eyes. Suddenly I could see something else in the old church. There was a series of small, square cloths tied and hung across the front of the church that children had painted with suns, trees, and butterflies, full of love and hope. The string of prayers looked like a rainbow carrying the deepest desires of our hearts to a living and loving savior. There was a vase of flowers set in front of the Blessed Sacrament. There was a dove’s nest in the rafter in the space between the tin roof and concrete wall. Death didn’t begin to have the last word as love was thriving. I just had to look again, not with fear, but with eyes filled with the light of Easter morning. I looked back out towards the street as a beautiful Ecuadorian woman I didn’t see before, the only person visible in the whole town, strolled by, smiled at me and crossed herself in the presence of this Holy Ground just as the buzzards caught an upward draft and ascended.
In the light of Easter morning love has the last word. Buzzards on a cross aren’t a sign of death; they are just two angels standing by an empty tomb. In light of Easter morning, even when we make the grave our bed, we can go down singing “alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” and catch an almost imperceptible draft like buzzards and soar to be with our God. In light of Easter morning we can look again anywhere on God’s green earth and see love.
When death feels like it has all the power, let love be your last word. When there are places in this world and in our lives that look forsaken, let love be your last word. When you are afraid to look again, let love be your last word. When it is hard for you to see for your weeping, let love be your last word. When you see your Lord, let love be your last word.