Sunday, May 08, 2011

Gone to Hell

Grief and Easter

Luke 24:36b-48

It is easy to forget, when we are two weeks past Easter Day, that despite all our trumpeting of the resurrection of Jesus, Easter begins in an experience of profound grief. Not only is the crucifixion the background and necessary prelude to resurrection, but between Good Friday and Easter Day there is a descent into hell. I am not talking about a mythological notion of Jesus going to hell on Holy Saturday and preaching to the dead—whether he did that or not is neither mine to argue nor the point I wish to make. Rather I am talking about the hell that is thorough loss of the divine companion, hell that is total loss of knowing what to do, hell that is the gut-wrenching grief that rises up with a metallic taste in the mouth about a day after the funeral when the fact that he or she is no longer living begins to sink in. Say “alleluia” all you want, and it won’t make hell go away, not if death is real and not if grief breaks your heart.

Tempting as it is to gloss over such painful stuff and certainly to keep it out of any sermon whose purpose is in part to convince you that faith pays dividends—just you wait and see—we need to stick with hell for awhile just to make sure we are being ruthlessly honest. So it is to Luke’s gospel that we turn today to get a glimpse of this profound grief that Jesus’ community is going through in the wake of his horrible execution. Cleopas and his companion are headed to Emmaus, presumably their home. Back to business as usual, just as in John’s gospel Peter says after it is all over, “I’m going fishing.” Back to the familiar, except that instead of filling the void, home is in this instance more like the place where we crash when there is nowhere else to go.

Two disciples they are, on the road and talking about all the things that had transpired. This is what humans do, particularly in the aftermath of tragedy, but then, really, all the time. I sometimes wish it were different, but I doubt that it ever is going to be. When Bin Laden is captured and killed, we have to have day after day after day of stories about what happened, how it happened, how it didn’t happen, how it happened differently from how it was first related to have happened, how it should have happened but didn’t, how it might have happened. And the story keeps changing. That is not only a function of news media, it is the way human beings consistently make sense of the world. We work something over and over again, trying to get it to fit a narrative framework wherein it can possibly make some sense. We tell ourselves things such as, “Everything happens for a reason,” and, “There is something to be learned from all this,” though we do not know what the reason might be nor what it is that we should learn from it all. That is what the two disciples are doing as they walk along.

A stranger appears so subtly that the two seem not to notice anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes strangers do such things—on the bus, for example. They seem to be reading their novel or diddling with their phone, oblivious to the world around them; yet sometimes one will interject a comment into what would seem to be an utterly private conversation. It might or might not fit, and it might or might not be welcome. “What things are you talking about?” the Stranger asks. When you are grieving, you imagine that the world must register what seems to you to be a seismic event. They stop, looking sad.

“Are you the only stranger…?” Cleopas finally asks. Stranger. Must be one of the people who has been in Jerusalem for Passover and is now, like them, returning home.

“What things?” asks the Stranger. Thus begins a conversation. It is a great story, because we know more than the two disciples. We know who the Stupendous Stranger is, and thus we anticipate a moment of revelation when the Stranger’s identity will be disclosed. Luke lets us overhear the conversation. The Stranger gives his fellow travelers the space to tell their tale, their version of the events.

“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they say, giving a hint of their sorrow.

He upbraids them for being so foolish, so slow to believe. That might have tipped them off at once, since Jesus has at least in parts of the gospels a reputation for upbraiding disciples for their lack of faith and their slowness to believe. But, of course, the story is not quite ready for the climax. We have a way to go, and so do the disciples, who have not yet arrived home, and in any case, are kept from perceiving who the Stranger is because their eyes frankly can’t behold the mystery.

That, too, is one of the ways grief works. We simply don’t see clearly when the world has stopped turning and the birds have hushed singing. Of course it could be quite the opposite. Sometimes when grief is intense we imagine that the dead are right before our eyes—indeed there are stories galore of how they do appear as clear as day. It is hard then to know the difference between what is real and what is imaginary.

“Won’t you stay with us?” the disciples ask. This is not Washington, DC, where it would be fine to say thank you and goodbye and walk on one’s way. This is the Near East, and the Ancient Near East at that, where hospitality suggests, if does not dictate, asking a conversation partner to supper at nightfall. He makes as if to be going—in retrospect one wonders exactly why—but they insist. In a minute we will know why they are so insistent. But first, this strong urging on their part sets up the scene for the climax. Somehow—we are not told how—the guest becomes the host. Suddenly he is the one not being served, but in the role of taking, blessing, breaking and giving the bread. And that is the all-important moment. Immediately the disciples’ eyes are opened and they recognize who the Stranger is. This is what must happen for hell to be vanquished. And, frankly, it seems impossible that that something could ever come to pass. It is nothing less than a revelation of the Risen Jesus himself.

Why had they insisted so strongly that the Stranger come stay with them? Because their hearts had burned within them as they listened to him expound and interpret the Scriptures. His had been the words that had not only opened their grief but began to make some sense out of what seemed nonsense. Little wonder that they were not eager to let go of him! And of all the things that both make Christianity appealing and at the same time threatening, it is this peculiar mystique of Jesus. Not everyone experiences it, of course. There are some to whom Jesus is little more than a historical figure, a dead hero from ages past, or even as Algernon Charles Swinburne once called him, “A Pale Galilean,” with whose breath the world has grown grey. But for countless others, he is not dead but living, not pale but robust. And there is nothing theoretical about resurrection. It is a present reality, just as he is a present reality. How is it that we can go with the heaviest heart to the Table, hear again the story of what he did on the night in which he was betrayed, and do those four familiar things—take bread, bless bread, break bread, and give bread—and find ourselves healing on levels we cannot explain in ways we cannot quantify? How is it that a bite of bread and a sip of wine can be so much more than bite and sip—a feast, a wedding of soul and God, a passageway into a parallel universe, a healing of grief, a forgiveness of sin, a taste of something more real than our very flesh and the blood coursing through our veins? Partly, of course, it is that we choose to believe it, and thus it becomes a ballast that gives our lives a kind of steadiness. But partly it is that when we have gone the distance we can go with rational thought, we come to the great abyss of mystery. We either stare into it paralyzed and disbelieving, or we step forward into the fog, sure that we will either cross the chasm by grace, or fall into it and ironically find ourselves finally at home with the universe and the universe’s God. There is no explaining mystery, no justifying it, no rationalizing it. Like all the states we know well enough but cannot explain—such as love in a time of fear and courage in the face of annihilation—the simple Supper served by the Stunning Stranger persistently renews us, we know not why.

Yet that is the way that hell keeps being conquered, the way grief keeps being healed, the way we keep growing beyond the boundaries we erect to keep ourselves safe and sane and usually stunted, too. Just about the time we can say, “Ah! Jesus! It’s you after all!” he vanishes from sight, and we are left to ponder the mystery, usually second-guessing ourselves and wondering if we were taken in by some sleight-of-hand by the Trickster in our own mind.

Then is the hour we need to get up, go find some other disciples, share with them what we have experienced, and entertain the possibility that the Resurrection is for real, again and again and again. No one can convince you to do it. But once you invite the Stranger into conversation, you’ll find yourself exclaiming, “Did not our hearts burn within us?” And even when he eludes you, that burning will suffice.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

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