I don’t know about you all, but I for one am enjoying this fall weather. The fallen leaves giving off a golden glow, as one by one they turn the trees into skeletal silhouettes against the Autumn sun hanging in the sky like a bowl of burning fire; as the crispness of the air and the apples bring out the sweetness of the season, the plumpness of the pumpkins and the tartness of the cider refresh our sight and smell with a feast for the senses. Yet despite this scenic season, when we slow down to consider what Autumn actually is, it is really the early, on setting days of death.
Summer is done, the crops are harvested and what’s left are dry, withered shells and browned, crumpled stalks; the lifeless leaves cover our lawns awaiting bagging and burning. The warm air is fading away as the cold is setting in. Everything is going through a kind of death. But for those of us who understand how seasons affect agriculture, we know this autumn death we’re now witnessing, and later in Winter, is really just giving shape to what will become life later in the Spring and Summer. Whether it’s leaves, weeds, and seeds decomposing to fertilize the soil or the rains and snow adding moisture, it is death at work cultivating life.
Jesus himself incorporated this picture prior to his crucifixion; in a moment leading up to the “last supper”, Jesus told his disciples “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Death is often an uncomfortably grim topic; it feels so final and absolute. But Jesus’ death, as he illustrates in his comment, is only the beginning of something better. His death is the fertilization of a whole new season of life and fruitfulness. Christ-on-the-cross is cultivation of new creation. He is the root that gives fruit for a whole new vintage of salvation.
Much like our Autumn season, his is a beautiful death, one that put his glorious worth and value on display for all the world to behold and be saved.
As we stroll through these days and weeks of Autumn, let the beautiful death of this scenic season remind you of the life that is being given shape and how in Christ Jesus Life springs anew in each of us as we remember and rejoice in his resurrection bringing forth Life from a lifeless season.
“I don’t want to die before I’m dead”. It’s a thought I seem to keep encountering.
At the risk of digressing into all manner of generalizing examples of how our lives could fit that statement, suffice it to say that in our fallen world, death and its despairing degenerative darkness contaminates how we think, how we observe and interpret, how we respond, how we hope. Our perceptions of reality are so dampened with drudgery and disappointment on what seems like a daily basis, it’s barely surprising anymore if we do “die” before we’re actually dead. Despair or apathy can often seem to be reality’s only consistent state.
Such was the mindset of the women approaching Jesus’ tomb on the Sunday morning after Passover. They had followed him through villages, heard him teach, saw him heal, began believing he was Messiah, anticipated a political shift during Passover—suddenly, he was dead. No longer alive, no longer a hope, just a dead friend in a dead place. As they approached this place to preserve their friend’s remains, the death within this dark enclosure mirrored the grim, grieving reality dominating their minds. Reality, however, had just changed.
Finding the large tombstone rolled away and Jesus’ body gone, “two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?”
The angels ask this question as if it is they who are truly surprised, perhaps, that living is no longer an adjective resonating with the women’s perception of Jesus. A great many of us go through life as if Jesus is still “among the dead”; not a “living One”, but a memory of one who lies decaying in our minds like the ragged remnants of the worn out cultural Christianity we utilize just to get us through the day. Snatching us from a darkness masquerading as light, the angels’ question both calls our despairing tendencies into question and declares the one single truth that defies such despair—Jesus lives. It’s as if they’re asking “Why are you still holding to an old, dead reality when a new, living one is now what is true and must be inhabited?”
Having declared “He is not here, but He has risen”, the angels then connect the women’s returning hopes to what Jesus had been saying all along: “’Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ And they remembered His words.”
In his predictions, Jesus never denied the darkness he was about to enter; but he did defy its finality. He told them beforehand he was coming back, wanting their faith to defy reality’s darkness. Like their father, Abraham, Jesus wanted his followers to contemplate his own dead body, “yet, with respect to the promise of God…not waver in unbelief but [grow] strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.”
Life disappoints on a daily basis, creating diminishing patterns of thought and habit—cynicisms, self-pity, despair, apathy—that can beat us and our perceptions into hopeless submission. But within this reality lived “among the dead”, there is also a “living One” whose followers “will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”
Every step we’ve taken this week toward Good Friday is also a step towards Resurrection Sunday; keep walking forward, embodying Jesus’ resurrection in your own life. The reality of Jesus’ resurrection breathes new life into this story we’re often tempted to give up on, raising us from the dead long before we actually die. Holding fast to Jesus’ words and walking forward in that faith keeps us rooted in his resurrection, connected to a Life that takes us to and through the darkness and, ultimately, on and beyond.