The word distance is heard very often at present. We are told that what is needed to address the current pandemic is “social distancing”—i.e., keep six feet away when out in public; don’t go out in public unless necessary; don’t hug or shake hands even with family members if they live in another residence; conduct interaction with video technology rather than face-to-face.
Distance may help to stop the spread of the virus. But an involuntary distance from loved ones is unsettling, because it is a small taste of something more permanent. If I am only allowed to speak with my mother via a computer screen, if I cannot be in her presence, then I am already beginning to have a dim awareness of what it would mean to be unable to be in her presence ever again.
It is not an original observation to say that death is experienced by the human being as a kind of unbridgeable distance. The dead can be remembered, but they cannot be seen, or held, or conversed with. And it is not only the distance of dead loved ones that I must think about when I contemplate death, but also my own approaching death. So we try to avoid contemplating it at all. Unless we are standing at a funeral (and perhaps even then), we try to keep our mind on something else, to focus on daily tasks and responsibilities, to distract ourselves with family and friends, who make living good and wonderful.
But an event like this current pandemic (only the most recent of many pandemics that humanity has endured) can bring about circumstances where the question of death cannot be put off any longer. In recent weeks, many have died of this virus without any family members present at their side, because the hospital, in an effort to prevent more infection and more deaths, does not allow anyone but patients to enter the building. No final hug goodbye is possible, no holding of someone’s hand; this is terrifying because it means that the distance of death has, to a certain extent, already begun before the loved one is gone. If I cannot be at your side when you die, then we are already separated.
This serves as a harsh reminder that there is no technology that can substitute for the physical presence of someone. No one who has been forced to say goodbye to a mother, or a husband, or a child on a computer screen or a phone will ever again be fooled by the lie that a “virtual” interaction can substitute for the physical presence of the human body. Images on a screen, the sound of a voice digitized in one place and re-constituted somewhere else, can never pretend to replace the human person, standing there, alive.
This last point brings us to the real topic of this article. The church has just finished celebrating Holy Week and Easter. At a time when people in various nations are dying in a pandemic, it may appear that the celebration of Easter is of relatively minor importance, a ritual to be observed by some, but far smaller than the pressing tasks that must be done to fight the virus. Some things are deemed “essential” even during pandemic, but Easter may seem like an ancient tradition that can wait until the truly urgent matters are dealt with.
But all of this is false. If we (meaning humans, not only those who profess faith in Christ) do not grapple with the question of Easter, then we will never be able to respond adequately to an event like a pandemic, or to other events of death such as war or natural disaster. Nothing can be more urgent, nothing can be more pressing than what is at stake in Easter. We will eventually “contain” the present virus. But death cannot be addressed by a mask, or a vaccine. It cannot be “contained.” Or rather, it cannot be contained by us.
What is the death of a human person? Is it merely the cessation of neurological activity, the shutting down of an organism? Are thoughts and emotions, and the someone who thinks and feels, simply gone when electrochemical events in the brain come to an end? And if death is natural, then why do we grieve the dead, not for days or weeks, but often for the rest of one’s own life? Why is death experienced as something so heart-wrenching? Is it social instinct that causes us to feel disturbed when a member of our own immediate group is taken away, or is there something incomparably more in grief?
One often hears at a viewing or funeral some variation of the refrain: “They are in a better place.” Are they? Are they in a better place? Or are they in a wooden box under the ground? Do we console one another with words we do not believe, not knowing what to say in the face of the finality of the thing? Is it worthwhile to seek a life filled with relationships of love, or would one be better off not to be attached to people that will be taken away? My parents, my siblings, my grandparents, my spouse, my children—all of them will die, some before me and some after. Is it good to have a life filled with people I love? Or would I be better off without these loved ones, as they will all be ripped away in time, or I ripped away from them?
Again, at viewings and funerals one almost invariably hears that “They will always be alive in our memories.” But (and here this article owes a large and obvious debt to Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity) this is an empty promise. I cannot keep the dead alive in my memories, for two reasons. The first is that I myself will not live forever, and my memories will die with me. On the day someone dies, there are many who have memories of them; but when approximately two generations pass, there will be no one alive who remembers. One can have memories of a grandparent, or a great-grandparent; but human lifespans are such that it is nearly impossible to have memories stretching beyond that.
The second reason why the promise is empty is more fundamental: memories are not the person. I may have a clear recollection of my father’s face, or the sound of his laugh, or the things he said; but my brain does not have within it my father. I have images and sounds, and all the emotions these evoke, but I do not have him stored in my brain. And there is a chasm of difference between my memories (even though, to be sure, memories must be cherished) and the person. Indeed, this chasm of difference is the basis for grief in the first place. If memories were enough, if they were sufficient to replace the presence of the person, then we would not grieve. But memories can never be sufficient; they cannot hope to even partially replace the person remembered, because a memory is—by definition—always in the past, whereas a living person stands in the present.
So what are we left with, then? As of this writing, more than two hundred thousand people have died in this current pandemic (leaving aside the many others who have died of non-virus causes during the same time period). Are these thousands simply gone? Are we foolish for having attached ourselves to them in love, for having given over our heart to them, so that when they die we are never the same again? Even if memories cannot keep alive the person, should we cling to our memories nonetheless, because they are the best we’ve got, even if they are no substitute for the real thing? Would it be more realistic, more rational for us to come to terms with death as simply part of the life-cycle of all organisms, and to try as much as possible to accept death, to embrace it and not to grieve?
In reply to all of these questions, the event of Easter speaks quietly, but with greater force than all the noise that tries to drown it out. The One who breaks bread on Thursday is broken and murdered on Friday. He enters the full reality of death. His brain activity has ended; he has become a corpse. Like millions before him, and millions after, he has ceased to be. On Saturday, the universe seems to roll on without him. Those who love him are left with their memories, but he is gone.
And then something happens which is, at once, the hope of every human person who has ever grieved the dead (i.e., that I might see my loved one again), and the unanticipated dawn of a reality more than we are able to comprehend. He does not return in the same manner as Lazarus, or the daughter of Jairus, or the widow’s son at Nain. Yes, he is alive again, visible and audible and utterly real; Thomas can even touch the wound in his side. But he is not only restored. Without ceasing to be human, he is now with his Father, and nothing can take him out of the Father’s hand. The Son has always been loved by the Father in the Spirit; this love has no beginning, and no end. The Resurrection brings the human creature into the triune love, and, without changing the love, we can now enter it through him.
The event of the Resurrection of Jesus makes known to humanity that the distance between those who are alive, and those who are dead, is not unbridgeable for God. He had freely allowed himself to enter death, not because it had power over him as it does over everything else (even the stars have a lifespan), but so that he might break the gates of hell from the inside out. Death cannot hold him (Acts 2:24), and he declares to us—not so much by his words, as by the very fact of his risen presence—that if we remain in him, it cannot hold us, either.
This euangelion is not one piece of Good News alongside of other pieces; it is the only Good News there is. If this news is false, then death finally claims everyone, no matter how we try to hold on to them, and will claim us just as surely, and it is better not to have loved. But if this news is true, then everything takes on a radiant beauty that cannot be dimmed even by war, by genocide, by plague. All pieces of joyful news—a friendship is found, a marriage begins, a child is conceived, a person on the edge of suicide has turned back, a person with very serious illness has recovered—are joyful only if they are illuminated by this News. If death has absolute finality, then I should not allow myself to become attached to family and friends; but if death has been overcome by Life, then I should attach myself even more fiercely, not only to family and friends, but to every person I encounter, since every person is precious and irreplaceable, even if a hundred billion have walked the Earth before.
It was stated above that nothing can be more urgent, nothing more pressing than the question of Easter, even—and perhaps especially—in the midst of something like a pandemic. Everything turns on the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If the Resurrection is a story, a myth meant to symbolize spiritual renewal, if Jesus did not rise in the flesh, then death has an absolute finality for the human being. But if the Resurrection is not a story, if it is an event in the real world (even though this event also transcends the universe itself), then God is stronger than death, and the joys we know in this life, some of which are so overwhelming we cannot imagine anything better, are preparations for a joy that surpasses all our hopes.
Someone might say that to affirm the Resurrection makes the death of a human person seem less significant, because less final. But this is the opposite of the truth: if death is presented as both final and natural, as simply the cessation of neurological activity in an organism, then the death of one human organism gradually comes to seem small, even insignificant, and the value of human life is obscured or denied. But if the Resurrection makes known that God did not create us for a permanent death, but for life with Him, then every person has an indestructible, precious worth, every single death is an enormous event, and every person’s life is worth protecting. The news of Easter is urgently, desperately needed by everyone, in all times and places, including a time of pandemic. Like Mary Magdalene on the first morning, it is the responsibility of those who have heard the news to carry it to everyone who has not heard. He is risen: Alleluia, Alleluia!
Jordan M. Miller is a Core Fellow at Seton Hall University, and a scholar in systematic theology. He resides with his family in New Jersey.