It’s something I’ve witnessed a few times in my life when working in hospitals. Generally, it’s happened something like this. A person has a heart attack and a team of people rush in with a defibrillator. After frantic treatment, the person is stabilized. In some cases, the person’s heart appeared to have stopped but they were resuscitated. Sometime later, as chaplain or pastoral minister, I’ve been able to talk with people about the experience of being brought back to life.
I’ve never had anyone tell me that during this experience that they saw a white light or experienced other “near death” events when being revived in this way. Some have spoken about being aware of everything that happened to them and around them. Others have little memory of it at all.
In contrast, there have been other times when people have told me about near death experiences, of traveling down a tunnel, seeing a white light, and being told to return to life. Whatever happened, it was very real to them. Ultimately, they returned to the lives they had been living. Perhaps they had some new insights about the lives they were leading, but essentially they returned to a typical way of life with relationships, work, and hobbies.
As I think of the experiences I’ve shared with others about life after near death, I wonder: how does one make sense of the Christian belief in the resurrection? What does it mean to celebrate Easter and the mystery of Jesus rising to new life? Is this idea of resurrection just a way to avoid the reality of death?
As I think back over my education, something about this concept of resurrection has stayed with me. One of my first theology professors made a particular point repeatedly and emphatically: resurrection is not resuscitation. At the time I thought, “Well, yeah. That just makes sense.” As I’ve matured and had more life experience, particularly as I’ve lost family members, close friends, and acquaintances to the reality of death, this seemingly obvious distinction became more relevant to me. Indeed, people die. They won’t return to share the life we knew together. They won’t be resuscitated and continue on with their lives as those who are resuscitated after heart attacks or following near death experiences. Nor do I believe that one day an angel will play some version of reveille and bodies will pop out of the ground to stand at attention. That’s not resurrection but some sci-fi version of religious reanimation. Instead, like the words of a liturgical prayer, in the new life of resurrection, “life has changed, not ended.”
The mystery of the resurrection celebrated by Christians at Easter is not about resuscitation or reanimation. Instead, it’s about new life, a different life, a life that’s somehow changed but yet continues on. This isn’t an avoidance of death. The fact is that Jesus died and was buried. Similarly, we each will die and our bodies are likely to be buried or cremated. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Life as we have known it will no longer continue. There’s no denying the reality of death.
Yet, on the first day of a new week after the death of Jesus, on the day that marked a new beginning, the followers of Jesus experienced a new kind of life, a new kind of presence, and new dimension that was the life of Jesus. The gospel stories tell us that at first the disciples didn’t recognize what was happening. In the graveyard, Mary thought she was speaking to the gardener; on the road to Emmaus, the two travelers thought they were speaking to a stranger; along the shore of the lake, Jesus needed to prove that he wasn’t some sort of ghost. He wasn’t the same, but there was something of his life that continued in a new way. These Biblical stories encapsulate what the Christian tradition understands about the new life of the resurrection of Jesus.
At Easter, we affirm the belief that life doesn’t end. Instead, there’s something new and different on the other side of death. It’s not life as we know it day to day, but it’s something new.
At best, I can only offer a comparison to the essence of this new life. In my back yard, there is a small memorial garden in remembrance of my mother who died about two years ago. One of the plants growing there originated in my mother’s garden. Perhaps thirty years ago, one of my friends visited my mother and got a tour of my mother’s garden. My mother gave her seed pods from a flowering plant. My friend planted those pods in her own garden and they grew and blossomed. At my mother’s burial, my friend brought some of those flowers and laid them on her coffin to be lowered into the ground with my mother. In turn, my friend gave me pods from that plant for the memorial garden. Today, that plant once grown by my mother continues to live on, yet it’s not the same plant. The plant my mother grew died long ago, killed by frost and buried in snow. But something of its essence has continued through the seed pods that brought new life. For this plant, life had changed, not ended. Life became something new and spread from my mother’s garden to numerous other gardens.
What does this mean for us? I can’t exactly be sure what all it means. Yet, it offers me hope by recognizing that life changes but does not end. In this spring time of blossoms and new buds, on a holiday decorated with eggs and chocolate bunnies, I can affirm that there is something mysterious about the design of life that it continues to change, but it doesn’t end. At Easter, I take delight in a belief that somehow I, too, will experience life in a new way. How? I don’t know. It’s a mystery. But affirming it, I join the ancient chorus and sing, “Alleluia!”
© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.