AND WAS BURIED
by Melanie Bettinelli
I am reckoned as one in the tomb;
I have reached the end of my strength
like one alone among the dead;
like the slain lying in their graves;
like those you remember no more,
cut off, as they are, from your hand.
You have laid me in the depths of the tomb
in places that are dark, in the depths.
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When I was growing up I somehow received the impression that all the specific details about Our Lord’s life and death that were not recorded in the Gospels were lost in the mists of time and there was no way we could really know for sure where exactly things happened. Any claims that we did know were pious custom at best, superstition at worst.
But I was wrong. We do know. And while he was in Jerusalem last month, Cardinal Sean celebrated Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the consecration actually taking place at the altar inside the empty tomb where Jesus was buried and from which he rose. I was moved almost to tears seeing the videos and photographs that Dom’s colleague, George Martell, who was covering the pilgrimage for the New Media office, sent back. Go, look. Listen to Cardinal Sean’s homily, it won’t take long.
There’s that. There’s the tomb. Evidence. A reminder.
He was buried.
He was buried. Joseph of Arimethea and the women took his body down from the cross and buried it in a tomb. In that tomb. That place, right there. That tiny space, so small only five people at a time could squeeze in, so that the concelebrating priests had to stand outside, so small an opening that Cardinal Sean had to duck and stoop to enter. Go, look. There, where now there is an altar. There his body lay from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning.
There his body lay. Dead. No longer was his soul there. Tradition has it that he descended to the dead, that he went to free Adam and Eve and all the patriarchs and prophets and holy men and women who had died before him. But while his soul was ransacking hell, his body lay there, lifeless, in the tomb.
And there, in the tomb, in that space, something happened. The greatest miracle ever. That lifeless body was resurrected. This, this is the moment on which the whole edifice of the Christian faith is built. That place is where it happened.
But that is a meditation for another day. Right now I just want to think about that tomb, that place.
Two years ago I found my girls, then four and three, playing a game in which they pretended to be in the Tomb with Jesus. I was surprised and delighted to find that they were meditating on the mystery of his burial in the particular way that children do meditate (thank you, Maria Montessori and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for helping me to understand how children’s play is form of lectio divina, a meditation on the Word they have received.) The two of them crouched in my pre dieu and chanted: “I’m in the tomb with Jesus. I’m in the tomb with Jesus.”
At that moment I truly felt I was in the tomb. Everything was so dark and I could see no way out.
But oh how the memory of their chanting voices cheered me for they reminded me that even in the tomb I am not alone. He has been there too. He too has felt abandoned and isolated. He too has felt profound loneliness. He too has felt deserted by God, his plea for help answered only with a no. No, this cup will not pass from you, you must drink it to the bitter end.
My daughters lead me to places I would not otherwise have ventured. What does it mean for me to share in his burial? What does it mean to be in the tomb with Jesus? Not just in the empty tomb after the fact, but there with him. Lifeless, waiting for new life. The strange liquid self of the creature that was once a caterpillar and will one day be a butterfly but now is a sort of soup, hidden in the tomb of the chrysalis.
The other day an ad on Facebook caught my eye. I think it was a hospital soliciting donors with the lure of making a donation in memory of a loved one “who has passed.” I complained on Facebook, “I really hate the euphemism “passed.” Why can’t we just say someone “died”?” But I really wasn’t sure why it bugged me so much. I started to feel almost silly when friends began to explain why they use it, an interesting variety of reflections on death:
I think passed sounds almost more Christian. I know it doesn’t have to sound that way, but died sounds like a final end whereas passed sounds like just another step to something else. In that sense, it might be more comforting as a reminder that there is something more after death.
My mother is Thai, and the parallel euphemism in Thai is a word that can mean “turned” or “spoiled” (e.g. the milk turned), or broken, or wasted. The word is not used for animals – only human deaths. Similarly, we say in English that animals die, but only people “pass away.” So I take such euphemisms as recognition that human deaths are distinct from the death of just any animal.
I often say, when referring to my deceased relatives, that they have passed. To me, they have passed; past the physical. I can’t say they died, b/c death seems like a very final term to use when an organic body expires. The energy of the person, the spirit doesn’t die with the body. Plus, the nitrogen is good for the soil and feeds the still living plants, carrying on that life. In my opinion, we don’t die, our casing expires.
Perhaps what makes me uncomfortable with “passed” is that seems to express a desire to skip over the grim fact of the tomb and leap right into contemplation of the resurrection, of new life and new hope. Even for non-Christians there’s an intimation of immortality and a shying away from the grimness of death. We don’t want to think about that dead body. (I’m tempted to add something from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: “Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with the lid on it?”)
And yet. I don’t think we should be so quick to turn away.
Burial of the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy. It’s the last service we can give to a person, to pay respect to the physical remains. For the Catholic, it’s an acknowledgment that the body is a supreme work of the Creator and also a temple of the Holy Spirit. It’s an acknowledgement too that our bodies are not merely shells which hold our selves but are in fact an integral part of that self. I don’t want to anticipate too much the section of the Creed that deals with the resurrection of the body, but these two parts of the Creed are linked of course. We believe in the bodily resurrection of the dead—not merely an eternal life as a disembodied spirit—because we believe that our selves are both body and soul. And if God became Man then that body, which grew from a single cell in the womb of the blessed Virgin, is now forever a part of God. That body which lay in the tomb for three days.
Finally, I think of the holy women, the myrrhbearers, who went to anoint his body in the tomb. What an act of love that care for the body. To prepare a body for burial and to commit it to the grave are tasks that in current day America we delegate to professionals. But it used to be an act of love performed by family and friends. An intimate act that in the hypothetical at least I think I’d almost rather not delegate to strangers.
Likewise the act of actual burial. I remember when my grandmother died how disconcerted I was by the fact that the actual burial happens after the mourners are gone. I’m had read about the practice of some cultures where the loved ones help to put the dirt on top of the coffin. It seems as if that small, physical act of burial is akin to many other physical acts of service we perform for our loved ones. As a mother who spends much of my days tending the bodily needs of my family, the idea of burial as a bodily need appeals to me. Changing diapers can be unpleasant and yet it is my job. One I might sometimes wish I could delegate, but which on second thought I’m happy to do as an act of loving service. And if one day I have the sad task of burying one of my loved ones, I think I’d rather do that unpleasant job myself, one last physical act of service.
Yes, I’d rather stand by the grave and dump the dirt on the coffin. I’d rather see it happen than walk away from the nicely hidden site, where the “unpleasantness” of dirt is hidden by fake green grass.
It’s the echo of that act of burial that I see when I visit a Jewish cemetery, like the one where my mother-in-law’s father is buried, and see the small stones placed on top of the grave markers. It is a symbolic participation in the act of burial.
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He was buried. This is the end, the fullness, of what it means that He became man and pitched his tent among us. It meant that at the end of his life, after he had suffered death, his body was placed in a tomb. He shared with us the fate that is common to all mankind. Our God is not a God who is indifferent to our suffering and death. No,he is not distant from us, he is not deaf to our cries when we commit our loved ones to the earth. He is there with them, sealed in the tomb. He knows. He is there in the grim horror of it all.
Death, where is thy victory? Grave where is thy sting?
I’ll end I suppose with this meditation from St. Ephrem, used in the Office of Readings on Friday in the Octave of Easter:
Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death. Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.
Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strong-room and scattered all its treasure.
He was buried so that there will be nowhere that we can go—no, not even into the halls of Death—where he is not present. And if we join him in the tomb we will surely rise again with him.
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keep us united with your Son
in his death and burial
so that we may rise to new life with him,
who lives and reigns forever and ever.
(concluding prayer from Compline for Friday
What are your thoughts? What else can we learn from “and was buried”?
Melanie Bettinelli is a very tired mother of five little ones who begs pardon if her words fail to make any sense at all.
Read all the entries in the Blog Series: Credo: Professing the Creed for the Year of Faith.