Saturday, March 30, 2013

Laying with the Dead

I spent some time as a hospital chaplain in between the times that I served in full-time congregational ministry and teaching at the university level.  The period was about four years, and I could share some stories with you that would likely turn even the most stout-hearted reader of this meager weblog pale.  Not all of those nights, however, were traumatic.  In fact, some were quite funny. . .or could have been.  I remember one evening when the Emergency Room was slammed with patients, and I was finding it difficult to retire to my on-call room for some sleep.  Sensing a lull in the action, I asked the charge nurse if I could crash in one of the empty overflow rooms.  At least I would be close by if and when something came up.  Fortunately the lull lasted long enough for the hardworking nurses and physicians to get their work completed and for me to get some much-needed sleep.  However, I did wonder what the reaction would be if someone had accidently entered that room and found someone laying on a stretcher covered up with a sheet.

Another part of pastoral care in a hospital, of course, is ministering in times of death and grief.  There is no cookie-cutter approach to this area of ministry.  Although I consider myself somewhat of an expert in this field, my only piece of worthy advice is simply to be present with those who are mourning.  And, sometimes, that means being literally present with the one who has died.  In one particular instance, I was asked by a family to stay with the patient’s body until the funeral home attendants could arrive.  The family had traveled some distance to our facility, and it would also be several hours before those from the funeral home could come and collect the body.  Knowing the hospital policy for ushering the bodies of patients to the morgue after a certain amount of time, I informed the family that I could not stay with the body the entire time.  This brought about some concern from the family.  They were simply afraid of leaving their loved one alone.  It’s an irrational thought, I know; yet it was a legitimate thought.  Ministry, it seems, occurs most often in those moments.  So I agreed to sit with the body as long as I could, which was satisfactory.  The family departed peacefully, waiting their eventual reunion with this loved one.

As I sat there in the room with this covered body, I began to think about the time that Jesus spent in the tomb.  The accounts of Jesus’ death in Mark and Luke inform us that the bodies of those crucified had to be removed from their crosses before sunset in order to avoid a violation of their civic and religious customs (Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54-55).  Jesus’ body was removed from the cross, wrapped in the appropriate burial clothing, and placed in a sealed tomb that was guarded by a contingent of soldiers (Matthew 27:57-66).  Have you ever wondered what happened between the setting of the sun on Good Friday and the rising of the sun on Easter Sunday?  To be honest, we have no idea what happened.  Some have suggested, based on Peter’s curious comment that Jesus preached to those who were imprisoned in the Underworld (1 Peter 3:18-20).  However, as Allen Black notes, whatever that passage means, it is unlikely that this has anything to do with Jesus’ “three days in the tomb.”[

So what exactly are we supposed to do with the Saturday in-between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?  In one of his more famous sermons, Tony Campolo proclaimed that we should not mourn for long on Friday because “Sunday’s coming!”  And I certainly agree with him.  Sunday, the day of resurrection, is coming.  Yet, what are we to do with Saturday?  Perhaps John Mark Hicks, in his post from yesterday (Friday) said it best:

Saturday, however, is a lonely day.  Death has won.  Hope is lost.  Jesus of Nazareth lies in a tomb.  His disciples are afraid, hiding, and deeply depressed.  Everything they had invested in for the past three years seems pointless now.   They forsook their Master; they lost faith in that moment.  They are leaderless, hopeless, and aimless. 

Holy Saturday is the day we sit by the grave.  It is the day to feel the gloom of the grave, to face the reality of death itself.  It is a day to weep, fast and mourn. . . .Holy Saturday reminds me to grieve, to lament.  It reminds me to rail against death, the enemy of both God and humanity.  It reminds to protest death and renew my hatred for it.  It reminds to feel again and sit with the disciples in their despair.[2]

Perhaps there is not much we can say except this—sit and wait; pray and lament; be angry at Death and hope for the best.  For the moment, it would seem, we must be quiet, be still, for we have nothing else to say.

[1]Allen Black and Mark Black, 1 & 2 Peter, College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Co., 1998), 102.
[2]John Mark Hicks, “Holy Saturday…Lest We Forget,”; accessed 29 March 2013.

No comments: