The Empty T(W)omb: When Resurrection is Hard
A meditation for Labyrinth Progressive Student Ministry, Easter Sunday 4 21 19
The types of conversations had in birthing centers don’t tend to happen elsewhere. Talk about how much your cervix has dilated, your milk supply, and whether you want to save your placenta---these things don’t just come up in casual conversation. Some of the birth stories told among the women hanging out in these centers, with their soundproof walls and birthing balls, no one would believe anyway. Stories of struggle and triumph, anxiety and andrenaline, joy and pain.
Birthing centers are gateways on the threshhold between this life and whatever lies before it and beyond. And they are inhabited by women. Across time and cultures, women have so often been the ones to welcome new lives into the world...and also the ones to prepare bodies for their final resting place, ushering loved ones from life into death and from life to new life.
Women know how to linger in the liminal space between life and death, ready to receive the mysteries that unfold there. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that it is women who are entrusted with the good news of resurrection. At least on the first Day of Resurrection.
For many millenia since then, women have not been allowed to preach the Good News from many official pulpits, and when we have been, our telling of it has often been edited and policed in order to be palatable to the men in power: Don’t talk too much about the messiness of the cross or the liberation of the tomb. The lived experiences of women have often been sidelined or silenced by the preachers and theologians of the Church, and relegated to spaces just for women...like beauty parlors and birthing centers. Why is this?
These are the thoughts I was pondering a couple of weeks ago as I started to imagine what I would say in an Easter sermon. “What will I talk about? I’ve been on maternity leave for two months. All I’ve been doing is taking care of a baby!”
And then it came to me: If men can make sports analogies and tell Dad jokes in sermons, why can’t my postpartum experience be fodder for theological reflection?
Women’s reproductive lives tend to be seen as too taboo for discussion in mixed company, but it doesn’t make any sense really, because our experiences are the stuff of life and death. And isn’t that what we’re here to talk about, especially on Easter?
So let’s talk about the women who have tried ceaselessly to conceive but have not yet born a child, the 1 in 4 women who have conceived and had a miscarriage, the inordinate amount of Texas women who die from complications related to childbirth. Did you know that Texas’ maternal mortality rate resembles that of countries with far less wealth and resources? And did you know that black women are 3X more likely to die from a childbirth complication than white women? This is the stuff of life and death. And yet we walk around speaking these things in hushed tones, so as not to offend anyone who finds them too personal or too problematic to say them out loud in church.
If, like me, you are fortunate to deliver a healthy baby with your own physical health relatively intact, there may still be things people don’t want you to say out loud. Like how, after two babies now, your vagina may heal, but it will never look quite the same. Neither will your soul.
Birthing a baby and keeping an infant alive, like resurrection, are all-consuming. They leave marks on your flesh and your spirit. And the postpartum period, like the post-resurrection one, is a journey toward accepting and embodying the self made new.
Your identity has changed...
Your body has changed...
Your relationships have changed...
Your roles and routines have changed…
This is true for every woman who’s ever given birth, and it was true for the living Christ.
It’s also true for anyone who has transitioned in their gender identity.
Or lost or gained a lot of weight.
Or become more or less able-bodied.
So how do we navigate these changes in such a way that we can accept and embody our truest, deepest selves?
Most Easter sermons I’ve heard or preached have focused on what it was like for the disciples to encounter the risen Christ, but this past week, I’ve been wondering how resurrection felt for Jesus. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be figuring out---how to live a resurrected life, not just celebrate one that happened two millenia ago?
I wonder, what did it feel like to have a body that was tranformed, yet still bearing the wounds of crucifixion?
What was it like for Jesus to encounter friends who didn’t recognize him at first?
Did Jesus grieve having to say goodbye to his friends when he ascended into heaven?
We tend to think that the hardest part of Holy Week is the trauma and tragedy of Good Friday, or the waiting and worrying of Holy Saturday. And those ARE hard. But maybe the hardest part is living a resurrected life beyond Sunday. It is not an easy thing to be raised from the dead, to live a life defined by love over hate, courage over fear, and engagement over apathy. Surely if it were that easy, we would all be doing a better job of it, and the world we find ourselves in wouldn’t be so filled with violence.
As you can tell, I have a lot of questions. And I think underneath all of these particular questions is a giant overarching one: Can we handle resurrection? Can I handle resurrection? Not just Jesus’, but my own. It’s like Stevie Nicks asks in her iconic song, “Landslide:”
Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides
Can I handle the seasons of my life
Can we handle resurrection? Our unfolding lives are one answer to this big question, but the promise of Easter is that the answer can be a resounding, “Yes!” Yes, you are up to the challenge! Yes, you are enough. Yes, you can do hard things. Yes, you can be made whole.”
It really matters who we follow and model our lives after. It matters that we follow Jesus, faithful friend of the outcast and oppressed, versus tyrant kings and presidents. But this has always been the promise of God, even before Jesus came on the scene---that we are enough, that we can do hard things, that we can be made whole. Isaiah 65:23 promises that our labor, both the kind women do in the delivery room and the kind we all do to live a courageous life, will not be in vain.
Christ is risen. Alleluia.
65:17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
65:18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
65:19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
65:20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
65:21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
65:22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
65:23 They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD-- and their descendants as well.
65:24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
65:25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent--its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.
Rev. Amelia Fulbright is Founding Minister and Director of Labyrinth Progressive Student Ministry, a student church at The University of Texas in Austin. She spent part of her childhood in Zambia, Africa and part in North Carolina, making her the daughter both of the American South and the global South. In addition to being a pastor, Amelia previously has worked in community mental health services in Cincinnati, OH and as a domestic violence crisis counselor in Austin. She has a wide range of interests, including a special affinity for feminist theologies, contemplative practices, holistic medicine, and bluegrass music. She is also happily married and enjoys being a mother to her two young, spirited children.