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Resurrection dance
Surgeon imagines the joy of Jesus’ awakening


4/1/2006

Victoria & Albert Museum, London / Art Resource, NY
“The Angels Hovering over the Body of Jesus in the Sepulchre,” watercolor by William Blake (1757-1827), Victoria and Albert Museum, London.   (Victoria & Albert Museum, London / Art Resource, NY)
Have you ever been with a patient who has awakened from surgery and realized that he is alive again?

I have, as both the surgeon and as a patient. Sometimes the simplest things in life, the mere act of awakening from a dreaded and mysterious form of sleep, take on a sacramental quality.

The Easter Vigil is my favorite service of the Christian year. We don’t know when the Resurrection actually occurred. But it must have been sometime during the night – for by dawn the stone had been rolled away.

I have often wondered what it must have been like for Jesus to awaken from his death sleep in the tomb. Of course it is beyond our grasp, but we can have a glimpse, I think, if we put ourselves imaginatively in the place of that patient who undergoes surgery – not sure of the outcome on his awakening. When he awakens, he rejoices at the smallest sign of life. “I am alive.”

It was dead quiet that evening. There were almost no sounds from the city. Those who had clamored for his death followed him to Golgotha and watched the Roman-style execution felt, on reflection, sickened and saddened by what they had seen.

Inside the tomb, a young man wrapped in white burial garments lay in repose. This was a large tomb, a rich man’s family sepulcher, now donated for this sad purpose. A single candle burned. The body had been washed and prepared for burial. There was no bleeding from the wounds in his hands and his feet. The air was heavy with the smell of myrrh and other burial spices.

Silence for a long time. Then, sometime in the middle of the second night, there was a flash of light and a rush of wind. The candle went out, but there was now a phosphorescent glow, which illumined the whole room, and the air was fresh – as though new rain had fallen, and yet it was dry. Something stirred. It was the light sound of a sleeper’s breathing.

The young man opened his eyes. For the longest time he did not move, but gazed at the rock ceiling. He listened to the sound of his own breathing and relished every breath. He looked at his hands. Even with the wounds, they looked beautiful to him. There was no pain. He smiled and let out a deep sigh. He was alive. The traveler had returned.

He sat up, and then knelt in prayer and gave thanks. Once again God had been faithful. In a matter of a few hours, he knew, he would enter the world again, and nothing would be the same. But for now – for a few hours perhaps – the Father had given him a gift. He was free! What should he do? The answer came in a flash.

He would dance. He would dance the story of the Word. He felt incredibly light. He whirled his arms and jumped. He would dance the story of God’s love for the world. He danced the story of creation, the covenant, the first Passover, David’s dance before the Lord. And on it went. He was never so happy, never so free.

The music stopped for a moment. What was that? The cock’s crow. In a flash it all came back. Peter’s denial, the trial, the crucifixion. But he was beyond that now.

The music returned. It was a slow, stately, transforming dance, and he ended it facing the open tomb. Already the first light of dawn had slipped through the cracks. He placed his hand on the stone. It rolled easily away.

The air was fresh. The sparse vegetation of the desert was green. The birds were singing so sweetly. All creation beckoned him. He walked out into the dawn light, knelt to the ground and picked up a handful of dust and let it slip through his fingers. In the distance, he heard the hushed tones of two women approaching. He stood up, smiled and strode joyfully toward them.