The Risen One in a World of Zombies (or, Watching “Night of the Living Dead” with the Evangelists and Rowan Williams)

“I was afraid / I’d eat your brains.” –The National, “Conversation 16”

 “Here is the world again, well-known, / the dawn greeted in snoring dreams of a familiar / winter everyone prefers. […] Contained, / exhausted, hungry, death running off his limbs like drops / from a shower, gathering himself. We wait, / paralysed as if in dreams, for his spring.” –Rowan Williams, “Resurrection: Borgo San Sepolcro”

Does Christ’s Resurrection make any difference to our world? That’s the question I’m forced to confront the day after Easter. To begin another work week, to feel the gravitational pull back into the ordinary with its small and large tragedies, its monotonous return of the same: I wonder, however briefly, “What’s the difference?” What could it mean to live in a world continually marred by gross injustice, by the trudge and drudge of sin, after Christ has conquered death and sin?

Can we blame those who mock Easter as the rising of “Zombie Jesus”? After all, if there has been a resurrection, the state of the world today might indicate that it’s not the Son of God, unconquerable Life, Who’s risen from the tomb. No: it’s the zombies, pounding on the sealed tombs of our hearts, our lives, our worlds where we thought we’d safely buried them. Their limbs struggle awkwardly but with deadly purpose into the light of day after our Easter ceasefire. They return, still hungry.

We name these zombies to feel that we have some control over them, to put them in a mental category and normalize them. (No wonder they want our brains.) After all, perhaps we can pretend those destroyers are normal fixtures of our everyday life. The social structures that continue to devour the weak and the needy like grist in a mill? That’s just the way a capitalist, globalized economy works. The pervasive racism and xenophobia present in American society? We’re not responsible for that, and we can’t do any anything about it: it’s just the unfortunate way the historical cookie crumbled. The personal aspects of our lives that enable us to be dead to God, to others, to ourselves so as to better consume them? Well, that’s just human nature.

It’s natural to be undead. Or so we tell ourselves.

The lifeless stare of the undead, their mindless limb-waving, their relentless plodding: if we looked closely without flinching, we’d see ourselves, our habits, our worlds there. But this is altogether too traumatizing. We are not preyed upon by our gnawing habits. We are not preying upon others. We are not part of the machinations of an undead world economy. Yet our bunker of distractions—and what a fine, solid bunker we’ve built!—can’t fully block out the noise of a world consuming itself and encouraging its inhabitants to consume others. In the hours before dawn, when our defenses are down, our dreams sometimes mark our truth; we gasp awake, feeling blood on our hands and disavowing strange hungers.

We proclaimed a new creation but walked right back into the zombie apocalypse.

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Even so, Jesus of Nazareth’s tomb is empty. The burial cloths are folded. The stone has been rolled back. The guards have fled. We came looking for the crucified, but He isn’t here.

We neither saw this emptying happen nor understood its meaning at first. In fact, the Evangelists tell us that we could not grasp its significance until an angel shook our earth, until the unrecognized Risen One Himself confronted us. Our memories started to flicker to life in the light of this consuming fire, this stranger who forced us to recall the Nazarene’s words (“I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”) This stranger reminds us, however obliquely, of our rescue from a multitude of deaths. (“Lazarus, come out!”) He breaks bread, disappears. (“Were not our hearts burning within us?”) He roasts fish and gives us bread. (And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?”) He walks through the doors of our bunkers, and suddenly, we recognize Him: radiant, unimaginable, unfathomable, saying to us, the ones who left and still leave Him and the least to be devoured by the undead sin of the world: “Peace be with you.”

Yet even then, have we not fled, “seized with trembling and bewilderment”? How often has it been said of us that we “said nothing to anyone, for [we] were afraid,” as Mark originally cut the story? For the Risen One confronts us with the truth of our own zombie reality, having preyed upon Him and continuing to prey upon others. (“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”) What we try to hide from ourselves cannot be escaped when He shows us His hands and His side: the names with which we try to contain the evil of this world disintegrate like so much dust when the Risen One calls our names. (“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”) He is more real than our dreams, more real than our own fake realities, and we cannot escape his question: “Do you love me?” For the Risen One forces us to look on what we have done. (“This man […] you killed, using lawless men to crucify him.”) Our undead world doesn’t magically vanish, for the Risen One is never without His wounds. The empty tomb lies always in the shadow of the cross, the cost of being truly human in a world where being undead is natural.

But He doesn’t leave us in our zombie apocalypse, though it sometimes looks and feels that way. No: the Risen One offers us a new way of living, unconstrained by the bonds of death. (“But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.”) He gives us a way of really being human with our sisters and brothers, a way of being creatures in our God’s creation—a new creation, living as if for the first time. (“Follow me.”) When the Risen One calls our name, we follow Him, for He is the Way to being a human being fully alive, the glory of God. When He points to His wounds and tells us to put our finger into the nail holes and into His side, we face the Truth, and His pain and joy set us free to say, “My Lord and my God.” When He breaks bread for us, we partake of His true Life, the Life which re-animates and humanizes the world, Life we are meant to share with others, especially the poor and oppressed.

Easter Monday is the recognition that there is no easy way to make the truth and life of Easter our own without passing through the tragedies of this undead world. The empty tomb is not a projection or a panacea. The surge of Easter joy is tempered by the darkness of Good Friday, and our world hangs suspended in the balance. But this Life which emerges from the tomb, greater than which none can be conceived, is the truth of Easter Monday, with all its hard edges and hopeful joy, and it is this which allows us to rejoice.

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