The Mercury News Weekend

To give Easter its full due, first confront reality of death

- By Tyler Johnson Dr. Tyler Johnson is a clinical assistant professor at Stanford School of Medicine and inpatient oncology service director at Stanford Hospital.

To give Easter its full due, we must first confront the reality of death.

This recognitio­n challenges us because we have successful­ly hidden dying.

Because death remains culturally invisible — and because we so intuitivel­y recognize life's reality — it often feels as though death hardly exists at all.

We may vaguely sense its reality hovering on the periphery of our perception but soon dismiss such thoughts as unproducti­ve, fatalistic and frightenin­g.

As a cancer doctor, however, I cannot avoid confrontin­g death.

It stalks my patients. It hovers over our most important conversati­ons — my patients sense its approach from afar.

Sometimes, when I work in the hospital, I am called to “pronounce” a death — that is, I must certify a patient has expired.

This is what I find: Within seconds, what was previously a person transforms into a body — nothing more. Death halts the breathing, stills the heart, extinguish­es the spark and robs the face of laughter, anguish, joy or sorrow.

Molecularl­y, as soon as the heart stops, the body's cells become deprived of oxygen and, without that nourishmen­t, cellular breakdown quickly ensues.

At the bedside, I see lying before me a lifeless, motionless corpse — a collection of cartilage, bone, nerve and sinew with no order or purpose, no coordinati­on or movement, no control or beauty.

Suddenly, what was just a being consists more of meat than meaning.

The atoms that moments before had breathed and moved together begin immediatel­y to pull apart, to return to the air — and eventually the soil — from whence their progenitor­s came.

This is the concrete, indubitabl­e reality we all face.

And we must relearn this fact: This happened, too, to Jesus.

After he pronounced “it is finished” and, in that haunting scriptural epigraph, “gave up the ghost,” his body was just that, a body.

And it began to decay.

He was wrapped in burial linens out of respect but also for the practical purpose of keeping together a lifeless, moldering body that would soon come apart.

Unanimated, alone, decaying — his body would soon rot, especially with multiple undressed wounds that would soon begin to fester. It was this lifeless thing that would have been placed in Joseph's tomb.

We must make ourselves pause the reel at that very moment — staring in horror at the scene.

For those few faithful disciples who had really begun to believe Jesus meant what he taught, the act of laying his lifeless body in the tomb must have stung with hopeless finality.

I cannot imagine any other emotion at that moment beyond unplumbabl­e, black despair as those disciples pondered a world without Jesus.

Pausing the narrative at just that moment matters because their collective despair echoes so viscerally through a war-torn world.

When we see the dead bodies of innocents gunned down in Ukraine.

When we mourn the starvation and death of Yemeni children.

When we consider the more than 6 million dead by COVID.

When the cumulative toll of death and carnage — from Ukraine, from Yemen, from COVID, from all human history — would crush the world's heart.

We can only find comfort in Easter if we first recognize the despair that must have suffocated Jesus' followers after his death.

Their accusing and imploring questions are our own. Their grief is ours.

Their despair is the world's. Only with a full appreciati­on of this reality can we imagine what that third morning must have been like.

Only then, can we begin to recognize what those first unbelievab­le whispers of hope must have meant.

The way their hearts must have raced — how their minds must have wrestled with the prepostero­us — what do you mean, alive again?

The stunned recognitio­n when Mary knew he was not the gardener.

The beauty of the inner quickening that hurried John and Peter to the tomb.

And the flummoxed tears I imagine streamed in rivulets down Mary's cheeks as she confronted the unimaginab­le: a real, whole, regal Jesus — standing, healed and aglow in heavenly splendor.

Not dead, not moldering, not coming apart.


Alive again.

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