The nice thing about having to preach or write about the scriptures is that some time or other you run across a piece of a familiar passage that is utterly strange. This happened when I read one of the options for the Gospel this Passion Sunday, Matthew 27:11-54.
It starts out familiarly enough: Jesus goes before Pontius Pilate, is condemned and then crucified. When Jesus died we all know that the earth shook and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. What I barely remembered though was this verse: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (27:52-53; NRSV).
In a pop culture that is obsessed with zombies it is hard not to imagine this scene as a clip from “The Walking Dead.” I can see the streets of Jerusalem with rotted bodies wandering through the alleys, clothed in tattered robes. It would be a terrifying sight to be sure.
But zombies are a different kind of being from sleeping saints raised up. In a New York Times op-ed, “A Zombie is a Slave Forever,” Amy Wilentz offered a sobering history of the idea of the zombie. She traced its roots to Haiti where the lives of slaves were so miserable that suicide seemed the only way out. The plantation owners borrowed concepts from African religion to create the idea of the zombie, a being that is neither dead nor alive and lives as a slave forever. If a slave were to commit suicide the threat was that they would be raised as a zombie—even death was no escape.
What we find in our gospel is the opposite proclamation. In the crucifixion of Jesus there comes liberation from death and resurrection is its proof. The saints raised in their tombs are the heralds of this liberation—they come forth to show that in Jesus’ death and resurrection a new reality is at play in the world. This reality is one that gives hope to all who are enslaved and offers the overcoming power of love for a this-worldly salvation.
I’ve never seen a zombie, but I’ve seen the walking dead. I’ve seen those whose lives are so trapped in bondage—lust for power, for money, for control; living in the chains of addiction—that they are turned toward the powers of death. Many of these walking dead don’t look like zombies—some drive sports cars, wear suits, and look like they have it “together.” But the reality of their lives is a kind of turning toward the nothingness of evil that eats away at the edges of the life we are offered as a gift.
In this Passion Sunday, as we process with palms and celebrate the coming of the Lord for his final victory, we are welcoming a power that can bring the dead to life. Those asleep will come awake and the divides between God and humanity will be ruptured. Strange things are going to happen and they will be no cause of dread and fear—even on the day of crucifixion resurrection is already beginning.