They say you learn by your mistakes. I wish that were the case. A few weeks ago I found myself watching a film which told the story of a family on a journey through the New Mexico desert being picked off -- in graphic detail -- by genetic mutants. I had failed to read the synopsis properly; this was not quite what I had been expecting.
A month later I found myself watching another film, this time about torture and sadistic brutality. Again, not what I had been expecting at all. I had expected, from a quick glance at the poster, an Agatha Christie style whodunit, not a vision of Hell which floated around my stunned mind all afternoon.
The basic plot of the film, if you don't mind me ruining it for you, was of rich business men belonging to a club based in Eastern Europe where they could pay vast sums to torture and kill people of whichever ethnicity or gender they preferred. The real horror of the film was that the plot was not completely unbelievable. Indeed, the three young men who end up in the shop of horrors had begun their holiday in Amsterdam paying for women. Possibly connections were to be made, possibly not.
I left the film swearing that I would from now on always read the reviews section in the newspaper, but also feeling strangely implicated in the sins of the fictional businessmen on the screen. Viewers were paying to watch a brutal film which was really all about people paying to do what they wanted to other people. This film caught the viewer red handed. Are you, paying for this spectacle of torture, any better than these men? -- at least they have the excuse of being fictional!
At the heart of the culture of sin is the reduction of human beings to things which can be bought or sold, used or not used, broken and then thrown away. And the natural expression of this culture is the reality of death. In death the person you love is there one moment, and gone the next. Death removes the person and leaves only a body.
All of us live with this as our ultimate horizon, that in the end death will reduce us to things, objects in a world of objects. What are we left with when our loved ones die? Graves, photographs, memories, old letters turning yellow with age. Our only connection to the persons we have loved are things, places, thoughts, bits of paper.
The Resurrection of Jesus is God's final word spoken in the face of death and sin. The women go to the tomb early in the morning to anoint the remains of the Jesus they have loved. They know their way will be blocked by the stone, but they hope that a stronger arm will move the stone for them. And they find the tomb empty, with an angel clothed in white seated where the body of Jesus had been:
You seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Behold the place where they laid him. But go tell his disciples and Peter, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you.
Jesus has gone before them and will see them in Galilee. The old culture of humanity has finally been ripped apart, from top to bottom. This Jesus cannot be contained, kept, even treasured in the cold stone of our earth. He has risen, and has gone before us.
The Resurrection of Jesus is the sudden declaration by God that we are someone and never just something. Perhaps this is why Peter is mentioned explicitly by name -- that he who is branded with failure may know the taste of a new beginning.
From this moment onwards, to be a disciple of Jesus is to be seized by the belief that there is something utterly irreducible about human life and experience. This is why the first Christians so joyfully go to the sword and the stone. Whatever force or violence may tear them apart, they are someone, they are not simply instruments of the State, or the petty gods of nature, subject to the cruelty or the purposes of those around them.
When Pompey marched into the Holy of Holies at the centre of the Temple he expected to find an extravagant image of a god which he could cart away with him. Instead he found nothing but an empty space, an absence of images. The films I found myself watching last month were part of an ever more graphic visual world which seeks to stun viewers into a harsh reality, revealing the possessive and dehumanising forces already at work within us.
But the empty tomb, like the empty Temple, provides a new space for human beings to leave behind the false image of what they have become, and grow into the true nature which God has created for them.