This week I caught up with a colleague over a cup of coffee. It was there she told the story of an Easter morning debacle unlike any I had ever heard: A rat had crawled into the oven and died sometime during lent. When the oven was turned on to heat up breakfast casseroles, the dead (and now burning) rat began to perfume the entire building with its awful stench. “I don’t know if you’ve ever smelled anything like that, but I can’t even describe it,” she said. She went on to tell about how she and parishioners frantically opened windows, trying to rid the building of the gag-inducing smell. “Nothing says ‘Christ is Risen’ like the smell of burning rat flesh,” we laughed. Hilarious. Awful. Gross. As I reflected on it later, though, it occurred to me how poignant and maybe even appropriate the whole story was — the smell of death lingering in the air on Easter morning.
Just before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Martha says to Jesus “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” (John 11:39, NRSV)
There is a stench in the air on the day of resurrection. I don’t think we talk about that enough, but we probably should.
On Easter, the alleluias come back and the lilies come out. The trumpets sound, and the bells are rung. But the poor are still hungry. The prisoners are still captive. The terminally ill are still dying. Writer Barbara Johnson said it this way: We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world*. We who proclaim the resurrection know that it is very good news. “Death has been swallowed up in victory,” we proclaim, and we mean it. But this victory is not easily won and the death is not easily forgotten. We don’t like to talk about it, but there’s a stench, a smell, we can open the windows and bring in flowers, but it’s still there.
After Lazarus is raised from the dead, John 11 tells us another interesting detail in verse forty four. He writes, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth.” I remember a fairly disturbing coloring sheet from my childhood depicting this event. Lazarus, the walking mummy. The biblical narrative is matter-of-fact and doesn’t linger in details. Jesus simply tells Mary and Martha “Unbind him, and let him go.” What does it mean to unbind a newly resurrected body and let him go? What was it like for Mary and Martha to remove those strips of cloth from Lazarus’s flesh? What did it smell like?
As we Easter people go about the work of cleaning up after the resurrection, we have a job to do: unbind him and let him go. We participate in the work of resurrection, and it is hard work. It isn’t as clean as we have been led to believe, perhaps. There’s a smell in our nostrils we can’t quite get out.
Though the stench might seem to put a damper on the celebration, I have to wonder if it doesn’t do us a favor. It reminds us that even after the resurrection, death is lingering in the air.
Original quote from “God’s Tear Bottle,” The Best Devotions of Barbara Johnson