It's a phrase we usually associate with Easter, the words we sing in an old hymn on Easter Sunday: "Jesus lives! Thy terrors now can no longer, death, appall us." The awkward 18th-century diction can't take away the awesome, heart-stopping reality of it: Jesus lives! The rafters ring with "Alleluias," the church smelling of lilies. But when I hear that phase I'm more likely to think of a service that wasn't on Easter, a funeral for a guy who died too young and had insisted that no matter when death came, we were to sing "Jesus lives!"
"Why?" I wondered when I looked at the program. "Why would Jeff want us to sing this?" Funerals are usually chances for the poignant and mournful "Abide with me" or if musical mention of the Resurrection is asked for, some soprano will sing "I know that my Redeemer liveth" from the Messiah.
Jeff was an Episcopal priest. Gregarious, sunny-tempered, Southern, courteous and outrageously evangelical in a New York City that wasn't used to being invited to church, especially when they met him at an Upper West Side health club or bar or party. He adored church and he adored his calling. A priest was all he ever wanted to be. Even as a kid, when other boys were practicing their pitching on a sandlot, he played "church" at home, typing up bulletins, setting up the chairs in his living room, inviting the neighborhood kids. He was still doing it as an adult.
His premature death should not have come as a surprise. In those days before the success of anti-viral drugs, in an era that still breaks my heart, we'd sung too many services for guys who had died of AIDS, most of whom had been evangelized by Jeff. It's hard to explain to the young today how fast loved ones could disappear back then, how one week they would complain about a cough or an insistent flu bug -- so they said -- and then they were in the hospital and then they were gone. Not that we were clueless. But we were all too young to think of death.
Jeff himself was too upbeat, too full of God's love, too committed to his vocation to die. He would be the one to beat this thing, whatever it was (and there were times we didn't know or couldn't tell or nobody wanted to tell). He got thinner. His summer tan couldn't really cover up for something that was wrong. He wasn't working out in the gym as much or it wasn't making much difference. But he was excited about God's work, telling us about a new church where he hoped to be called. Oh, he had plans. Hope fueled his plans.
"Maybe he isn't dying," we said to each other. "Maybe his really is just a bad case of flu." Some of us are still hurt that he wouldn't admit it. That he didn't give us the opportunity to pray specifically for him, to lay our hands on him and ask God for a miracle. But then, he lived as though he was a miracle. Why talk about dying? There were too many people who still needed to hear about Jesus.
Evidently he'd thought enough of his own death, though, to tell someone what hymns we should sing and "Jesus lives!" was at the top of the list. It opened the service.
I can remember singing it from the choir loft. We'd just welcomed our second child into this world. I carried my six-week-old infant son in his Snugli over my choir robe, the perfect liturgical accessory for a funeral, new life bouncing on my chest, kicking and gurgling, while we were mourning the death of a 37-year-old priest.
Except we were asked specifically not to mourn. "Jesus lives!" we proclaimed, adding stanzas of "Alleluias." It bewildered me. Was this just more of Jeff's wishful thinking? Was he asking us not to cry when that would have been the more appropriate response? Why did he want us to celebrate? Death hadn't died in his case. Death had triumphed over his illness. No miracle here.
Or was there a miracle in our midst? This is the hard part to explain to anybody who hasn't known God's love or the support of a faith community, but as I looked down at everybody in the church and listened, I couldn't find the tragedy in Jeff's death anymore. I felt that shock of understanding, the way the disciples must have felt at that first Easter when the women rushed from the tomb breathlessly to tell them that their Lord had risen. The tomb was empty, he was not there. No less was Jeff in that casket making its solemn way down the central aisle while we sang our Alleluias.
"Jesus lives!" wasn't a phrase that should be preserved only for one day, any less than the Resurrection should be relegated to Easter. Jesus lived and still lives in all those people who had been evangelized on the Upper West Side, in the incense that clouded the altar, in the soup kitchen, in the sermons, in the prayers, in the shabby old Victorian church that Jeff saw becoming something new. We were becoming new. Still are.
Twenty-three years later, I can see how Jeff's vision is being fulfilled. We've had many more funerals, some of them as heart-breaking as Jeff's, like when the children's choir director died in her 50s of breast cancer and the infant I'd once carried in his Snugli sang through his teen-aged tears. But again and again, we've found cause to celebrate on those sad occasions.
Because "Jesus lives." Not lived, but lives. It's the most outrageous sentence I know.