Easter Eve 2017 ~ Matthew 27:62-65
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
Did you sleep well last night? I daresay you slept in a bed. Most of us do, except those who sleep rough, on benches and under arches perhaps. We pity such people, and so many strive to make the plight of homeless rough-sleepers better and more humane. Although it is always worth remembering that the idea of sleeping on or in a bed is, in human history a relatively recent phenomenon. Sleeping is of course, not, recent, rather it is a vital and necessary dimension of human wellbeing. There are different levels of sleep, deep sleep, wakeful sleep, rapid-eye-movement sleep, and during the various phases of a sleep cycle, we experience these several times, and while we are asleep we rest, we heal, we store our memories, we dream. Our heartbeats drop to the lowest rate and our consciousness shuts down. It is a kind of mini-death, each night. And the bed we lie in is like a temporary grave.
Yet we have to sleep. After only a few days nothing can keep you awake and if sleep deprived, we become confused, forgetful and can have hallucinations. No-one has gone for more than eleven days without sleep, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Sleep is a human need, and it is surprising that along with the basic human rights to personal liberty and due process of law; to freedom of thought, expression, religion, organization, and movement; to freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, age, language, and gender; to basic education; to employment; and to property, the right to sleep has never been insisted upon. Certainly to deprive someone of sleep is a cruel form of torture, and insomniacs, like King Nebuchadnezzar suffer terribly (Daniel 2:1).
Each of us needs a different amount of sleep, depending on our age, metabolism and lifestyle. In the UK the average national bedtime is a quarter to midnight, and the average time spent in bed is seven and a half hours. Allowing for time to actually fall asleep (fifteen minutes is normal) and wakefulness in the morning, this means that oft-quoted norm of seven hours asleep is borne out by evidence. However, the Saudis spend only five and a half hours in bed, on average, and the Norwegians the longest (seven hours and thirty-nine minutes). This means we spend a significant proportion of each day asleep, and if you live to age 93, you will have spent just over a quarter of a million hours asleep. People who sleep a lot less than seven hours are at a higher risk of illnesses such as heart disease, and have been shown to have a shorter lifespan. Our sleep is affected by the weather; air pressure; the phases of the moon; stress of the day; what we have eaten or drunk and how much exercise we have done.
Our ancestors slept, but not in a bed. Rather they slept on the floor, with animal furs, straw or hair for comfort, and each other for warmth. Even during Jesus’ time, the idea of a bed would have been quite strange, and the closest thing to a bed like ours they would have known, would have been the kind of thing found in a tomb. A raised stone surface, hewn into the wall of rock is how we envisage the tomb in which Jesus was laid, and we may well think of it as a kind of bed. But in Jesus’ time, this would have been thought of not as being like a bed, but rather any bed that looked that that would have been thought of as being like a grave.
The idea of a bedframe arrived in the Roman empire in the first century, so it is possible that Pontius Pilate had a bed not unlike ours today. The Romans combined the ancient Greek style of bed, called a kline (from which we get the word recline), with bedsheets and soft fabrics from the Persians. The richer you were, the better bed you had, much like us today.
But first-century Palestinians slept on mats, often on the roof of the house, and we might remember the story of the paralysed man who is lowered through the roof into a packed room where Jesus is speaking (Luke 5:17-27). That he was carried on a bed is not unusual, nor was going onto the roof. Digging a hole through the thick roof layers of straw and mud is more unconventional, and would have caused considerable damage, but Jesus is unfazed and tells the paralysed man, first that his sins are forgiven, and second, to pick up his bed and leave, which he does, glorying God. Jesus told his disciples that “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:59). So there is an irony in the fact that it was probably only after being crucified that Jesus was laid on anything that approximates what we might call a ‘bed’ today.
It is on this day, Holy Saturday, when we reflect on Jesus, crucified on Good Friday, lying in the sealed, cold tomb, on the stone bed of death. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem one can queue up and go inside the place revered as the actual tomb Christ was laid in. Down the road in the Garden Tomb, is a very realistic duplicate, and in both, there is a niche, with a bed-like platform, on which a linen-wrapped body would be laid. We should remember that these ‘tombs’ of Jesus, however authentic they may be, are to be revered not so much as the place of his bed-grave, but as the site of resurrection. Jesus’ tomb was where he was laid, but at Easter we celebrate its emptiness; we celebrate that fact that the tomb could not hold Christ and that he rose from the bed of death.
When we lie down at night to embrace the oblivion of sound sleep, we might remember that we are going to a temporary grave. Every night we enter a small death, a necessary small death, from which, one day we may not wake. To die in one’s sleep is something many of us wish for, so that just as we do not notice our going to sleep every night, we may die, as it were, without noticing. This is not, of course, a manner of dying which everyone experiences: so often our dying days involve struggle, pain, distress and delay, such that when death comes, it seems like a release into eternal sleep. However, death is not literally eternal sleep. Bodily functions cease: it can take less than a minute for our bodies to shut down irrevocably, and even though some people have fought legal cases and paid a fortune for their bodies to be cryogenically frozen, this is not the way to think of resurrection, revivification or bodily rejuvenation. It is natural to sleep at night, and it is natural to die, but these are not the same thing. Shakespeare’s Prospero says that “our little life is rounded with a sleep”, and it is true nowadays at least that most of us are born in a bed and we hope to die in a bed.
The poet and preacher John Donne called sleep a mere picture of death:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Donne’s famous poem is a meditation on how death has been conquered by the death and resurrection of Christ. The grave has no victory after the rising of Christ, and so death personified is a figure of ridicule and pity, as Donne imagines the grim reaper doing his best in an ultimately futile attempt to make the bed of death an eternal sleep. Rather in Christ, risen on the third day, the bed of death is a temporary place of short and welcome sleep, from which we look forward to waking in fulfilled resurrection hope.
As Easter is upon us now, and we have kept watch and welcomed the Easter fire, and proclaimed that Christ is risen, this belittling of death is what it is all about. ‘Grave, where is they victory, death where is thy sting?’ The bed of death is no more a threat to us than the bed of diurnal sleep. Every night we go to our temporary graves and die a little death and wake in the morning refreshed and renewed to enter again into the new life God has given us. Every day and night we have a foretaste of what is in store for us all when it comes to the greater death and the greater resurrection.
Remember that, when you lay down your head tonight, and when you arise in the morning, remember that every day is Easter Day, on which our Lord emptied the bed of death and walked free in the light of redemption, freedom and hope.
The Reverend Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 15/4/17