Since arriving in New York last month and temporarily taking up residence on my old block in the West Village I’ve been roaming the neighborhoods where I’ve spent much of my adult life. I’ve lived here for at least part of every decade since I first arrived in Manhattan in 1976 at the age of 24. Everywhere I walk—Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, the Theater District, Upper West Side, the Battery—I sense the presence of old friends, mentors, lovers, co-workers, and neighbors who have died; people with whom I had spent time, developed relationships, and grown to love. It’s not just the gay guys who died too young of AIDS, but also my favorite acting teacher at HB Studio, the crazy elderly Greek woman who lived next door to me in our tenement on 45th St., a neighbor who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and so on.
Everywhere I turn I’m reminded of someone who is no longer here, leaving me with a profound sense of loss. By remembering the dead I am honoring them and bringing them back to life, giving them another few moments to exist in the way that I knew them. However, as the weeks have gone by and I continue to recall them, I no longer sense them as vividly as I did upon first being reminded of them. That’s because they’re dead, frozen in time and memory, unable to grow or change, unlike we, the living, who are forever evolving.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus says of the Lord, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” In the context of the scripture Jesus is responding to an absurd question about life after death that the Sadducees, who did not believe in it, had hoped would humiliate Jesus in front of his followers. What happened instead was for Jesus to be given a teachable moment about the nature of heaven, which is not merely an extension of life on earth, but a different realm altogether, the experience of which defies explanation or understanding.
It has intrigued me how more literal-minded Christians think that upon death they will be transported into heaven as themselves and there rejoin the loved ones they knew in their earthly existence and together with them await the arrival of those whom they have left behind. I get the sense that some think that they will continue to enjoy the same activities they participated in on earth, but this time, with Jesus right alongside them.
As I walked around the city remembering my departed friends I realized I was doing something similar in that I was recalling them as they were rather than as they are now. When we die, we die. Our personalities don’t go with us, our character traits remain behind as we become subsumed into the greater universal cosmic reality that is the source of all creation, which is the dwelling place of God. Our bonds of enslavement to the plane of suffering and attachment are broken and we are released back into perfection. We become one with all things. God is alive so therefore we are alive. Hence, God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. There is only life. Everyone who has ever lived is still alive in the sense that they live within God.
Since heaven is not a continuation of the life here on earth it is important that we complete our work while we are still expressing ourselves within the context of earthly life and the ways in which we exist. It is while we are here that we can do onto others as we would have them do onto us, it is here that we can through spiritual practices and disciplines come closer to realizing the true nature of reality, it is here that we can work together for justice and peace. And it is through these good works and kindnesses that we will be remembered by the living; remembered not as the dead, but as the living who are present in and around us in many forms, especially in the presence of the Holy One.
In his poem Breaths, the Senegalese writer Birago Diop writes:
Those who have died have never left,
They are in the brightening shadow
And in the thickening shadow;
The dead are not under the earth,
They are in the rustling tree,
They are in the groaning woods,
They are in the flowing water,
They are in the still water,
They are in the hut, they are in the crowd:
The dead are not dead.
This is what Jesus is telling us. That all beings at their death return to God so are therefore present in all of God’s creation; everything in the seen world as well as the unseen world. All are of God and so know neither beginning nor end.
God is the God of the living.
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”