In the 70s and 80s when death squads were operating in countries of South and Central America, a liturgy emerged in the church by which Christians dramatically enacted faith amidst the pervasive fear perpetuated by the imagination of the nation state. Where death squads spread fear by “disappearing” those bodies that stood in their way, the church saw the resurrection of Christ and his own fatally wounded and “disappeared” body as a dramatic counter-narrative of resistance. Thus, at the liturgy, someone would read out the names of those killed or disappeared, and for each name someone would call out from within the congregation, presente, “Here!”
My work brings me face to face with many who would meet this liturgical act with a dismissal of some sort. It might be a hostile dismissal or simply one expressing doubt or dismay. Like words of comfort at a difficult funeral, while the sentiment might be needed, it will not undo what has been done. Here, the objection from a place of cynicism is not unlike the one from sorrow: The death squads were hardly deterred by this communal act of rallying around a consoling word. Bodies were—and are—still disappearing. These names were the names of people actually lost. On this, determined atheists, material humanists, and despairing Christians might agree: In a heartbreakingly real sense, the disappeared were most definitely not presente.
We might think similarly when we consider the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide or Easter church bombings—or any number of stories of the displaced or tragically lost that sadly do not make their way into our attention spans or news feeds. It is not hard to tend to the imagination that tells us that the “disappeared” belong to a group that will never stop growing. It is an imagination that seems sympathetic and human, and in some important ways it is. The nameless lives wasted, violently cut short, are buried and gone. But whether confessed in sorrow or cynicism, the assumption behind this imagination is that the dead can be buried once and for all and forgotten.
What the churches facing the death squads seemed to understand better than most of us is that Easter proclaims something entirely to the contrary. The violence and death that made Jesus “disappear” did not stand. He would not be buried once and for all and forgotten. In the aftermath of another bloody Easter Sunday, I suspect our Sri Lankan brothers and sisters hold the same conviction. The resurrected presence of the once disappeared Jesus proclaims many things to this wounded world, but this is perhaps the most shocking of all. The cultural notion that human value can be extinguished by death and violence was irreversibly shifted by Easter. The pervasive imagination that insists there are some lives that are expendable was upended by the shocking return of the one they tried to silence. The injustice and apathy that perpetuate this imagination stand vehemently convicted. The gospel of the resurrection proclaims that God holds on to the lives of all the departed, that injustice and apathy will not have the last word, and the dead and disappeared are never forgotten.
In my own liturgical tradition, during the season of Lent as the church prepares for the feast of Easter, there is a practice called “burying the hallelujahs.” We refrain from saying hallelujah during Lent, hallelujah being an ultimate expression of rejoicing that means “God be praised.” For the forty days of Lent we are invited instead to remember our deaths, to call to mind our need, our sin, our apathy, our complicit disinterest in the disappearance of others. During Lent, we fast as a means of preparing ourselves for the promise that hunger itself will one day be satisfied. We mourn with the world, with the church far and wide, and we challenge ourselves to sit with those struggling under silencing injustice and violence, with those we forget and treat as if expendable. Last Lent, as we learned of the deadly bombings that targeted Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday, I was thankful for the burying of our hallelujahs and a ready language to lament with brothers and sisters I will never meet but with whom I grieved. Lent reminds us that God was buried and that we, too, will be buried, that death comes before life, and that before there is rejoicing, Jesus grieves with those who grieve. We don’t bury the hallelujahs in cynicism or despair. We bury them because this is precisely where Easter itself begins: in grief and darkness with those easily overlooked, with those disappearing and those disappeared. For Jesus himself was one of them.
When Mary arrived at the tomb on Easter morning only to be told that the body of Jesus body was missing, she was distraught at his disappearance. She at first could not see resurrection; she saw emptiness. I imagine her grief was not unlike the mothers of missing sons during the reign of the death squads or the mothers and fathers of Alexandria and Tanta who lost children in worship on Palm Sunday last year. It was not enough that they violently killed him; they disappeared him.
But then the body of the resurrected Jesus was suddenly standing before her. The one who leaves no human soul in nameless and forgotten oblivion spoke Mary’s name aloud and she realized that he was there. Presente. In the midst of her devastating encounter with darkness, he is there in the midst of it. And his presence undoes the fixtures of fear and violence that continue to say there are some bodies that don’t matter, showing us not only how to die but how to rise and how to live. This darkness shall not overcome. Not in Golgotha. Not in South America. Not in Sri Lanka. Presente.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.