A few weeks ago, there was a story in the news about a recent discovery of ancient artifacts that archaeologists refer to as “dead nails.” Dead nails were talismans placed on the burial sites of people throughout the Mediterranean region and Asia Minor in antiquity. Dead nails were manufactured like nails used for carpentry and construction, but they were broken, bent, or twisted in order to address ancient peoples’ superstitions about the dead returning to earth after death. Apparently, the superstitious belief was that “dead nails” kept the deceased attached to their gravesites and, by doing so, protected the living.
The news story referred to an individual who was buried sometime between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D. The fellow was buried with the typical kinds of objects and offerings that would have been customary for the tomb of a wealthy or powerful man. His tomb was also strewn with “dead nails,” indicating that his survivors were afraid of meeting him again. The practice of using magical charms to prevent the “restless dead” from interfering with the living was somewhat common in the ancient Roman Empire.
The belief that Jesus rose from the dead probably seems like fiction to most people today. At the time of Jesus’ death, however, it might not have seemed very farfetched at all. The news article I mentioned above indicates that it was rather common to believe that people were capable of returning from the dead, although the practices mentioned in the article were not the actions of people who found that notion appealing.
In light of the popularity of superstitions about death and the departed, we might well ask whether our belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is nothing more than superstition. The Scriptural accounts of the Resurrection provide an answer to the question.
The various Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection agree on the sequence of events leading up to the disciples’ encounter with the risen Lord. Matthew’s Gospel, which we read at the Easter Vigil, and John’s Gospel, which we read on Easter Sunday, both say that it was the women in Jesus’ group who went to the tomb. The women went to the grave as an act of devotion, but they found the grave empty. In Matthew’s account, they are directed by an angel to tell the Eleven that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In John’s account, they found an empty tomb and told Simon Peter about it.
The women and, later, the Eleven, were confused and fearful of what might have happened to Jesus, but they were not afraid of him. The Eleven, in particular, had reason to fear because they had abandoned and denied him. Despite their complete lack of trust and fidelity, they seem not to have been afraid of judgment or retribution by Jesus. In this regard, the resurrection of Jesus is substantially different from ancient and modern superstitions about death; it was not something the disciples dreaded.
The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection indicate one further way in which the disciples’ experience of the Resurrection of Jesus differed from superstition. The Eleven abandoned Jesus; Peter denied knowing him. Interestingly, their lack of courage and lack of faith did not prevent them from maintaining their group identity as Jesus’ followers; they abandoned him, but they did not abandon one another. All the Gospel narratives of the Resurrection depict the Eleven remaining together after Jesus’ death. Certainly, his life and, perhaps, even his death, galvanized them as a group bound together for mutual support. Unlike the various superstitions about death, Jesus’ death did not cause divisions or tension among those who mourned him.
These two experiences, then, demand our attention: after his death, his cowardly followers were not afraid of what he might do (if he returned from the dead); rather, they remained together as a close-knit group. In our baptismal vows, and every time we recite the Creed, we profess to believe in God’s promise of a resurrected life free from the burdens of sin and death. In the accounts of Jesus’ death, we see the beginnings of the fulfillment of that promise of new life and a renewed Covenant relationship with God. Even before they came to faith in the Resurrection, the disciples seemed to have some limited trust in Jesus and one another.
The bodily resurrection of Jesus had none of the hallmarks of superstition; it was neither a cause for dread nor for estrangement. Our hope for resurrection is founded on the experience of those who witnessed Jesus’ return from death: we hope to have our faith fulfilled through unity with Jesus and one another. We practice Baptism for that reason. Baptism is not superstition; it is an expression of hope and faith in the possibility of a re-created human existence no longer under the reign of the power of sin and death. Baptism is also a beginning of that resurrected life now; our baptismal vows are promises to remain faithful to Jesus and one another.
The faithfulness demanded by Baptism is no easy task. It requires that we live every day with an awareness of Jesus’ resurrected presence and our obligations to proclaim his Gospel. The baptismal vocation requires the mutual support of other believers and continual renewal in our lives. We renew our commitment to the New Covenant every Sunday at the celebration of the Eucharist, and we renew that commitment in a unique way on Easter. In a few moments, we will renew our Baptismal vows. We will promise again to trust in God alone, to remain loyal to Jesus, and to be guided by God’s Spirit.
While we await the resurrection of the just, we enjoy the blessing of being set free from everything that leads to fear and estrangement. There is an unmistakable difference between superstition and faith, between darkness and light: the former leads to attachment to fear and the latter leads to attachment to fellow believers.