This past week the first lectionary readings were from the book of Tobit, a book found in the Catholic Bible from ancient times.
Tobit had gotten into trouble for burying the Israelite dead in Nineveh, where he was exiled. The king was killing lots of his people but as Tobit relates:
I used to take their bodies away by stealth and bury them. So when Sennacherib looked for them, he could not find them. But a certain Ninevite went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them, and I went into hiding.
He was able to return when the king was assassinated.
Interestingly, this passage was left out of the readings this week.
But in Saturday’s reading, the archangel Rafael reveals himself and notes how he took Tobit’s prayers before the glory of God and “I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead.”
As I heard the Saturday reading, I recalled a few stories from my research on the parish of Suchitoto, El Salvador.
During the civil war, a woman in town who was fairly conservative, Niña Flor, remained during the war. As one of the sisters who served there in the late 1980s and 1990s told me, she buried the dead, not matter what side they were on, even though this was dangerous.
Her sense of Christian duty led her to do this work of mercy even though the government frowned upon people burying the guerrilla dead.
The sisters – four Dubuque Franciscans and a New Jersey Sister of Charity – also buried the dead.
Burying the dead is not just a work of mercy. At times it can become an act of resistance to the powers that seek to control everything, even the bodies of the dead. It can be an act of resistance to those who seek to inculcate fear into people.
It can be an act of saying that people – even when they are dead – are worthy of respect, no matter what political, social, and economic powers may say.
Burying the dead is an act of resistance that is an act of prophecy – revealing to the world the hope in the resurrection of the dead – but also of the resurrection of the living, people who refuse to let death intimidate them.
That’s real resistance and real prophecy. That’s real following of a God of life.