Our next door neighbors in Paragould were Iva and Harold Hicks. Mr. and Mrs. Hicks never had children of their own, and they served as a kind of third set of grandparents for the four Thompson kids. When my older brother Robert and I decided, at ages seven and five, to run away from home with suitcases full of toys and cookies, it was Mr. and Mrs. Hicks who indulgently heard our litany of complaints against our mother, and who then convinced us to run back into mom’s arms by innocently asking what we planned to eat when the cookies ran out.
We were in Mr. and Mrs. Hicks’ house often, and we always entered through the back sliding glass door into their sunken den. The den was a warm room, full of color and life. The den was the center of Mr. and Mrs. Hicks’ activity and interaction. Through the sliding glass door, they could look out into the woods behind their house and watch all manner of wildlife.
Once when I was very young, I remember being in the Hicks’ kitchen and glancing through a doorway opposite the den. In there was a dark room, filled with furniture that looked stiff and uncomfortable. The air seemed stale, as though no one had walked through the room to stir it in quite a while. The room was sterile, vacant, and lifeless. It gave me the willies. “What room is that, Mrs. Hicks?” I asked. “Oh that,” she replied. “We never go in there. That’s the living room.”
Many of you have a knowing, raised eyebrow right now, because for you, as for me, that’s a fairly accurate description of the living room in our own homes. In daily practice, the living room is often the opposite of its name. It’s not the room in which we live. It’s not the room in which we relax, interact, laugh, or love. It’s the room we set apart just in case someone important pays us a visit, where the white furniture has no stains, the carpet is pristine, and the coffee table lacks any rings. It is, in other words, a museum piece—or a tomb—but it is anything but a living room.
On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other women who loved Jesus approach the tomb in which Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body two days before. Jesus is dead, and with him something in them has died. They go to the tomb, because they don’t know what else to do. At least, they think, they can anoint Jesus’ body according to their religious custom. But the women don’t expect anything unusual to happen. They expect to be received only by the dead.
We haven’t always had living rooms.[i] They’re actually only about a hundred years old. Prior to that, the main room of a house was called the parlor. The parlor was, indeed, a formal room, in which gentlemen called on ladies, guests were met, and business was transacted. Importantly, the parlor was also the room in which, when a death occurred, the body would lie in wake. The parlor truly was, in part, a tomb. As much as where a homeowner received the living, it was where he received the dead.
In 1918, this last became the primary use of the parlor. By the end of that year, 116,000 American doughboys had been killed in the First World War, and over half a million people had died of the Spanish flu. Not since the Civil War had Americans experienced death on such a vast scale, in such a concentrated time. Homes became places of near-constant mourning. Windows were more or less permanently draped in black. Caskets crowded out furniture. And the parlor took on a new name: the death room. Think about the psychology, the emotional toll of that: the heart of one’s home, one’s sanctuary, became indelibly marked by the pallor and stale air of death.
There were several reactions. One was the birth of a new industry, that of the “funeral parlor,” in which wakes were removed from the home altogether to a designated space elsewhere. That development was a mixed bag and one about which I have some opinions, but that is for another day.
Another reaction was from, of all places, the magazine Ladies Home Journal. A publisher of room layouts in every issue, the Journal would no longer ultimately be in the business of death, it declared. Henceforth, it would not include in its house plans death rooms by parlor or any other name. Instead, the focal center of the home would become a living room.[ii]
Rather than being overly formal or adhering to the rigid conventions of the day’s style, living rooms were supposed to be just that, spaces alive with the character of those who lived in them. The living room was to be the heartbeat of the family, where memories were made and joys were shared. If one was invited into the living room, he was given entrance to a place of relationship, laughter, and love.
The center of our homes is still called the living room, but often it is more like a tomb. We’ve allowed it to become something other than that for which it was inspired, a stale and sterile place instead of one that engenders love and kindles joy.
Similarly, the hearts of the women in the Gospel had become, with the death of Jesus, death rooms of hopeless mourning, for their leader and friend, and for the apparent demise of the better kingdom he preached with such passion. Good Friday, for us as for them, can seem so much more convincing than Easter. Just this past week, the continuing histrionic rancor of our political season further sapped hope, and the brutal terror attack in Belgium further stoked anxiety and fatalism. Jesus is dead. Grace decays. Maybe it’s easier if we just give in to that psychology and render death rooms of our hearts.
And yet, on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene and the others approach what they believe to be a death room, a tomb. They expect the air to be stale with decay, which is why they bring the aromatic spices. They expect the mood to be one of overwhelming mourning. They expect to meet only the dead.
But instead, the women arrive at a room dazzlingly alive in ways that exceed any earthly understanding. The space that should be draped in darkness is emblazoned with light. Where there should be a corpse, there two angelic messengers with words of joy and hope. The tomb, it turns out, will no longer ultimately be about the business of death. It has become a living room! And the women’s hearts, which had been broken, begin to mend with the promise that they will meet Jesus again, and soon. He will come to them very much alive, and his new life will transform theirs.
Is there room for the living Jesus in our hearts? You see, it is again Easter Day, and again the world hangs in the balance. That is not hyperbole. That is not exaggeration. That is Gospel truth. Messages of death are all around us: Death caused by terror; death of relationships; death of joy; death of hope. But here, today, the message is life, the life that cannot be bound by death, the life that tears the black bunting from the window and rolls the stone from the tomb. It is the message of a God who says, after Jesus is removed lifeless from the cross, “I’m not done yet” and turns the stale, sterile, and lifeless tomb into a living room.
On this Easter Day, what message do we take back into the world? When all the myriad forces of death come calling, how do we respond? Among those around us, do we kindle joy? Do we foster relationships among all God’s people, filled with laughter and love? Do we, with the women, take the message of the living Christ with us wherever we go? Are our hearts living rooms?
[ii] This information comes both from the blog post cited above and from a lecture delivered by Lauren Winter at the Episcopal Diocese of Texas Clergy Conference at Camp Allen, Navasota, TX, in October 2014.