Years ago, when our youngest was still very small, she came across some old photographs of my parents. In them was a handsome boxer dog.
“Who’s that?” she asked.
“That’s Mulligan, Grandma and Grandad’s old dog,” I told her.
“Why have I never seen him at Grandma and Grandad’s house?” she wondered.
“Well, he died before you were born.”
“Oh.” She pondered. “So when’s he going to come alive again?”
When I explained that, contrary to her hopeful expectation, Mulligan was going to stay dead, she was inconsolable, grieving with loud tears for a dog she’d never met. Once she’d calmed down a little, she explained the source of her confusion and frustrated hope.
“At playgroup,” she told me, “the aunties told us a story about a man who died, but then he came alive again.”
Finally, the penny dropped. I told her that one of the reasons that the story is told so much is that it was so unusual for the man to come alive again; that most people stay dead. This was a strange and wonderful thing that happened! That was why the playgroup aunties were still talking about it thousands of years later.
To bring home the reality of mortality to a three-year-old, even in the context of faith in the resurrection of the dead, without destroying her hope, her faith, her comfort, is both intellectually and heart-wrenchingly challenging.
I was also left to wonder what it was about the way in which her aunties told the stories of Holy Week and Easter that had so filled my daughter with a beautiful and wonderful hope, even if it was just out of whack enough to invite disappointment. She had heard the same story at home, and at church, but had, apparently, made no connection to the one she had heard at playgroup, in which the man who was dead came alive again. When the aunties told her the story, she heard that the death and resurrection of this man had destroyed death, so that no one, not even a boxer named Mulligan, would be left for dead by God.
Those women: they would, in other times, have been the ones at the foot of the cross. They would have been the ones who watched the body’s journey to the tomb. They would have been the ones running with tears of confusion and joy from the emptiness of the grave on Easter morning, telling their stories to all who would listen.