Et in Arcadia ego?
Arcadia was the region in ancient Greece chosen as a background for pastoral poetry. 17th century French painter Nicolas Poussin has a painting titled by 1st century Virgil’s phrase Et in Arcadia ego. This loosely translated is “’Even in Arcadia I (i.e. Death) am to be found.’ That is to say even the escapist pastoral world of Arcady is no refuge from death” (https://www.wga.hu/html_m/p/poussin/2a/18arcad.html). English poet John Donne would have certainly known Virgil’s phrase, but not Poussin’s painting. He died before it was painted. Nevertheless his poem, “Death be not proud”, does answer Virgil’s sentiment. You might know Donne’s ‘answer’ from a book, movie, or TV episode title. “Death be not proud” has legs because it is oh so very proud.
‘Death be not proud’ because the dead belong to God not you. Our text, in proper translation, is clear on this. God calls our dead His. The NIV has “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise.” Read NASB 77’s footnote on verse 19. It says, “Your dead will live; My corpses will rise.” Death is one of the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse and is always accompanied by the Grave. It thunders across the earth as unstoppable as antichristian religion, war, and famine. We speak of our dead as lost; we give them up. God says their His. “’My dead shall rise” (LW, 5, 76) is how Luther translated.
Not only does God claim the dead, He speaks to the dead. The 1984 NIV, our insert, got this right. Later editions water it down. “You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy,” says the Lord. At this time, the OT Church is a small remnant and many who had been in their ranks are corpses in the dust of the grave. Here the Lord speaks to the dead telling them to wake up and shout. God’s dead are no less alive to Him than the living are to us. For Luther, the fact that God speaks directly to the dead is proof of their immortality. He says, “…this is the most powerful proof that we are not mortal but are immortal even in death” (LW, 5, 76).
In this same lecture, Luther goes on to say that God takes on human language and not that of oxen and donkeys because we live forever. Even more pointed is the fact that God the Son didn’t take on the flesh of animals or birds but of human beings. All animal life was subjected to pain, gloom, and death because of the sinfulness of humanity. But our flesh and blood itself is fallen, lost, damned. To rescue us from the Law’s condemnation, Jesus had to keep all Laws as a man and pay in our flesh and blood the debt our sin and sinfulness racked up. Yes, we had sold our bodies and souls to Sin, Death, and Devil. Jesus, true God, was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary to purchase and win us from Sin, Death, and the Devil’s power.
‘Death be not proud’, at least among Christians who “look for the resurrection of the dead” and believe in “the resurrection of the body”. We confess one or the other in the Creed each Sunday. This pictures us as standing in a graveyard looking for resurrected people, for opened graves, for empty coffins. That’s what we say each Sunday we look for. And in addition to saying we believe in the holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the life everlasting, we say we believe dead bodies will be raised. The hitch is to us they seem like shades. That’s literally what the last line of text says, “the earth will give birth to her shades.” Think of the 1990 movie “Ghost”. Those in the other realm are like wisps of clouds, they form out of the shadows and go back into them. That’s how our dead in Christ are to us too. They fade into and out of the minds eyes. People will lament I can no longer see her face; I can no longer hear his voice. God does both.
What we have in our text is Isaiah falling into the depths of despair and being pulled up to heights of joy. You don’t see this because our OT reading skipped from 13 to 19. Verse 18 is a despairing note: “We were with child, we writhed in pain, but we gave birth to wind. We have not brought salvation to the earth; we have not given birth to people of the world.” No joy there. But our text ends with the promise that the earth will drop her shades. It uses the term for animals giving birth. This is like the NT. When the Spirit wishes to show you how well fed the thousands were on 5 loaves and 2 fish, He uses a word for feeding out an animal. In our text, as animals are literally said to drop their young because they give birth on the ground, so God’s earth will push out the Dead the other direction.
There’s an Australian TV series called “Glitch”. The dead, some from long ago, some more recent, all of sudden wake up in their graves and dig out. They’re not monstrosities like in the short story The Monkey’s Paw, but they’re like those in George MacDonald story Traveler in Fairy Land. They know "of restored friendships; of revived embraces; of love which said it had never died; of faces that had vanished long ago, yet said with smiling lips that they knew nothing of the grave..." (Phantastes, 127).
Get the picture? Proud Death assures us it has our dead, even those in Christ, for good. But God calls them “His” dead. And He bids them wake up and shout for joy. And they open their very alive mouths, right now, and they shout not even tasting let alone spitting dirt. Luther says that far from the dead being lost to the still alive church on earth, they are wakened with the dew from the glory of God to form one glorious church with those still in the body (K-D, 7, 449-452). In another place Luther cites Paul saying he dies daily. This shows the godly live in the midst of death, and just as dew comes into being without our assistance so the dead are awaken and shout right now (LW, 16, 209). I’ve heard many a Texas rancher say in the midst of a hot, dry summer that a heavy dew is as good as an inch of rain. God’s dew is even more powerful, more renewing, more lifegiving for Jesus’ sake. And it sprinkles the dead in Christ daily.
‘Death be not proud’ even though we do have a very big glitch this side of heaven. For multiple millennia the Church has stood outside graveyards looking but not seeing resurrected dead people. But we say believing in the resurrection of the body is an article of faith not sight just as forgiveness, heaven, the Church, and the Holy Ghost are. Here’s the glitch; we only demand God show us the raised dead not forgiveness, not heaven, not the Church, not the Holy Ghost. Confessing I believe in forgiveness, heaven, the Church, and the Holy Ghost joys us, empowers us, comforts us. But with Death we demand to see it defeated, overcome, trampled. Tennyson expresses this well: “A shadow flits before me,/ Not thou, but like to thee;/ Ah Christ, that it were possible/ For one short hour to see/ The souls we loved, that they might tell us/ What and where they be” (Maud. IV, 3).
Do you recall how Jesus proved that the dead in God are still alive? From the present tense of a verb. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not was. So here. The Lord calls to those who dwell in dust: “wake up and shout for joy.” He’s not calling in the future. He calls right now. Augustine confesses this, "For the souls of the faithful departed are not divorced from…the temporal church. If they were, we should not be mindful of them at God's altar in the communion; ...We conclude, therefore, that even now, in time, the church reigns with Christ both in its living and departed members" (ACC, XII, 329).
In prophetic writings it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint who’s speaking when to whom. Next week we’ll be in the Little Apocalypse where our Lord foretells the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world in one Bible Class. It’s like 2 vines wrapped around each other; it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. Add to this that Eternal Truths are being communicated to creatures stuck in time, and Divinity is speaking to humanity. From God’s point of view: The Dead aren’t gone at all. He sees everything in one eternal now. We can only see things as this happened, that happens, and this will happen. Death on this side of heaven is an uncrossable river; but not to the Lord of the living and dead. There are not two Churches to Him or three even. The Church on earth, in heaven, and then in glory. No those redeemed from Sin, Death, and Devil constitute one eternal Church ever-living and singing praises into the ears of their God and Savior. The difference is those who’ve passed over sing with eyes wiped of tears, with bodies free from pain, and hearts free from doubt; we don’t.
But this is not a matter of you stirring up the faith to make something happen. You’re not Dorothy in the Land of Oz. You’re children of the heavenly Father in His land, His house, His home. This is not some science fiction show where the stronger you believe something the more substantial it becomes. Like the very presence of your Lord and Savior in this Sacrament, on this Altar, He is here whether you believe it or not. This separates us from Protestant America in particular and popular American opinion. To them if you don’t believe anything is there, nothing is. The things of God have no objective reality apart from you’re imparting it through your believing. Wrong. The Word of the Lord makes reality. When He declared all manner of creeping, crawling things ‘clean’ it didn’t matter that Peter had for a lifetime believed and still did they were unclean. God fairly shouts the second time: “What I have declared clean you must not call unclean” (Acts 10:15). Those God in Christ calls alive, we must not call dead. But whether Peter or we believe what God says, it remains true.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146 asks the soul why it allows exterior things to wound its interior life. Why do you allow Death, its fear, its certainty feed, prey on your mind. He instead admonishes his soul “to feed on Death, that feeds on men, And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.” Good advice, but Jesus goes one better. He by dying perfectly but in agony for our sins, swallowed the Death that was so proud, stately, and stalking us. Death once swallowed by Christ does mean there is no more dying then. And that’s why Donne said, “Death be not proud”, and we can add. “Even in Arcadia.” Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints’ Sunday (20231105); Isaiah 26:19-20