After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy…I don’t know if there is a truer statement of what we all may be feeling on this Easter day than that. It would be a vast understatement to say that the moment we’re currently living through has a certain strangeness to it. At least once a day, I am struck by the thought that I’ve never experienced anything quite like this, and I suspect I’m not alone.
- In a matter of weeks, we’ve been collectively immersed into a new vocabulary, a new set of practices, and maybe more than anything, a tsunami of information that threatens to overwhelm us.
- Individuals in power, journalists pursuing an angle, researchers armed with data, and conspiracy theorists with an agenda—everyone has a chart to display, a forecast to project, a meme to share, a cure to hawk, and an axe to grind.
Across a vast array of platforms, a dizzying collection of narrators are telling us their disparate versions of a common story, and it’s not an easy story to digest. When we cut through all the details and all the data and all the differences, it’s ultimately a story of sickness and grief and loss that spans from China to Italy to our own backyards. It’s a story about our limitations, a story about mortality, a story—as much as we hate to say it—about death. And in this respect at least, despite the profound strangeness of the moment, we can find some common cause with generations of people who have lived before us. Because from the beginning of time, in one form or another, we have been telling and living stories about death.
Easter, is a day that we in the church look forward to all year. We look forward to it
for a number of different reasons. We love the the sunrise services and the church breakfasts and the egg hunts and the familiar hymns. Some of these things are strangely absent from our celebrations this year, but one thing that remains is the story at the center of this celebration, the story at the center of our life in Christ, the story that Matthew tells us this year in his gospel. It is a story that begins in a place of death, at a tomb near a place called Golgotha.
Some women, identified here as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, come to this tomb to pay their respects to the dead, to enact faithfully the rituals that surround death. We read elsewhere that they have come to anoint the body of their dead teacher, their dead Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
During the past few years of their lives, they have been a part of an amazing story, one in which they have seen things and heard things they had never thought possible, one in which they had been introduced to love and hope and mercy and power in ways they had never imagined. Nevertheless, the story seems to have come to an end. This journey to the tomb is likely expected to be the final chapter, the time that brings closure to what they’ve experienced.
As they make their way to the tomb, we can imagine them telling stories about Jesus. This is what we do at funerals, and in their own way, that’s what these women were doing. Having a funeral. We can imagine them telling stories of all they had seen and heard in their time with Jesus, including the story of his death, the sudden, cruel, and unthinkable way that he had been taken from them. In their words and in their actions, these women are lovingly and courageously remembering the death of Jesus in the most faithful way they can.
But as they arrive at the tomb, the story changes in a dramatic way. This garden tomb about which the air of death hangs is unmistakably transformed. An earthquake, a stone rolled away, a garrison of soldiers frozen in fear, an angel with clothes like snow—these are not signs of death but of something else.
As Matthew interprets them, and as the women experienced them, these are signs of a divine presence, the work of a living God. And so the women, who thought their story had come to an end, are initiated into a new story. The angel, literally a messenger, tells them what has happened. Jesus has been raised! This story about death has become a story about life. New life. Resurrection life. Almost immediately, before the women even have much of a chance to hear, let alone to interpret this new story, they are a part of the story. They are called to go and tell the story.
The angel instructs them to go and share what they have heard with the disciples, who at this point are holed up with their own fear and despair, overwhelmed by all that they had seen and heard and paralyzed by what they anticipate is still to come, the grim ending to their own story. On the way, the women meet Jesus himself, who further encourages them to go and tell the story of what they have seen, to proclaim the good news to the disciples. And so these faithful women become the first to speak a word of resurrection life into this story of death, the first to speak a word of resurrection hope into a world of death. But they won’t be the last.
Have you ever felt like you’re doing everything right, and things still fall apart? Most of us know that sensation; perhaps we’re even feeling it right now. We’re all experiencing some level of disruption to our normal patterns, work, and lifestyles thanks to an invisible-to-the-naked-eye virus. World economies are tanking, healthcare systems are stretched beyond capacity, and supply chains are stalled, and the entire world seems to be coming to a stand still. Change is tough, especially when you had no input into the process. No wonder emotions like grief, sadness, anxiety, anger, confusion, and fear are spinning us all into a complex and interconnected web of discomfort.
For the first time in my life, our current situation and the socio-political and religious settings of first century Palestine certainly share the reality of upended expectations across time and space. Funny how life can change in the span of a single breath.
- We find our entire way of being overturned by a virus. The followers of Jesus had their hopes dashed and plans halted with the arrest and political killing of their beloved rabbi and Messiah.
- Today we are sequestered in our homes (those of us who are privileged enough to have homes), fearful and fretful in the midst of this pandemic.
Our first century counterparts were locked away in their homes for fear of being arrested as heretics or political rabble-rousers.
And yet the great world spins; life goes on. Today we’ve adapted to digital technologies for work, school, faith, and community to keep some rhythms and patterns going. People who are old enough to be my grandparents are learning how to use ZOOM, since visitors are not allowed at their assisted living home to prevent the spread of the virus. Faithful women, Mary of Magdala, and Mary, mother of James, left their homes to finish the work of commending Jesus’ body to the grave. At our best, humanity is creative and resilient; we find ways to keep on keepin’ on.
Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that pretty soon this will all be over and we can go back to the way things used to be. Easter, always has been and always will be, a big old NO to normal. Resurrection scoffs at backward longing and thinking, at nostalgia and regret.
And so on this Easter Sunday, just as those women were initiated into this story of life and empowered to share it, just as Jesus’ earliest followers were commissioned to tell the story in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, we, the Church, stand in this moment, a moment shot through with death and despair, a moment when people are looking for hope, when people are yearning for signs of life. We might not have any easy answers for this crisis that surrounds us, but we do have a story of hope to tell.
The story of the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus, almost two thousand years old, is one that we can never stop telling.
- It’s a story that some, like the authorities of Jesus’ day, will resist.
- It’s a story that some will twist to fit their own version of events.
- It’s a story that some will forget and others will dismiss as foolish.
But we persist in telling this story, in our words of truth and in our works of mercy. We follow the example of those women at the tomb, who had the courage to go forth and speak the good news in a world consumed with death. We tell of and we practice resurrection because the resurrection is the story that gives shape to our lives, the story that gives shape to the universe, the story that reminds us that, even when our world seems to be falling apart, death does not get the last word or the final chapter. Jesus has been raised! Go and tell this story of hope!
So I have to ask you, are you willing to let this socially and physically distanced Easter take you to the empty tomb and obliterate everything you’re so sure you know and to which you’ve been clinging? Are you willing to confront a new reality? Don’t be surprised that when you do you will have more in common with these first witnesses of the Resurrection than you might imagine. It is okay whether you are afraid, confused, anxious, stunned, or numb. Jesus is not bound or hemmed in by our own human attempts to control him. He is risen and on the loose, troubling the waters and doing a new thing.
So yes, if you haven’t experienced yet, expect some holy chaos. Realize you won’t have all the answers. Don’t be afraid of what appears to be gaping nothingness. If the cat’s got your tongue, be not dismayed. Humanity also has a tendency to work out our fears and move forward stronger than ever.
Dear brothers and sisters, as terrifying as the unknown truly is, I pray that we embrace this “inner Easter,” looking within to ensure resurrection and new birth. Don’t rush to fill the space. Hang out with the women.
Honor your pain and fear—and theirs. Do not be afraid. Go and tell. Go and practice resurrection yourself and as you do that, stay safe, be well, and rest in hope of the resurrected Christ.
In his book Longing for Enough in a Culture of More author E. B. White told a story about his wife. It was the autumn before her death and he observed her out in the garden busily burying bulbs in the earth and he said: “under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.” That is an image powerful enough to remember for a lifetime: this remarkable woman, entering the final season of her own life, but totally convinced that an “eternal spring” will surely arrive for both her tulips and herself.
The secular world critique of the Christian belief in resurrection is that it is “pie in the sky,” that it ignores reality, and that it glosses over the darkness and tragedy of life. Actually, the biblical accounts do just the opposite. That is why we observe “Good Friday” as the darkest day in history, why we drape the cross, and why we read out loud about the cowardice of the disciples, the betrayal of Judas and the unbelief of nearly every single follower who saw or heard about the empty tomb.
The Easter message is not about a God who saves us from pain and darkness, but about a God who is plotting victory in the midst of defeat, and who is planting seeds in the darkness of winter.
This year might be the most important Easter of my lifetime or yours.
- For maybe the first time ever we are not celebrating in the midst of crowded pews or in view of spectacular stain glass windows.
- We will hear the music from electronic speakers rather than reverberating through our sanctuary.
- There will not be the aroma of lilies, or the hugs of cherished friends with whom we share worship.
The grandeur of Easter worship and the sound of glorious music inside a beloved sanctuary cannot be fully captured on a computer screen. And yet, let us make sure that our proclamation will not be muted, our joy will not be shortchanged. The church does its best work standing in the middle of the cemetery and proclaiming life over death. This year, more than ever, the story of a Jesus’ resurrection has life-giving power of hope. And it is our job to go and tell the story.
Sisters and brothers, family and friends, neighbors and strangers; these are hard and distressing days on all of us, but we have living hope in and through Jesus Christ our Savior and our Lord. Easter was never meant to go back to normal; but it was, and still is, intended to make all things new. For Christians, it means the proclamation of release over suffering, hope over despair, and life over death. So on this Easter let us take a lead from the the women in the story, the first to witness to the resurrection, and leave the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and go and tell others that Jesus is Risen! He is risen indeed!