Lessons for Feast of the Resurrection, Principal Service, Year A: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; and, John 20:1-18
THE WHOLE STORY OF EASTER
We gather with Christians around the world, today and across time, to proclaim with exuberant joy: Alleluia! Christ is risen! It’s the most ancient creed in Christianity: Alleluia! Christ is risen! This proclamation will mark our liturgy for fifty days. It is the most deeply held affirmation for the faithful in Christ. It defines us. It is our purpose and our meaning. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Proclaiming the joyful phrase today is a little different than in years past. This year we hear these words not in a beautifully decorated church with our friends, but in our own homes, perhaps alone or with a few immediate family members. This year we are quarantined, and yet we still make our proclamation as throngs of believers through space and time still do. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
And yet, the praise-filled shouts of “Alleluia” don’t tell the whole story of Easter. Fear and sickness surrounds us. My friend outside Bergamo, Italy, will have already made his proclamation, even as death has taken hold of his village. Amidst the beautiful flowers, the gorgeous music, death surrounds him, and indeed seems to be shrouding the world. Yes, our praise-filled shouts of “Alleluia” are only part of our Easter story. The whole story of Easter also includes fear and pain, shouts of war and hate, oppression, despair, racism, and chaos. Death still takes hold of us. Darkness still enfolds. Fear is real.
The whole story of Easter includes all of these as well because the story of Easter includes ALL of us.
In the wake of all that is happening, in the shadow of viruses and illness, in the still looming shadows of wars and violence, injustice and inequality, the emotions surrounding fear and darkness are viscerally familiar to all of us. We should acknowledge those feelings. These are the same feelings that also filled the hearts of the faithful on that first Easter morning.
WHERE EASTER ENDED
The Gospel of John sets the scene:
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” (John 20:1)
We are then told that Mary ran to share the news with the others. Mary, it seems fair to say, was distraught over the body of her beloved friend and Lord being missing from the place where it had been laid just three days earlier. Then, after reaching the others with her unbelievable news, those disciples take off running as well. Upon reaching the tomb, they confirm what Mary had reported.
And then they depart, their hopes dashed and their Easter “Alleluias” muted.
This is where Easter ended as the disciples returned home, confused, saddened, and unsure of what would happen next. John tells us that:
“For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (John 20:9)
Who could blame them? Their hopes were violently crushed by powers and principalities. What were they to do now? How would they come to grips with their grief and disappointment? Where would they go? Who would they believe in next?
Mary, though, wasn’t quite ready to give it all up. She stayed behind and wept, examining the emptiness of the tomb, making sure that nothing went unnoticed or unexamined. Was there the faintest possibility of another explanation?
But then two angels appear sitting where the body of Jesus had been. They ask her why she is weeping and she replied,
“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:13b)
SPIRITUAL MOURNING & THE FIRST EASTER
Can you hear the grief in her voice? Maybe we can empathize. Have you ever found yourself in a similar moment to the one Mary is experiencing? Have you ever found yourself in a moment of desperately searching for God, only to be met with emptiness and sadness? It’s the experience of Job. These moments are experiences of very real mourning, wondering where Jesus has gone, and why he seems to have been taken away. St. John of the Cross labeled these moments the “Dark Night of the Soul,” when nothing – not prayer, not sacrament, not community – can bring comfort. Moments when God’s presence seems to have evaporated.
There is a well-meaning tendency among many Christians to liken these moments to spiritual weakness. “If you only prayed a little harder or believed a little deeper or trusted a little more, then everything would be okay!” Thomas Keating, Trappist monk and priest, reminds us,
“The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside of us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal.” (Thomas Keating, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 38).
The lesson that Mary learned on that first Easter, and the lesson God is still trying to teach us 2,000 years later, is that it’s not a five step process. There isn’t a checklist! In the midst of Mary’s desperate search for answers, a man walks by,
“Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” (John 20:15a)
Desperately hoping that he would know something, she asked if he knows where Jesus is. She wants something to do! She wants a target, a goal, something to accomplish.” And that’s when it happens: Jesus calls her by name, and when Mary hears her name, she is overcome! She cries out, “Rabbouni! Teacher!”
Mary experiences the very first Easter moment! She realizes that Christ’s difficult and unbelievable teachings are true. She knows that what Jesus promised at the Last Supper has come to pass! Mary’s witness to the first Easter is about far more than beautiful worship and festive celebrations. Mary brings us face to face with the depths of our humanity. Her witness is a mosaic of the human experience—grief and joy; uncertainty and affirmation; depression and determination. This is the true witness of Easter! In the depths of our despair and grief, even when we just don’t know if we believe it anymore, the God made known to us in Jesus Christ shows up where we least expect!
THE EASTER COMMISSIONING
We have to be careful not to close the book, though, after Mary’s vision of the risen Lord. The story ends right here! Don’t get me wrong, it would have been a fine ending; It’s just not the close of the story. Indeed, as we continue to read, the narrative history of Jesus’ resurrection becomes a narrative of commissioning!
“Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17b)
And then Mary leaves the garden and, through her courageous act of “going,” she sets loose the Good News of Easter! Even in uncertainty and fear, sorrow and grief, Mary bears witness to God’s last word even in the face of death. Through Mary’s Easter witness, we can see our whole humanity is redeemed – grief and joy, uncertainty and affirmation, desperation and determination. The journey of faith is a holy mystery that will surprise, unsettle, and transform us, even as we come to know that love wins, hope prevails, and peace matters!
This Easter we are invited to join Mary in an unhindered proclamation that Christ is risen. May we proclaim it not only with our lips, but in our lives. May we look for the Resurrected Christ in places we may not expect. May we search for Christ among the poor and the oppressed, the lonely and forgotten, and among those who have nobody to care for them. The world needs this now, perhaps more than ever before.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!