Alleluia! The Lord is Risen! (Easter)

Alleluia!  The Lord is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

So begins our celebration of Easter, the most important Feast of the church year.  This is a day of great celebration, with many flowers decorating the church, with festive white and gold hangings and vestments, with joyous songs and Alleluias (and Hallelujahs).  Easter is our celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, a miracle that is mysterious and beyond understanding, but that is the foundation of our faith as Christians.  Many years ago, those who wished to be baptized would spend the season of Lent in learning and preparation, and on Easter, they would be baptized into the Church.  Without Easter, the Christian church would not now exist — which, I know, may be considered a mixed blessing — though we mark the birth of the Church at the Pentecost.  So what is this all about?

The lections for Easter worship offer several options, including two

Eastern Orthodox Icon of Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome at the grave of Jesus
Eastern Orthodox Icon of Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome at the grave of Jesus

different accounts of the Resurrection.  The account in Mark’s gospel is more spare, less detailed.  The account in John’s gospel speaks with John’s poetic voice, with more details and more drama.  These appear to be two completely different stories, but they tell one very important truth: Jesus did not stay dead.  Jesus did not remain in the tomb.  Of course, there is another detail that is very dear to my heart: it was women who first discovered this.  It wasn’t John, the beloved disciple, or Simon Peter, the rock on whom the Church was founded.  It was Mary Magdalene, healed by Jesus of a multitude of demons, and some accounts include Mary the mother of Jesus and Salome.

I can only imagine the fear and anxiety that these women must have felt.  First, as they approach the tomb, they remember the large stone that sealed the entrance, and they doubt that they will be strong enough to roll it away.  And then, they arrive at the tomb and find the great stone is already moved.  What does this mean?  Did the Romans or the chief priests take the body of their beloved Jesus to hide it?  Did some thief come, and steal their lord away?  What happened here?

In John’s account, Mary Magdalene runs back to the men to tell them that the stone is moved.  In Mark’s account the women proceed straight into the tomb, and the first words the angel inside speaks to them are, “Don’t be afraid.”  (Of course, these are the first words that every angel appearing in the bible speaks to a human.)  It’s no wonder they are afraid!  This is beyond understanding, beyond comprehension — especially when one is already filled with loss and grief and anguish, and maybe even doubt.  But then, the truth of the miracle is revealed.

Icon of the Resurrection
Icon of the Resurrection

You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here!

Two years ago, on Easter Sunday, I wrote in this blog that I could not understand why Jesus would ever want to come back.  I mean, it’s not that he got treated particularly well while he was here, so why would he want to return?  It doesn’t make any sense!

Well, it might not make any sense to us, but it makes perfect sense to God.  After all, what kind of sense does it make to us that God would love every single one of us — love us perfectly, extravagantly, profligately, scandalously — when we know that we’re really not all that lovely or lovable?  And sometimes we might think, okay, so God can love me, but does it make sense for God to love people like Saddam Hussein or Genghis Khan or Vlad Ţepeş every bit as much as God loves Mother Teresa and Archbishop Tutu and Mohandas Gandhi?  Those first three — they’re terrible people!  They’re monsters, destroyers of God’s children!  And those last three, they’re people of great love and peace, truly God’s children!  How on earth does this make sense?  Of course, I just answered that question.  It doesn’t make any sense at all on earth.  But to God, it makes perfect sense.

The resurrection of Jesus is a great gift, and the fundamental truth of it is simple:

GOD. LOVES. YOU.

That’s it.  That’s the message of Easter.  Love.  It’s so simple, but of course, simple things are rarely easy.  Love is hard work for us, because we aren’t God.  We can have a hard time loving people, like Hussein and Khan and Dracula,

The Resurrection by Raffaellino del Garbo
The Resurrection by Raffaellino del Garbo

even like the noisy kids next door and the husband or wife and that weird guy who’s always outside the grocery store smelling not-quite-right.  Some of the final words of Jesus to his closest friends, on the night of the Last Supper, were love one another, just as I have loved you.  Jesus commands us to love, tells us that we will be recognized as his followers by the love we show.  And we must show that love.  Love is a verb.  It is an action, a choice, a behavior.  You cannot say you love someone, if you ignore them or hurt them or refuse to help them.  Love is all about the actions.  You don’t love that smelly guy at the grocery store, if you make Tsch! noises at him, or refuse to look at him.  You don’t love the noisy neighbors if you yell at them or glare at them from your driveway.  Love does the very basic physical actions that Jesus entreats us to do: love feeds the hungry, love gives drink to the thirsty, love tends to the sick, love is present for the lonely, love makes sure that the naked are clothed, and love makes room for the homeless.

God’s love has shown itself in a very basic and physical way, too.  God’s love came physically into this world as a baby human.  God came to us as a naked, hungry, thirsty boy, helpless to provide these things for Godself.  God as an infant was even homeless for a time, when Nazareth was not a safe place for God’s human family.  God as Jesus experienced all of those needs: hunger, thirst, illness, loneliness, nakedness, homelessness.  Jesus experienced anger, frustration, fear.  Heck, Jesus even experienced flatulence, sneezes, itches, bumps, and bruises.  This is what it means when we say Jesus was fully human, while being fully divine.  Jesus knows what we humans need, knows in a personal, intimate way.  So when Jesus tells us to love each other, Jesus knows what he’s talking about.

Peter and John at the Tomb by William Hole
Peter and John at the Tomb by William Hole

Jesus also knows our brokenness, our failures to hit the mark, our separation from God and from each other.  Before Jesus, if a Jewish person wanted to show repentance for sin and be restored to God’s favor, a sacrifice would be made.  Jesus chose to become the last sacrifice; he allowed himself to be killed in order to restore all of us to God’s favor.  When Jesus was nailed to the cross, every one of our sins was nailed to the cross with him.  We may not realize — in this world — that we are loved so perfectly, that we have already been forgiven, that this act of Jesus reconciled us with God and with each other.  That’s because we’re flawed, broken.  We’re not perfect.  All we can do is try.  We can try to love one another, just as Jesus loved us.  We can try to forgive ourselves and to forgive one another.  We can make our own sacrifices, giving time to act out our love, giving money to further God’s work in this world, giving gifts, both tangible and not.

And this is the miracle of the Resurrection.  Yes, Jesus died on that cross, taking on himself the weight of all of the sin of all of the people that ever have been, that are now, and that ever will be.  But God’s love story doesn’t end there.  The story doesn’t end because somehow, marvelously and miraculously, Jesus did not stay dead.  He entered into a new kind of life, a life that included a physical body but that was filled with God’s light and presence.  And the promise of this new life of Jesus is that every one of us will be given the opportunity to enter into this same kind of new life.  We don’t know for sure how or when this will happen, but we know why.  Because

GOD!  LOVES!  US!

Amen.  Alleluia!

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14: Jesus is placed in the tomb.

Finally, we have reached the last Station of the Cross, the burial of Jesus.  The Message says:

Late in the afternoon a wealthy man from Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, arrived. His name was Joseph. He went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate granted his request. Joseph took the body and wrapped it in clean linens, put it in his own tomb, a new tomb only recently cut into the rock, and rolled a large stone across the entrance. Then he went off.

And the NRSV reads:

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.

Intentionally, the Stations of the Cross end with the burial of Jesus, with that great stone sealing the tomb.  We know now that this is not the end of the story, but Joseph of Arimathea and Pontius Pilate and Simon of Cyrene and Mary and Peter and John and all the other disciples and friends did not know this.  They were in a place of pain, of fear, of anguish, of loss, of absence.  They had lost — some of them had even betrayed and abandoned — their teacher, their master, their lord, their savior.

At this Station, we are left standing, looking at a stone.  It is grey: hard, grey rock.  Grey is a good color for this Holy Saturday, this day of emptiness and absence between Jesus leaving the world on Good Friday and re-entering the world on Easter morning.  Grey is a color of between; it is not stark black nor crisp, clean white.  It is fuzzy.  And we’re not walking in the footsteps in Jesus any more, either.  Now we are standing, still and quiet, like that stone.  There is no place left to go.  Where would we turn, without Jesus to guide us?

I will confess to harboring a secret delight at this Station.  It just bubbles up in me, and I can’t help it.  I know that Jesus is gone, and that we are in this between-time of absence and greyness and loss.  But at the same time, I know that marvelous and awe-some things are happening behind that great stone.  I can’t tell you exactly what those things are, because none of us gets to see the process.  We see only what goes into the tomb, the broken body of Jesus, and what comes out on Easter morning.  And right now, I look at that hard, grey rock, just imagining the wonders taking place inside the cave.

This year, this season of Lent, has been the best Lent I’ve ever had.  It feels so strange to say that — we don’t usually think of a season of prayer and fasting and penitence and discipline as good, much less as better or even best!  But despite the burial ceremony for my grandfather, despite being so sick I couldn’t make it to church or our special Lenten discussion series after Ash Wednesday, until the fourth Sunday of Lent, despite never really settling on a personal Lenten discipline… this has been a very holy and fertile season for me.

In prior years, I lived in the house of a very controlling and abusive man, one who could not understand faith, could not come to terms with the idea of having faith in any being other than oneself.  I know that he lives a life of loneliness and fear, because he isn’t even able to have enough faith in other people to extend true trust to them.  And so, living in this house, any expressions I made of my own faith were insulted, mocked, threatened, shouted down.  I learned to try to keep my faith quiet, so as not to rock the boat, not to provoke rage and insult and abuse.  Jesus may have said that we are blessed when we are persecuted for our faith, but when you’re in the midst of it, that persecution feels like anything but a blessing!

This year, my life is completely different.  Being married to maplestar — a lifelong Christian, a cradle Anglican, a man of deep and abiding faith — has meant that we have been able to share our Lenten journey.  We have sat together in worship, have said the prayers, have sung the hymns.  We have taken part together in the Lenten discussions, even sharing leadership of one of them.  We sat vigil in the silent church this morning, as the disciples did with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane — though we did manage not to fall asleep.  This Holy Week has been the first when I’ve ever been able to really immerse myself in the story, to watch with the disciples, to walk the Way of the Cross with Jesus.   Last night was the first Good Friday liturgy I’d ever been able to take part in, and Thursday was only the second Maundy Thursday liturgy I’d been part of.  Tonight will be the first time I’ve ever gotten to participate in the Great Vigil of Easter, the joyful welcoming of the Christ-light back into the world.

So today, as I sit in the garden outside Joseph’s tomb, as I look on the large grey rock, I am waiting with delighted anticipation for the miracle to be revealed.  I hope you’ll sit down and wait with me, here in this beautiful garden, in the silence of nature.  And we’ll watch the great stone, until it is rolled aside.