Christ is Risen, friends. Let us rejoice.
Brothers and sisters, tonight’s celebration takes us from chaos and darkness to light and creation, from slavery to freedom, from alienation to covenant, and from death to life. We awoke this morning, many of us, with the thought of Jesus in the tomb, and began the movement from grief to expectation. This morning I found an extraordinary passage, which I later discovered comes from the Orthodox Morning Prayer for Holy Saturday. It reads: “Today a tomb holds him who holds the creation in the hollow of his hand; a stone covers him who covered the heavens with glory.... Come, let us see our Life lying in the tomb, that he may give life to those that in their tombs lie dead.... Unto him let us cry aloud: Arise, O Lord... for measureless is thy great mercy and thou dost reign for ever.”
Tonight’s Gospel also takes us on a transition. It begins in the darkness; Mary Magdalene and the other Mary - there are many Marys in Jesus’s circle of disciples - set out at the first break of dawn. They are in despair, and follow their hearts to the tomb where Jesus was buried.
For our world today, I think it was less difficult than usual for people to think about Jesus in the tomb, and to enter into the Good Friday service, as a heavy shroud covers our land these days. We understand going to pray at a tomb. For those who have lost loved ones in the past weeks, where there could be no proper funeral, there is an extra resonance. Jesus too was not given a wake or funeral, but his body was simply placed in a tomb. Normally there is a finality to that.
But as G. K. Chesterton noted, our God is “a God who knows his way out of the grave.” Death does not have the last word. Our imaginations do well to ponder what it was like to be there. When the angel in brilliant light comes, removes the boulder from in front of the tomb, and sits on it (a wonderful detail!), Matthew says the two soldiers guarding it were terrified, “were like dead men.” Quite a response from those about to hear that the dead man whose tomb they were guarding was not dead anymore. And the two Marys, as the angel speaks to them and tells them that Jesus is risen, are at once terrified and overwhelmed with joy; and holding all that emotion, while they set out to tell the unthinkable to the other disciples, Jesus himself appears to them, and they fall down before him. And he says what the Risen Jesus so often says, “do not be afraid.” And then he sends them forth to go tell the others that he is raised from the dead, and that he will meet them in Galilee.
Bishop Rob Hardwick, the Anglican bishop of this territory, and I, have shared our Easter reflections, and I want to read a little excerpt from his powerful Easter sermon in the context of this pandemic. He notes: “Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, the Soldiers at the tomb, Satan and the (political and) religious authorities of the day could not prevent the resurrection and, thanks be to God, neither can COVID 19.... The Good News that there is no sin we have committed bad enough, that through repentance, Jesus cannot forgive... There is no situation we are in, so dark, that the light of Christ cannot shine into it... There is no storm we can encounter that the Lord cannot calm.. And there is no death that is beyond our Lord’s redeeming and resurrection. And even today, and even to us, into our locked, and isolating rooms; into our fear filled world; into our darkened and anxious homes..., the risen Lord enters and speaks his Peace to us and breathes the Holy Spirit into all who would receive.” Amen to that.
This evening I want to offer you - people of God spread from Consul to Carnduff to Canora, and all places in between, and some beyond - two thoughts to ponder as we launch into the Easter season. The first takes its lead from today’s second reading, where St. Paul speaks about the implications of the resurrection for us. We who are baptized into his dying and rising will be united with him in the resurrection, insists St Paul; we will live with him; we are dead to sin; death has no dominion over him, and no dominion over us; we are to live in newness of life. Such strong statements. Paul is calling us to a new way of living, what I would call paschal living, life transformed by the dying and rising of Jesus. Of course we aren’t done with sin or death, but we’re somehow called to live ‘on the other side of death.’ Belief and trust in the resurrection bring with them an invitation to see this human life - including death - differently, and to live it differently.
There are some good reflections out there about how the COVID crisis is going to change us. I have read some good challenges, like “when this ends and we can go back to normal, we should be discerning which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.” In this intense period which creates a space for many to experience a lot of solitude and quiet and time for pondering, this can be a time of transformation. I think we all need that. We shouldn’t come out the same on the other end of it all.
Much moreso, the experience of the resurrection should change us. Resurrection brings transformation on the deepest level possible, and its power is to be at work in our lives even now. So we do well to ask: Where is fear dominating in my life, and where is the grace of God inviting me to learn to live with greater trust? Where do I still dwell in darkness, and how can the light that comes with the resurrection transform that? Where do sin and death hold sway in my world, and how can I participate in God’s undoing of the power of sin and death? How does resurrection faith shape the way we are called to live in the midst of this pandemic? Resurrection faith is an invitation to live deeply, fully, generously, joyfully, justly, courageously, and compassionately, because that is how God deals with us. So, that’s a first line of thinking for you to ponder in the coming weeks.
The second thought I want to set before you tonight is about witnessing. The women at the tomb went to see a dead Jesus, and what they found was a Risen one, who filled them with joy, but also gave them a task: go tell the others. The early church is a community which has a tangible experience of the resurrection, a series of encounters with the Risen Christ, and they want to share that with others. We too are called to be witnesses, but not witnesses in that same direct way because our experience isn’t exactly the same. 2,000 years later, our witness is going to look different, but like theirs, it needs to draw on our experience of the Risen Lord. And it is here that most of us struggle a little, to name that experience.
Albert Einstein once observed, “The Lord God is subtle, but malicious he is not.” God’s ways with us, the presence of the Risen Lord and the Holy Spirit in our lives, is a presence that we don’t always see, that we sometimes struggle to see, even though Jesus promised that he would be with us to the end of time. Next week we can ponder that further as we walk in the shoes of Thomas, who had to overcome serious doubts about the resurrection. But tonight, I simply want to encourage you to keep your eyes wide open to the presence of God in our lives. It is subtle, but not absent; it is hidden, but not invisible. I want to take my lead from William Wordsworth who writes of finding the presence of God (from his ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’):
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death....
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Wordsworth points to presence of God at the depths of our human experience, in the ordinariness of it and the beauty of it.
So I invite you to listen for the voice of the Risen Lord, and see the paschal dimension of life, in experiences, encounters and events that are part of our lives:
The exuberance of Spring,
the smell of the moist earth,
the feel of earth running through your fingers;
the song of the meadowlark, the first time you hear it in the spring;
the reality of birth,
and holding a newborn in your hands;
the vastness of the sky,
the smell of clover in the heat of the summer,
and the lights of combines on late august nights.
Acts of unexpected kindness,
the simple goodness of people.
moments of inherent excellence, of love which abides,
walking down a prairie road,
the embrace of a loved one,
dinner with the family, a conversation with a friend;
singing an old favourite song.
The way the Word sometime burns within us when he hear it,
comes alive in a way that rounds with what we know to be true;
the experience of forgiveness when we don't deserve it,
and receiving mercy within mercy within mercy;
the sacred memory of those who have gone before us,
the ways they continue to be with us;
the courage of people reaching out to those in need,
and love, the giving of self, whenever we encounter it;
the tender mercies of life,
the blessing that sometimes comes after hard experiences;
an elderly couple holding hands,
a loaf of bread, a chalice of wine,
kneeling in a holy place, where prayer has been valid;
an astonishing sunrise, a gentle sunset;
the return of the geese on still waters;
tulips on the kitchen table;
the Easter candle burning;
the smell of Easter lilies...
Life is resplendent and full of dying and rising. So too our experience, if we search it out.
St. Augustine invites us to search for God in order to find him in order to search still more. The Risen Lord is with us, there is a paschal character to all of our lives. This Easter season, let us ask for the grace to see it a little better, and find new ways to witness to that gift and blessing: Christ our Lord, Risen from the Dead, Living among us, Drawing us to himself, Revealing his glory.
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