To be quite honest, the Easter Sunday Mass has never been my favorite. I have always been drawn to the evening services of Holy Week. Each year I am struck by the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday when the altar, divested of it’s glorify, mimics the stripped and beaten body of our savior. Then there is subsequent departure in silence. Have you been there? Have you seen it? Have you felt deep within in your soul that we share in failure of the disciples who abandoned Jesus at his hour of great need? That was the hour of darkness when the Son of Man was handed over to sinners.
On Good Friday I am stirred by the entry in silence. No hymns, no incense, no altar hangings, just the bare wooden altar that symbolizes the cross that awaits our king. Then we venerate the cross. The church, the whole of it, gathers one by one to glory in an instrument of death that has become our life. In the American church, we conclude the Good Friday liturgy with a prayer that says
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death.
That’s it isn’t? The Son, who has authority to cast us away into darkness, the judge of the living and the dead, is the one who intercedes on our behalf. Good Friday says it plainly: set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls.
The last of the evening services is the Great Vigil of Easter. If any celebration can lay claim to being the summit of the Christian year, it is this one. Have you been to one of these services? Have you begun outside the church in the dark of the night and heard the cantor proclaim the light of Christ? Have you heard the exultet: Rejoice now heavenly host and choirs of Angels! Have you heard the repeated refrain this is the night each time more urgent:
This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt.
This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness
This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.
But when we turn to the morning – Easter Sunday – the church has no special liturgy for this day! I find that shocking. There is a collect celebrating the resurrection, but otherwise the liturgy of Easter is almost indistinguishable from any other Sunday. It is almost as if the church has said, we have given you our testimony. He has died, he is risen, and we are filled with joy. It seems that the church recognizes that we cannot fit the entire story of the Christian faith into a Sunday morning and so it does not try. In fact, the liturgical experts will tell you the services of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are not three services, but one. We take three full days to reflect on the death and resurrection of our savior and even then we only skirt the edges of the mystery. There is a lesson in this.
On the one hand at the center of the Christian faith is the simple message: He is risen, but on the other hand, believing in Jesus as the living one entails a sustained encounter and reflection that cannot leave us unchanged. The gospel of Luke tells us that, early in Jesus’s life, Mary watched these events unfold before her and pondered them in her heart. This is surely correct. To encounter Jesus is to encounter a mystery that causes us to ask what exactly am I seeing. What am I in the presence of? Who is this that comes to me from the grave and bids me follow him? To meet a living Jesus is to be changed by him. It involves having all that you thought that you knew thrown into confusion.
If you do not believe me, ask the women who had their understanding of Jesus and reality itself tossed into confusion at the tomb. Luke tells that after Jesus’s death Joseph of Arimethea secures Jesus’s body and lays it in a tomb. The women, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, witnessed this hasty arrangement and decided to prepare the spices that would give him the burial that he deserved. Then because Sabbath was approaching they decided to delay this burial rite until the end of the Sabbath.
The tradition does not reveal us to what these women were thinking as they decided to prepare the spices and visit the tomb of the man they had followed. We know three things: (1) these women (Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Joanna) had placed great hope in Jesus; (2) These women had seen this hope come to a bloody end; (3) these women remained faithful Jews nonetheless.
I claim that he gave them hope because the women followed Jesus. We have all known the cynicism that comes when leaders–religious and otherwise– come asking for our support. In the states, we are going through a particularly difficult election season. The cynic in me wants to cast the whole lot of it to the flames. My brother, whom I love, delights in sending me video clips and news articles of pastors buying airplanes or strolling into churches on hover boards or living in fancy houses, all with a not so subtle message. This is what religion is: a confidence game, a hustle. Galilee was no different. There were a thousand different groups and religious leaders claiming that they could “make Israel great again.” That they could bring “hope and change.” But these women had seen Jesus rise above the bluster and they believed. They believed that he could do something, that he could make things different.
But this hope met a bloody end. As of Good Friday whatever they believed about Jesus had been proven false. But nonetheless, they decided to keep the Sabbath and anoint his body. This leads me to a third point: they remained faithful Jews. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to (a) ignore the Sabbath or (b) ignore Jesus’s body. The men chose the latter. After all, John’s disciples came at great risk to bury him after he had been beheaded by a tyrant (Matt 14:12). The early Christians buried Stephen after his murder (Acts 8:2). The men were nowhere to be found after the death of Jesus. But the women, despite their grief, obeyed the Torah by waiting for the Sabbath to end and then came to pay respects to their friend. This suggests that their faith was something so deeply embedded within them that even a tragedy like Jesus’s death did not destroy it.
As someone involved in pastoral ministry for the better part of a decade, I can say that this is not always the case. Sometimes when we really place our hope in something, disappointment can crush our faith. Some of you here may have experienced just this disappointment. The death of a loved one, the failure of a marriage, the loss of a child has convinced you that either God cannot or will not help you. Therefore, you are done.
The scriptures do not tell us what form of hope was left in these women. It could have simply been instinct and years of prayer that carried them through the Sabbath, but they moved forward nonetheless. Maybe, as the Sabbath lingered, they began to place Jesus alongside the other tragedies they had experienced. He was not the first innocent man to die. Maybe they likened him to John the Baptist or the Old Testament prophets. Many of them met untimely ends. Is it possible that they placed Jesus in the long line of saints similar to what we find in Hebrews 11:
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:34–38)
The Jewish scriptures were littered with these stories of the faithful dead and maybe these stories provided solace. Put differently, despite their pain, the women had a category for dead saints. I wonder if some of us want to place Jesus in a similar category, not of “dead Jewish prophet,” but “dead religious genius.” We place him alongside Muhammad, Buddha, Martin Luther king Jr. and the Apostle Paul. We speak about how his teachings inspire us. We have a place for the dead Jesus and for the “story” of Easter. We deem them inspirations, helpful when needed, but otherwise irrelevant. There is a certain safety in “respecting” Jesus, but not following him.
But these women had followed and we now arrive at their confusion. The women arrive at the Tomb and the body is not there. Luke tells us that they were perplexed. Here, the story of Jesus marches right out of the “religious genius” or “martyr” categories that we place him in. The women encounter the empty tomb and are confused because his dead body should be there. As heartbreaking as his death is, death is something understandable. We know to do with it. We know exactly what we should believe about dead religious leaders. We know how to honor them. Missing bodies are a problem. It confuses things. It tosses what we know about the world into confusion.
This confusion deepens when they encounter the Angels who ask them “why are you seeking the living one among the dead?” I had always thought that the angel’s question was one of logistics. Why are you at the tomb, given that Jesus is risen? I thought that they were informing the women that if they wanted to see Jesus they were in the wrong location. Go somewhere else and find him there. But I now think the question goes much deeper. To seek Jesus at this tomb, to attempt anoint his body with spices, to mourn him as a martyr places him alongside all the other dead people who come before him. As laudable as this activity might be, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of who Jesus is. To admire Jesus from afar or to have a vague appreciation of his teaching, to merely respect the inspiration that gives to others is insufficient. He does not want our respect. He is the lover of our souls come to save our lives.
The women with their spices were trying to piece together some meaning from a tragic life. But this is not how the story of Jesus ends. The story of Jesus has no end because, in the words of the gospel, “he is the living one.” Jesus was not at the tomb because is the not the type of person defeated by death. Death answers to him. When Peter gives his first sermon on the resurrection at the Pentecost he says that Jesus was crucified, “But God raised him to life, freeing him from the pangs of Hades; for it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”
Then Peter quotes king David who says, “For you will not abandon me to Hades or allow your holy one to see corruption.” But Peter recognizes a problem with David’s words. Peter continues, “no one can deny that the patriarch David himself is dead and buried: his tomb is still with us.” In other words, we know where David is and he is definitely not risen. We know what to do with the Davids of the world. We put them in tombs and remember them as heroes. We might even name our kids after them and use their lives for as tools for instruction. But Jesus is a different thing. He is not David. He is not Buddha. He is not Muhammad. He is the living one who demands our allegiance. Because the resurrection gives meaning to the cross and the cross speaks plainly about our sinfulness. To call us sinful says a word about how we live our lives and how the world itself functions. The resurrection, if true, then cannot be affirmed properly without recognizing that it makes a claim about reality itself. The resurrection says we must be changed and we can be changed through the power of God. The resurrection is a claim that we are loved deeply by the God who through his Son has called us out of darkness into light.
This was what the angels meant when they asked the women about seeking the living one amongst the dead. Do you know whom it is that you seek? Do you realize what you are in the presence of? This is the question that Jesus poses to us all. What shall we do about the claims of Jesus? What changed these mourning women into worshippers? This is not a question about a response to an Easter homily or even the liturgies of Holy Week. It is message bigger than any service or homily. It demands sustained reflection. The resurrected Jesus is everything or he is nothing. I myself have heard and believed the testimony of the women. He was not to be found among the dead. He is risen. Alleluia.