Easter Day 2009
If you were an artist, and were asked to take brush in hand to do a painting of Easter, what would it look like? What would you see in your mind’s eye, as you prepared to paint? Chances are quite good that somewhere in the painting the sun would be breaking over the horizon. There something about sunrise, about the dawning of a new day that speaks to us of Easter. It’s a feeling so natural and so deep within us that we really expect Mother Nature to cooperate. If Easter Day should actually be overcast, or, heaven forbid, raining— or snowing— there’s something in us that wonders if God forgot to check the calendar.
Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you: Easter should be bright, cheerful, and overflowing with light. Dark, gloomy weather is all right, maybe even fitting, for Good Friday, but Easter means life, and life is reflected in light.
And yet, as logical as all that may be, it is not the way the story unfolds in the Gospel of John. Just a moment ago we heard these words:
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalen came to the tomb.... (Jn. 20:1)
“While it was still dark..”
John the Evangelist was an artist— an artist with words and images. He wasn’t using words casually when he began this account of the first Easter. He was painting a verbal picture for us, preparing us for what was to follow.
The contrast of light and darkness is a theme that John used throughout his writing. In the opening verses of his Gospel he tells us that God’s Son came into the world as light, that this “...light shines in the darkness...” and that the darkness has not been able to overcome it. But now, as we come to the end of his Gospel account, it looks as though darkness and fear have indeed gained the upper hand. Mark writes in his Gospel that when she came and found the tomb empty, Mary Magdalene fled in fear, because she believed that someone had stolen the body. And she was frightened beyond belief.
Fear— and the darkness that fear embodies— is a dominant theme in history. Fear is a common human emotion. Authorities tell us that infants have two primary fears: fear of falling and fear of loud noises. Gradually that number multiplies. We fear our fellow human beings even as we fear being alone. We are afraid of both the past and the future. We worry about what we can see as well as about what we cannot see. Anxiety comes on us about ourselves and about our loved ones. We sometimes dread living almost as much as we dread dying.
Mary Magdalene was apprehensive, she was fearful, and for good reason. After all, Jesus was her dearest friend, a friend who had cared for her as no one else ever had. Jesus had taught and shown her more about God than she had ever known before. He had helped Mary to understand herself. He had brought out the best in her, and loved her unconditionally. Because of Jesus, Mary’s heart and soul had come to share a dream of new possibilities for her life. But that dream came crashing down around her when Jesus was so violently put to death and buried. In the midst of her grief she at least wanted to pay her respects, anoint his dead body according to Jewish custom, and hopefully get some closure on this whole tragic mess. But now she couldn’t even find his body. What was all this about? What was going on? What was she going to do?
Mark’s gospel tells us that Mary fled. That’s natural, isn’t it? We often flee when we’re afraid. Then we become more fearful because we’re fleeing. The problem is that there is no escape from fear. We have to face it and overcome it.
We live in a time when people are fearful. Our national economy is in deep crisis. People have lost jobs. They’ve lost the security they thought they had for retirement. For many, the American dream seems like a cruel joke. The future is one big question mark. While people may tell their children that all will be well, deep inside many are fearful.
While this may not be a time for optimism, as people of faith we do have every reason to be hopeful. The Christian Faith is not a prescription for “pie in the sky” optimism. The optimist believes that better days are coming. The person of faith believes that God is coming. Our hope is not in the future, but in the God of the future, the One who holds history and all of us in the palm of his hand.
The Gospel is not based upon wishful thinking or blind optimism. The Gospel is rooted in faith and trust placed in God: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Sarah, Ruth, and David; the God of Mary and Joseph, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This God has a track record. Hope is neither an emotion nor sheer idealism. Hope is the blessing that comes to a heart and soul grounded in faith and commitment— the belief that the God who built a nation out of a band of suffering Hebrew slaves, who led them through the wilderness to a land of promise, who later rescued them from exile in far-away Babylon, and who sent from their ranks Jesus of Nazareth, whom we Christians know as the Messiah. This God is our refuge and strength. He is our Redeemer and our Lord. Ours is a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
What does resurrection mean? What does it look like? Listen to these words from Frederick Buechner:
I cannot tell you... what I think I would have seen if I had been there myself. But I can tell you this: That what I believe happened and what in faith and great joy I proclaim to you is that he somehow got up with the life in him again and the glory upon him. I was not there to see it anymore than I was awake to see the sunrise this morning, but I affirm it as surely as I do that by God’s grace the sun did rise this morning because that is why the world is flooded with light.
The disciples experienced the risen Christ so surely, so dynamically, that the change in them was comparable to what had happened to Jesus himself. They were transformed, given new life, and went forth to share it with the world.
In St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, there is an inscription acknowledging Sir Christopher Wren, the famous architect. It concludes: “If you seek his monument, look around you.” If you are seeking sure signs of Jesus’ resurrection, look around you; look at history; look around you at the lives of ordinary mean and women that have been transformed and changed by grace and resurrection power. Neither the Church nor the New Testament scriptures would exist, if it were not for the absolute certainty of Jesus’ followers that they had experienced his resurrected presence. The fear that had threatened to overtake them was dispelled, and they knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus had Risen!
The resurrection is not a fact to be proven. It is an experience to be shared. And when it is, your entire life will become a joyous and never-ending “Alleluia!”
© James M. Jensen