Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
“Easter is late this year.” I’ve heard this expressed many times over the last number of months, and have said it a few times myself. A late Easter affects worship planners, pushes back spring breaks for some schools, and means that the early signs of spring are already starting to look like the full greenery of summer, at least here in Cincinnati. It means that our celebration of Pentecost, a high point in our congregation’s life as we renew our covenant and commitment to our church life, spills over into mid-June, a time when we’re starting to scatter in the various directions that summer vacations and travel take us.
The date for determining Easter is complicated enough that it can’t be stated succinctly in a few sentences, especially since it has changed a few times throughout church history. In Western Christianity it involves a combination of factors including the spring equinox, the full moon, and the date of Passover. Sun, moon, earth, all hurling through cosmic space, and the commemoration of ancient Hebrew slaves being liberated from the captivity of empire. When everything aligns, Easter has arrived. For us Easter can be as early as March 22 and as late as April 25, so today, April 24th is almost as late as it gets.
Despite the difficulty in knowing quite why Easter is when it is, the fact that there is a formula, and that it does come every year, even if it’s late, is marvel enough. Having a formula for an annual celebration of resurrection feels, in some ways, like a marvelous contradiction. The resurrection of Jesus, almost by definition, is a shattering of expectation, a break with our tired, standardized way of living, a most un-formulaic burst of life which alters our perception of how the world really works. Maybe we’ve been ready since March. Maybe we’ll never be ready. Ready or not, Easter is here. Christ is Risen.
Of all the mornings of the year when the earth turns toward the sun and brings another day to our planet, this is the one where we ponder that one morning, when women made their way to the tomb, or, as John tells it, one woman, Mary Magdalene, about whom he has told us almost nothing previously; only that she was present, standing near the cross with Jesus’ mother and some other women as Jesus died.
We don’t know Mary’s motivations for approaching the tomb that morning. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had already given him a proper burial, wrapping the body with spices in linen cloths. The male disciples, Jesus’ gang of followers, had fled and were in hiding, too fearful to even show themselves on the scene as Jesus’ life expired. Not exactly a show of faithfulness and courage on their part, already conceding that the movement had fallen apart and that the best thing they could do would be to try and preserve their own lives while death and violence kept up its age old rule. But the women were there witnessing the death, and Mary Magdalene was one of them. And three days after Jesus dies, she makes her way to his tomb, while it is still dark.
We experience Easter resurrection as an inevitable part of our church calendar, but that’s borderline preposterous. Death is what’s really inevitable. The body can only handle so many trips around the sun before it goes the way of all living things and meets its end. Or, in Jesus’ case, you push the established order of things too hard, hang out with too many of the wrong people, and you meet an early death, become one more incident of collateral damage in the empire’s quest for self-preservation. Only the empire that gets to have eternal life. Whoever gets in the way of that gets put on a cross, end of story.
I like to think that Mary approached the tomb because she didn’t completely buy into that story line. Because she had experienced a love from Jesus that overwhelmed her to the point of this love being the only thing she could imagine that actually mattered. Maybe even getting glimpses into how this love was the underlying power of creation that really made everything run. That even if the violence of the cross was able to kill individual human beings that it couldn’t kill love. Maybe there was some spark in Mary that at least hoped that this could be possible. If so, she comes to the tomb out of love, because it’s the only thing she could imagine doing at that time.
There’s a passage from the Song of Songs, a section of that extended love poem, that is sometimes associated with Mary at the tomb. It says:
“I will rise now and go about the city,
In the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.”
I sought him, but I found him not.” (3:2)
If Mary’s Easter morning motivations were love, ours are much more complicated. We bring all sorts of mixed motives and intellectual hang-ups on our trip to the tomb. After all, we’re not making this trip because we necessarily want to. We have to go! It’s been on the calendar ever since the trip last year. We wonder why John’s account of this is different than the other gospel writers, and, come to think of it, we wonder why they all tell a little different version of these crucial events. We wrestle with the relationship between spirit and body, and, even though we love Christianity’s affirmation of the body, incarnation!, we can’t figure out whether to take Jesus’ bodily resurrection as historical fact or spiritual metaphor. He was walking through locked doors, after all. But the tomb was empty, and he is eating and having people put his hand in the open wound in his side. What, again, makes resurrection different than mere resuscitation?
When Mary does encounter Jesus, before she recognizes that it’s him, which is odd in itself, Jesus asks her that pointed question, “Whom are you looking for?” “What are you looking for?” We ask it to ourselves and we’re not sure of our answer. We want so much. What are we looking for? We’re looking for everything. We’re looking for faith, for love, for a spiritual foothold in a world that too often throws us off center. We’re looking for a revelation. We’re looking for peace, and more than just peace between nations. We want peace in our restless hearts. We want it all to hold together in one whole. Spirit, body, heaven, earth, community, love.
Plato once wrote something along these lines, of the strong, urgent desire that drives us. He wrote, “We are fired into life with a madness that comes from the gods and which would have us believe that we can have a great love, perpetuate our own seed, and contemplate the divine.” (quote taken from Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing, p. 3)
I’d say we have high expectations. It’s one of the reasons why I think, deep down, we don’t completely resist this trip to tomb. If there is a part of us that resists it, there’s another part of us that goes with something that can be called hope, or faith. Some trace of holy expectation. Because even though it seems overpowering at times, we don’t completely buy the old narrative of empire and crucifixion either. We may not know exactly how to answer that question from Jesus, “What are you looking for?” but we know enough to know that we are looking. We know just enough to know that we want to keep open. We might even be open to resurrection, even if we don’t recognize it at first glance.
Mary’s point of recognition, famously, is when Jesus calls out her name. “Mary.” Mary, with love, and grief in her heart, goes looking to kindle the warmth of love that remains in her heart, she goes to the tomb seeking, only to discover that it is Love itself that has sought her. And found her. She is called out by the resurrected Christ, the first to hear this call, the first apostle, as she is known, and she is engulfed in this Love which has overcome the forces of violence and destruction and death.
It sure beats the mind games and pure intellectual rationalizing with a thumbs up or down on whether or not we believe in a theological tenant called resurrection. Mary not only encounters resurrection, the eternal power of love, but she finds that she has been very quickly recruited into love’s mission: “Go and tell the disciples.” Resurrection asks something of her. Actually, it asks everything of her.
The church has, from its beginning, linked the Easter season with baptism. Baptism is one of those very visible signs that we have in the church of resurrection’s power among us. It carries with it imagery of both the tomb and the womb. Death and birth, in that order, which is one of the really cool things about it. In the waters of baptism, a person dies with Christ, dies to powers of violence, and sin, and self-preservation-at-all-costs which possess us. And in the waters of baptism, a person is born a second time, raised up with Christ, raised up as one who now lives in the reality of what has been there all along – the great love which created us, holds us up, and calls us out by name. The Apostle Paul says, “the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11)
Jerry and I have sat down together several times in the last month and one thing that he said left a strong impression on me. He said, about baptism, “I’ve always feared it because I take it seriously.”
I take that as a strong recognition of what the church believes baptism signifies.
Rowan Williams, the leader of the Anglican church, has made a statement that fits well here: He says, “You only get anywhere near the truth when all the easy things to say about God are dismantled, so that the image of God is no longer just a big projection of your self-centered wish fulfillment fantasies. What is left? Either you sense you are confronting an energy so immense and unconditioned that there is no adequate words for it, or you give up.” (Review of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman in The Guardian, April 3, 2010.)
OK. I can see how a sensible response to “an energy so immense and unconditioned that there is no adequate words for it” might cause a little fear and trembling!
When confronting baptism, one is confronting two seemingly contradictory realities – the same experience as the one at the tomb for Mary.
One is this overwhelming sense of what is being asked of us; that this will cost us everything. We are marked for life. And once you accept that your name is lovingly being called by Christ, you open yourself to having your name called at all kinds of inconvenient times. And the call often asks us to do all sorts of bothersome self-giving kinds of things. To make ourselves a channel of this divine love that wants to flow through us. God is very persistent and slightly annoying that way. Baptism is the beginning, not the end, of heeding that call.
The second, graciously, is that there is absolutely nothing to fear. This is an invitation out of fear, out of the terror of having to hold the world together on our own, of living within the false narrative of death’s power over us. This is the word that gets spoken at so many of the divine encounters in the Bible, the most repeated phrase in all of Scripture. “Do no fear.” “There is no fear in love,” 1 John says. Walking into the love of the God is a walk out of fear.
The call always comes out of love. And it always precedes any action on our part. We answer the call not to be loved, but because we discover ourselves caught up in a love so immense and unconditioned that we find ourselves actually changed by it, surprisingly joyful that it knows us by name.