Resurrection in the Dark
by Louise Westfall
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! During a time of crisis and danger, psychologists tell us that humans are comforted by the familiar. When the world is in an uproar, we want to eat SpaghettiOs and grilled cheese sandwiches. Part of me is sad that we can’t celebrate a familiar Easter–with brass and tympani highlighting the drama, belting out the Hallelujah Chorus, the sanctuary full of people and kids waving colorful streamers, and taking family photos in front of the stunning resurrection cross of flowers. Oh, I know it doesn’t diminish the great good news we celebrate today, but the loss of these traditions represents everything we’re losing as this pandemic rolls on. The terrifying loss of life, and erratic threat of a virus of which little is known and for which no vaccine currently exists. The shelter-in-place orders which have both drastically changed daily life AND revealed the socio-economic and racial disparities present all the time. We are only at the beginning of economic loss that defies anything we’ve ever seen, unemployment on a massive scale, destabilized markets. So I think we’re to be forgiven for wanting a day to pause, and celebrate with singing and laughter and passing the peace of the risen Christ with full-on hugs and simple joy at being together (but let me be clear that celebrating life this year means scrupulous separation, staying home, and thorough handwashing).
Curiously, the celebration we’re missing isn’t actually an authentic picture of the first Easter. And I wonder if remembering what it was like, and how the good news found a home with fearful disciples and heartbroken friends, might better proclaim the good news of resurrection to us in these difficult days. A reading from the gospel of John, in the 20th chapter at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word to people whose dreams have died, people who are grieving, people who are anxious, in the confines of their homes, behind locked doors. Listen for God’s Word to you and me. [JOHN 20:1-18]
While it was still dark…Could this be the most telling phrase in the whole account? The single event that transformed reality happened before it could be seen or experienced as a happy outcome. Shrouded by grief and sorrow, Mary Magdalene came to perform the “essential service” of caring for Jesus’ dead body, what hadn’t been done in the haste of removing his body from the cross and placing it in its borrowed tomb before Sabbath, when all work ceased. She didn’t anticipate anything beyond her resolve to do what needed doing. The same with Peter and John—they’re puzzled by the absence of Jesus’ body, but not enough to investigate. The text says they returned to their homes, unnerved and uneasy in all likelihood, but unchanged.
Mary weeps. Her loss is compounded by the inability to do this one last thing to honor her Teacher. There’s no closure, only a bare tomb, empty of expectation. The end.
But then, while it was still dark, amid the sorrow and uncertainty and loss, something happened. She hears her name, spoken by her beloved Teacher. Mary. In the particularity of that gesture, the sun comes up. She sees him, now alive. I have no idea why he immediately cautioned her against touching him. But even that resonates in a new way for us. We don’t have to be physically close to one another in order to experience our connection through the power of love. For Mary, it was enough to set her running, to tell the others: I have seen the Lord.
While it was still dark, the disciples were given the unimaginable gift of resurrection. And here’s the thing, friends. Mary, Peter, John–they didn’t get it at first. It was impossible to believe. Its truth took hold in them gradually, and the doubting, hurting, fearful, resistant, vulnerable, inconsistent disciples became bold heralds of a new day. Without trumpet fanfare; with no Hallelujah Chorus. They began to see the world differently. They became courageous in the face of danger. They came to understand Jesus’ message of unconquerable love. They began to demonstrate in their own lives, through their words and deeds, that God had defeated death’s ultimate power, and that there was something more important to do in life than merely survive. They began to invest themselves in a new way of life, characterized by forgiveness and servanthood, care for one’s neighbors and even one’s enemies, and creating community among diverse people. In them the seeds of the Church were planted, and coaxed into growth by the Spirit. Through the mystery and miracle of communities animated by the living Christ, they produced rich harvests of justice and peace, year after year, generation upon generation. But that story is itself a mixed bag, because in addition to the rich soil were all those weeds and rocks and stuff that choked back the growth, and sometimes even destroyed it. The people were not perfect and they had a short memory. So they were called to remember again and again, and to let the truth of resurrection continue to form and reform and transform them. Everything looks different if you hold it up to a vision of life.
We can commit ourselves to the wholly irrational belief that love will prevail.
Friends, while it is still dark, even now, when the pandemic continues to rage, we are given the unimaginable gift of resurrection. All we thought we knew about death, about what secures our lives, about what makes life worth living–everything is reimagined in the good news: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Presbyterian pastor and best-selling author Fredrick Buechner puts it in an especially evocative way: Resurrection means that the worst thing is not the last thing.
Without the specter of inevitability, the finality of death, and the calculus of reason, we can practice resurrection. Show and tell others that—appearances to the contrary–life is the outcome. We can commit ourselves to the wholly irrational belief that love will prevail.
You know why I have come to believe and persist in belief? It’s because I see people, ordinary people, living by this extraordinary perspective. You, who put your health and lives in jeopardy to treat infected people with skill and compassion. You, who risk your bankroll to keep employees paid. You, who hear about a brother or sister or nonprofit in need and jump to respond. You who pick up the phone to talk to someone, just to see how they’re doing. You who care for little children and make a point to see how they’re faring. You who pray and you who howl, and you who share cheesy jokes as well as scientific data. You who have questions and doubts but keep on loving anyway. You who won’t let the church settle for anything less than its identity as Christ’s risen body (scarred though we be!), to be present and active where he is too. Last Easter marked the 20th anniversary of Columbine, and to remember it in light of the resurrection, thirteen candles lined the Communion table, one for each of those killed. In a respectful letter that came after Easter, one of you wondered why there weren’t two more candles for the troubled young shooters who died that day by their own hand. If resurrection is real, he wrote, wouldn’t it mean redemption for them also? How like the disciples we are–I am: Easter’s full impact takes hold gradually.
–Which is another reason to practice resurrection together (even though separately for now). One person I know has started a Zoom gathering to ponder a thriving future for communities and the earth post-COVID-19. He wonders whether we can do better than just “return to normal.” One of you sent a video of her daughter and other high school students individually speaking words of encouragement to seniors who have seen their year-end events and parties–-even graduation itself–cancelled (I like this idea way better than the other one I’ve seen, which is to post a photo of yourself circa your graduation year). I am inspired by you who engage your church in doing justice by advocating for humane treatment of refugees, access to affordable health care, and addressing inequities caused by socially-determined factors like race and even one’s zip code. Whether in crisis or normalcy, everything looks different when you hold it up to a vision of life.
Friends, God invites us to experience resurrection, as we—like those frightened women and doubting disciples–find the courage to move forward, to live into a new reality in which good triumphs over wrong and love has the last word. Sometimes it’s hard to see in the dark. But remember that while it was still dark, God raised Jesus from the dead. God will raise us out of the night of pandemic into the light of healing and hope. Easter isn’t cancelled; it’s a day to celebrate…and to prepare for what we’re going to do on all the days that follow.
Thanks be to God! Amen.