Looking into the Tomb
by Louise Westfall
Maybe you were a little confused when you arrived earlier this morning to a dark, quiet sanctuary, illuminated only by thirteen candles here on the Communion table. Where were the brass fanfares? The glad shouts of Alleluia!? The choir in full throat, belting out hymns of praise and glory? They showed up – eventually — but only after those disorienting moments of silence, an invitation to pray for the dead, a remembrance of the tombs that haunt our city, our nation… and our own troubled and distracted hearts.
The first Easter began in darkness. . . when a woman came to pay her respects at the tomb of her teacher and friend, executed days before as a criminal, a threat to both religious and political power. She came to grieve the sad loss; to remember his good life; and maybe begin to imagine how to go on without him. The good news of Easter begins before dawn, in confusion and despair. A reading from the gospel of John, in the twentieth chapter at the first verse. Let us join Mary, look into the tomb, and hear God’s startling word of life. [John 20:1-18]
It took more than an empty tomb to produce Mary’s joy. Not the appearance of angels, not the wrapped-up grave cloths, not Scripture, not even Jesus himself, inquiring of her tears — none of that could override the logic that governed Mary and that governs this world. There is no uncertainty about death — the dead remain dead. If his body was not there, then it had to have been moved. She became engrossed — obsessed, really — about retrieving his body, caring for it in the customary way, and having some closure, heartbreaking though it might be. What else was there to do?
In a logic-shattering moment, everything changed. Mary. She heard her name spoken aloud by one so familiar and beloved. She had found her Teacher; or rather, he had found her. And suddenly the world of cause and effect, the immutable laws of nature are blown wide open. It’s not the end: not Jesus’ end, and not the end of his story. A new chapter is being written, and it is one in which swords are beaten into plowshares, justice runs down like mighty waters, old enemies embrace across a table of forgiveness, and children everywhere thrive. In this new chapter, the grave is not the end; the dead shall rise; the futility of senseless killing swallowed up in unimaginable light and life without end. Mary. And she knew. Oh, not all of it. The truth of resurrection can’t be taken in all at once. She had to look into the tomb because there is no Easter without the reality of death. But that’s not where she met her risen Teacher. He sent her away from the useless tomb, away from the idyllic garden, right back into the world of violence and war and insecurity and injustice and too many memorials for those who have died. Go and tell the others. Jesus Christ is alive. Go and speak to them of hope because I am eternally present. Go and tell them it’s started: the rising of the world.
And here is where we get stuck, you and me, people of faith and doubt. We look at the post-Easter world and nothing seems much different. A recent edition of my favorite comic strip, Pearls Before Swine, expressed my skepticism well. Two characters, Rat and Pig, are seated, watching TV. The announcer begins: Tonight on the news: corrupt people stopped being corrupt; greedy people stopped being greedy and everyone started caring about others. The announcer continues in the next panel: And in other news, a herd of flying pigs was spotted over Washington DC. In the final panel, Pig remarks, It’s sad when newscasters crack. [Pearls Before Swine, by Stephan Pastis, 4/11/19; slightly altered for context]
Yes. Yes it is sad. But also understandable. We know the feeling: nothing ever changes; you’re naïve and foolish to think so. If you choose to take comfort in wishful thinking, you’re sure to be disappointed.
Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of Columbine. Twenty years. And since that tragic day, more than 223,000 students have experienced gun violence during school hours. They’ve witnessed the deaths of 143 classmates and teachers; they’ve seen 290 suffer injuries. The losses are incalculable; the sense of vulnerability increases with each incident. Elementary schools have lock-down drills for active-shooter situations. [statistics reported in a Washington Post article, April 9, 2019] A Central mother told me her prayers are never more fervent than when dropping off her 3 children at school each morning. She can’t extinguish her fear, not entirely.
Because Christ lives, we can rise to counter the death-dealers and haters and fear-mongers with the knowledge that love wins.
When we peer into this tomb, it takes only a few moments for our eyes to adjust to the darkness and see not one but a vast array of issues: wide availability of guns… limited access to mental health services… feelings of isolation and loneliness gripping young people in epic proportion… cyber-bulling on social media, violent video games… racism; yes, even this grim reality touches African Americans disproportionately; while they represent only 16% of the total U.S. school population, African American students have experienced twice the amount of exposure than their white peers.
I don’t like speaking of these things on this day of triumph and joy. But, friends, if the light of resurrection does not shine on them, offering some alternative vision, then it’s not good news. If Easter cannot allay that mother’s fear or provide comfort to the grieving, then what difference does it make?
But here’s the thing, friends: in raising Jesus from the dead, God revealed a wholly different understanding of human reality, one driven by Divine purpose and alive with Divine presence. Love as personal as the sound of your name; yet encompassing the whole world. Mary could not “hold on” to Jesus (and neither can the church) as if he belonged to us alone. Christ is alive — no longer bound by time or geography, but here and everywhere, today and tomorrow, patiently, lovingly weaving the strands of human history into a tapestry beyond imagination. Jesus’ resurrection means that death is not our destiny. But neither is some spiritualized “heaven” far and away. Jesus rose from the dead on earth, forever bridging the divide between spirit and matter; heaven and earth, and revealing the utter impermanence of anything that hurts and destroys life. [Some of this material draws from a Richard Rohr meditation on the Resurrection]
Because Christ lives, we can look into the tombs scarring the landscape of our world, and see that they are emptied of their terrible power. Because Christ lives, we can rise to counter the death-dealers and haters and fear-mongers with the knowledge that love wins. Because Christ lives, we weep at the graves of beloved ones and through our tears whisper Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia; because we trust that life is the outcome. We don’t have to be afraid, because Christ is risen.
Someone asked the late Biblical scholar Marcus Borg if he believed in the resurrection. He responded “Believe it? I’ve seen it!”
I have too. Seen it in the lives of those who persist; who resist despair or its sophisticated cousin, cynicism. I’ve seen it in communities of faith –- like this one — who perform death-defying, life-giving feats day by day by day to people who need a home, a family, some good food, peace in the chaos, hope. I’ve heard it in the quiet voice of the same mother who shared her anxiety as she sent her children off to school: The thing that gives me hope, she said, is being part of a church which loves and serves the community, not denying the problems, but addressing them together. Yes, I worry, but now I have meaningful ways to channel it. The poet Wendell Berry calls it “practicing resurrection.” To see the every-day world with its tombs and wrongs and crushing disappointments… and see something more. For all we thought impossible — just and secure human communities, restored relationships, neighbors dwelling peacefully together, reunion with loved ones who have died — Christ’s resurrection has opened a way. Friends, we celebrate Easter not so much as our annual commemoration of that miracle from long ago, but as a reminder of what is means for us today. Christ is alive! And calls each one of us to life. By name. With infinite love. I wonder if we could proclaim that good news in a particular way, by turning to the persons next to you and simply speaking their name (introduce yourself if you don’t know it). [turn to others and say their names] Did you hear that? The sound of Easter people, ready to rise. Alleluia! Amen.
We’re going to sing a joyous Latin American hymn in the heart language of its composer, as a celebration of Central’s Cuba partnership and the universal reach of God’s love. The choir will sing verses in English and we will join in the refrain. Please repeat after me: Alleluya! Cristo resucito… Alleluya, Cristo resucito. La ma-dru-ga-da del domingo… la ma-dru-ga-da del domingo. Alleluia! Christ is arisen! Bright is the dawning of the Lord’s day.