They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.
Happy Easter to all of you. Happy spring Easter day, a day we associate with flowers – with music and brass – with gathering together in our Easter bonnets – with bunnies and eggs and chocolate. No wonder, really – it makes sense to celebrate Easter now, in the spring, with the blossoms and the chicks and the bright colors. This is the time of year when we see new life all around us, the astonishing return every year of leaf and flower where before there was only lifeless branch.
And thank God for those leaves and flowers this year, the rebirth of nature happening despite our pandemic and death. Our fears and anxiety ease as we hear the birds sing, as we watch blossoms drift by outside our window, as we feel the warmth of the sun shining in. Thank God it is spring.
The early church didn’t just make Easter up as a springtime event, of course – the gospel stories all link those events in Jerusalem with the Passover, the Jewish festival that has been celebrated for millennia on the first full moon after the spring equinox. Spring is a good time to stage an escape from slavery – that’s the story of the Passover, the story of deliverance, of God’s salvation that brings us from our dark prisons into the life of the promised land. It’s what we instinctively do, emerging from our cozy heated homes to come outside once the sun warms the air. Spring and Easter are a time of deliverance and freedom.
But what if the story had been different? What if the first Easter didn’t happen in spring? What if it happened on a damp bleak day in November, say, or during a sleet storm in January? Would it still be real? Would resurrection still mean something?
One blog post I read recently quoted a child, who on learning that there would be no in-person Easter Sunday this year, sighed and said, ‘Well, I guess Jesus will just have to stay dead this year.’
I wonder. Maybe that’s how some of us are feeling too.
We’ve got blossoms and sunshine outside. But this year we feel a long ways from deliverance. We might feel like we’re still in the tomb, waiting for something that we fear will never come.
So perhaps this year, instead of our beloved Easter gospel scene set in the garden – where he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own – maybe this year it would feel more appropriate to relocate Jesus’ conversation with Mary from the garden to, say, an empty, trash-strewn street in our city. Maybe this year we should imagine it happening outside one of the refrigerated trucks idling at one of our hospitals. Maybe it would suit more to visualize it outside our cemetery, gates locked to visitors, smoke from the crematory overhead. The conversation between Mary and Jesus, after all, happens somewhere that feels like a dead end. Somewhere where all hope has fled. That’s where Mary goes to weep over her friend and teacher. That’s where she thinks his story has ended. And it all looks worse than she feared – not only can she not mourn her dead at the tomb, but something has happened, and he is not even there.
Do you know what that feels like? If you didn’t before, I’ll bet you do now. The news makes it hard to stay hopeful. Some of us have now lost people we love. Some of us have lost our jobs. All of us know someone who is suffering. And even if we ourselves are healthy and safe thus far, we are living into more loss communally than we have ever experienced before. We are grieving missed opportunities, we are struggling through a lack of community, and it does not look to be ending any time soon. It is all right, it is appropriate, it is true to acknowledge how sad and painful this time is right now. It ain’t Easter the way we hoped for Easter, and it hurts.
Mary goes to the tomb to mourn, and he’s not there. The tomb is empty. She goes to call her friends to help, and they cannot – they come running when she calls, but they see only the emptiness also, and they turn and leave. She’s left there, all alone. And it is there, alone, that a gardener speaks to her, and her world of despair turns upside down into hope. ‘Don’t hold on to me,’ Jesus says to her. ‘Keep your distance. But go and tell everyone else.’ And off she goes.
There’s no brass or children singing nearby. If there are flowers blooming in that garden Mary doesn’t see them. And there’s certainly no crowd of happy people all pressed in tight, jostling for space as they celebrate. It’s just this stranger, whom she doesn’t even recognize at first. It’s just her and Jesus. And it’s Easter.
You are hearing this in your home – perhaps with others there, your family members or partner; perhaps by yourself alone. We’re not here in this church and with one another, with the rest of our St Michael’s family and all the vast number of those who are part of that family on Easter day. You can say hi and happy Easter in the chat box to others, but it’s not quite the same. This isn’t how we’d hoped to celebrate this year.
And yet, yes, this is Easter. With rice and beans and not enough toilet paper, in the blue light of a screen, it’s Easter. In vigil by the phone as we anguish over loved ones in the hospital, it’s Easter. In loneliness and uncertainty, irritation and cabin fever, it’s Easter. Jesus comes to us, wherever we are, whatever dead end we are in, and calls us by our name. Hey. It’s me. I don’t look like what you expected, this is not the setting you’d envisioned for this day, and here I am anyway. It’s Easter of unbelievable intimacy. It’s Easter that calls us each by our own name. John. Anna. Gregory. Marley. It’s me, Jesus says. Just you and me. Here, alive, together, not alone. This Easter, Jesus plus me makes a party.
But don’t hold onto me, Jesus says. Go share this with others. We won’t be in our isolated caves forever – we will one day soon come out and come together and hug and jostle and rejoice at breaking bread together in person, and there will be cupcakes and singing and kids everywhere But even now, we are not alone – we are here online with each other, and when this is done, you will get off this computer and you will pick up your phone and call someone, and you will say, Alleluia, Christ is risen! And if they know their cue they’ll say, The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! And they’ll say Happy Easter! I am so glad to hear your voice! And you will share love together – you will share Jesus together, you will share God together, the one who is always there when two or three of us gather, however we gather, the one who is always there when love is in the air, the one who is now and always and evermore new life, new hope.
It is the feast of resurrection. Happy Easter, St Michael’s. Today, even today, it happens. Go and share that news, bring that life, for this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it, as it is.