April 4, 2021Revised Common Lectionary
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As I read again the story of Easter morning in our second pandemic-Triduum, I realize that it is the fact that the first witnesses spoke from a place of utter surprise in the midst of their grief that makes me believe their stories are true.
Spirituality & Psychology
Is This the Greatest Easter Painting of All Time?
Mike Frost reflects on Burnand's famous painting of John and Peter running to the empty tomb.
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Why do you believe the Easter story?
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.—Mark 16:1-8
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.—John 20:11-18
Easter has actually never been my favorite liturgy. Perhaps this sounds heretical, but it’s the truth. There’s something hard to trust in a liturgy with such a bold proclamation of joy. Particularly if one has skipped Holy Week, as most of the Christian world does. I prefer the quiet candlelight of the Vigil—or, in the dead of winter, the Midnight Mass of Christmas. Oh, I enjoy trumpets and lilies (unless my cat eats them) and great spring clothes a good deal—don’t get me wrong. Still, Easter is not my favorite liturgy. But I do trust it. I trust the message Easter brings. I trust it completely. I trust it because the witnesses are credible.
This year, we had no need to seek out Holy Week. It came to us. In technicolor. Every day of every week since February 2020. It came to us in two pandemics—as we’ve come to refer to covid-19 and our newest season of reckoning with racism in this country. It came to us in the political divides that have come into even sharper relief than before in the past presidential election and the storming of the Capitol. And it came to us in the latest tragic incidents of gun violence and racial profiling. Holy Week has, indeed, come to us. There were not passes for anyone this year.
And unlike Mary Magdalene and Salome, we have not even been able to prepare the spices to bury our dead, separated from one another as we have been for over a year.
This year’s Holy Week is no mere liturgical exercise, no simple opportunity to think metaphorically about the suffering of this world or of our Lord. This year’s Holy Week is not a fire drill. It is real in every since of that word. Real on a global scale, with millions dead, including some who were loved dearly by some among us. It has been a brutal year of loss of lives. And then, on top of those losses, have been losses of property, of employment, of security, of health, of future dreams. It has been a year of Holy Week observance on a global scale, indeed.
For many, this making real of the observance of Holy Week is nothing new. People around the globe suffer in ways many of us cannot imagine. They hide in a hotel, trembling in Mozambique, deciding whether to make a run for it or wait for what seems like certain death huddled inside the walls. They bend over, bellies in excruciating pain because of a hunger that will claim their lives soon in Haiti, Sierra Leone, and numerous other lands. They disappear from family into prisons and camps in the United States and elsewhere, simply because they have dared to find a better life. Holy Week portrays reality all too vividly for beloved children of God around the world.
It is the lives of all we have lost and the lives of all who suffer that speak loudest to us. It is their stories that we must hear if we would find the hope of resurrection.
It is one thing for me to proclaim the resurrection. I whom am fed and clothed and well and safe. But it is another thing entirely when those who have suffered the most, those who have walked Holy Week, bear witness to their experience of a reality stronger than their suffering. Then, I must sit up and take notice. The witness of those who have lost so much, who have made themselves so vulnerable to love, theirs is the story to trust the most.
So, when Mary Magdalene, Salome, Peter, John and the rest who had loved Jesus to the death speak, I listen. It is their testimony I trust. It is their testimony that gives weight to Easter morning.
Once more, I can can find no more compelling image to reflect this truth than Burnand’s The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection. Mary and Salome are not depicted—only John and Peter. But the image says it all. It reflects the shock of that morning.
Those who had lost everything that mattered to them are the ones who first tell us the tomb is empty. Those eyes bore witness. And their voices tell us what actually happened. Those are the voices to which we must always listen most intently. Look at the faces of John and Peter in this masterpiece. There is no certainty, no assumption. Only, as Frost puts it in today’s lesson, desperate hope. And, I would add, utter disbelief.
And, then, there is Mary’s account. “I have seen the Lord,” she said, after she recognized that gardener she met was, in fact, her risen Lord—a recognition born, I imagine, out of shock, confusion, and terror.
I trust the witnesses. And so, I trust Easter. And that means, I believe. I believe every horror we have witnessed, this past year, and in all of human history, is being overcome. Mary and Salome expected to anoint a corpse and instead, found an empty tomb. What they discovered was an entirely new reality, one foreign to them. A reality that is taking root, even still, in our world, foreign though it may seem to us in the midst of a year of such suffeirng. A reality that is growing, from seed to sapling to young green tree. It is growing in and around us. And though it is still, after 2000 years, young and fragile, still it grows—slowly, surely, it grows.
And one day, the tree of life that is still a mere sapling now will heal us all. I believe. I trust Easter. Even and perhaps especially in times like these. Because the voices who tell us it is so did not sit out Holy Week. They lived it. Which, I think, makes them the most credible witnesses of all. Then and now.
Alleluia. Christ is Risen.