I continue to mine past resources for current pastoral consideration in the wake of the Newtown shootings. This was a sermon for the Easter after 9/11. If you substitute “Christmas” for “Easter,” and “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” for “Alleluia,” it will come to pretty much the same thing, I think.
— Niccolo dell’Arca
Someone said to me a few days ago, “Easter is going to be a hard sell this year, isn’t it?”
By “this year,” of course, he meant 9/11; and he meant the war in Afghanistan, the crazed violence of the Middle East, the fear of Muslims, the fear of flying, the fear of the future, the free-form fear ignited by color-coded homeland security alerts.
By “this year” he also meant the anger of grown-up little boys molested by trusted Fathers, and the duplicity of the Fathers of those Fathers who for indefensible reasons did not, when the children cried out, put aside every other consideration and run raging, weeping and full of tenderness to their aid.
“Easter is going to be a hard sell this year, isn’t it?”
The question implies that in a year such as this one has been, it will be at best a perplexing exercise to sing lusty alleluias about the death of death. It implies that this year we’ll need to put up a struggle so that the undertow of grief won’t drag our high hosannas out into a sea of sadness.
It also suggests that perhaps we hepped-up Easter preachers should be careful when we claim that because of the resurrection, everything we think is so gosh-darn bad is really not all that bad after all, when all is said and done! Christ is risen from the dead: Presto change-o! All’s right with the world.
Watch out, this question warns, that Great Easter not become a shallow dismissal of the unspeakable pain, the mindless destruction and the utter helplessness we have known together “this year.”
I experienced something like that dismissal recently, as I participated in an ecumenical Good Friday service in Boston. At the end of the service, a young layman employed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston sang movingly, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” But he couldn’t let the question hang in the trembling air, as it was meant to do, unanswered. He proceeded instead to assure us breezily that although things have been hard in the Catholic Church lately, the resurrection of Jesus is going to make it all OK. The bad acts of a few bad priests will not destroy the Church: after all, he explained, one of the Twelve betrayed Jesus, but the rest did not. And after that betrayal, they just chose another man to take Judas’ place, and with the number full again, the good work continued. So, friends, he concluded, don’t worry! Never forget: the tomb is empty! Not to worry. Presto change-o! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
“Easter is going to be a hard sell this year, isn’t it?”
Yes, I suppose it is. But isn’t Easter always a hard sell?
With all due respect to the faith-challenges of this terrible year, Easter is no more a hard sell today than it was in 1069, when a preacher in Cologne, Germany, finished his Good Friday sermon on the text, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” and dismissed the gathered faithful — whereupon they all poured out of the cathedral and began looking for Jews to kill. The killing continued for weeks. It was the first instance of that pious Christian anti-Jewish violence that we have come to know as the pogrom.
Easter is no more a hard sell this year than in 2000, when, if you believe that year’s domestic violence statistics, in the home of at least one family of someone you know (but would never suspect), a husband threw a hard fist at his wife, and both of them lied about it later in the emergency room.
Easter is no more a hard sell this year than it was or is in any year when a person gets fired because of a losing battle with the bottle, or gets laid off because of a company’s losing battle with the bottom line; or a placement is denied to fit foster parents because they are gay; or somebody steals your perfectly pleasant fourteen-year-old when you aren’t looking and replaces her with a pot-smoking monster who hates you and whom you don’t like very much either.
Easter is no more a hard sell this year than in any year in which human beings perpetrate and suffer all manner of violence and illness, when natural disasters wreak havoc, good kids lose their way, death-loving zealots win too many hearts to their bloody causes, and indifference permits evil to prosper.
A hard sell this year?
The truth is that we always celebrate Easter in the throes of one disaster or another, personal, communal, and global. Easter cannot prevent these things, and Easter must not gloss over them. Pain, sorrow, terror and outrage are, along with ordinary pleasures and extraordinary ecstasies, the stuff of our real human life; and our real human life matters so much to God that God shared it. Our real human situation – our life, our suffering, our mortality, our hope – matters so much to God that, as another preacher has pointed out, “Easter, our greatest godly celebration, takes place in a grave.”
If the Easter message promises, and I believe it does, that all will be well beyond our wildest dreams, it does so only through the medium of scars and tears, dust and ashes. The Easter miracle is the power of God’s love and life in the human condition, not in spite of it, or against it, or above it, or beyond it. The gospels claim that Jesus’ resurrected body was so strange that the disciples were not always sure whether the man appearing before them was the same man who’d been dragged to the gallows only a few days before. Some of them were sure only when they saw nail-marks in his hands, the gash still gaping in his side. The risen Christ did not shake off the signs of his earthly service and suffering. His glorious face is eternally grooved by human tears.
Easter is not fairy dust flung over horror to “make nice.” It is not the way our spirits lift at the annual rebirth of nature. It’s not comfort derived from our the common wisdom that brown things green up after bad winters. It is not a coping mechanism. It is not a basketful of bunnies and chickens and eggs reminding us that no matter what, life goes on and tomorrow will be another day.
Easter is instead the gift of power — power to live fully- free, fully-open, fully-vulnerable, and fully-engaged human lives in the bad winters, in the unthinkable disasters, in the terrifying destruction, on the brutal cross of shame, in each and every human grief and sorrow, in the painful groaning of the whole created cosmos for liberation and new life.
The writer, James Carroll, tells the story of a holy teacher who lost the power of words. He had spoken healing comfort to the dying all his life, but the dying still sickened and died. He had comforted the poor, but poverty still clung to them. He became discouraged, and at last, despairing, he fell completely silent, and settled at the edge of a vast wasteland, alone.
One day a desperate stranger crawled across the spiky stubble to the door of his hermitage and begged him for a word, just one.
“I am ages alone,” the stranger said, “and I am dying from being unspoken to.”
The stranger insisted, “Your wordlessness is killing me. I see that it is killing you too.”
At last, the stranger asked the hermit, “Do you want me to die?”
The hermit began to weep. From the deep cave of his being came a terrible moan. His old heart grasped the sound and pushed it up to his cracked lips. His lips formed it into a single shattering word: “No.”
Both men died that night. They might have died dead, but they didn’t. They died alive.
Easter is the gracious power that allows you and me, while we live, to resist a retreat into wordless despair and to overcome fear — not the fear of dying, but the fear of living humanly, feeling, perceiving, thinking, open, vulnerable, connected, committed and engaged. Easter is therefore also the power that, when we die, allows you and me to die alive. It is the power to hear, to believe and to act out in our own living, serving and suffering God’s thunderous “No!” to the most tortured question you, I, and the world address to heaven: “Do you want us to die?”
If we derive from Jesus’ resurrection only an optimistic ”faith perspective” on hard things, but are not driven by our Easter joy right down into the heart of suffering where Easter matters most; if down there we do not steadfastly offer Easter’s preposterousness, its tenacious hope-against-hope; if the lusty alleluias of our Easter liturgy are not also the thunderous “No’s” of God to the despairing deaths that stalk the world; if Easter indulges even the mildest indifference to the immense reservoir of human suffering — if it is evasive, it is not Easter, and we blaspheme when we sing.
But if we do go down there, if we go down deep, and if we mourn and weep… Well, consider Mary Magdalene. She went to the grave of Jesus while it was dark. The stone was gone, but she neither understood nor believed. She ran to the disciples who raced back with her, looked in, saw the linens, credited her story of a missing corpse, and went home. They didn’t invite her to go home with them. Or maybe she refused to go. She stayed there “in the garden alone,” as the old hymns says. Then, we are told, there in the dark she started to weep. She just stood there, glued to the spot, facing the tomb, deep in the grief and the horror. And she wept.
She wept and wept and wept. She could have wept forever.
But then she began to see.
It is amazing what you can see through tears.
What looked like an empty tomb is full of angels.
A gardener speaks, and faith knows that voice, registers those features.
In a room where the first time we looked there were only frightened women and men, peace materializes.
In broken dreams, broken bodies, and broken bread, you can see through tears that there, there, precisely there, the Great Wide Mercy dwells.