Category Archives: Easter and Eastertide

And Very Early in the Morning, While It Was Still Dark

Dawn

 “And very early in the morning the first day of the week,                                                         while it was still dark, Mary came to the tomb…”  [Jn 20:1]

How good the dark is!

God dwells in it, unseen, beyond all naming, a mystery of love.

How good the dark is!

God’s Spirit brooded over the world’s creation with the midnight beauty of a raven.

How good the dark is!

Under cover of night God hurried Israel’s children out of Egypt, shadowing their steps with the great cloud of presence.

How good the dark is!

Jesus was carried in the deep hideaway of the womb. He was born at midnight when everything was still. He sighed his last sigh in a darkness that covered the earth at noon. And when he was taken down from the cross, they laid him in a grave cut from rock. They rolled a stone across to seal it, so that the dark, as Brian Wren says so beautifully, could be the cradle of the dawn.*

And very early in the morning, the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary came to the tomb.

Unless you bury a grain of wheat in the good black dirt, Jesus used to say, it will remain a grain of wheat. But if it is covered up for a while, it will rise and yield, and yield some more.

How good the dark is!

To speak of darkness on Easter—a morning shot through with gleaming alleluias, the day our ancestors called ‘the eighth day of creation’ illumined by the Sun that never sets—is not to diminish Easter’s glory, but only to confess this truth: that bright Easter is also a day of darkness.

A day of darkness because the Love that gave us Easter is as incomprehensible to us on Easter as on any other day. The Compassion that saved us by a resurrection is as unfathomable this morning as any other morning. The Mercy that meets us this day is so hidden to our hearts, so unthinkable, that all we can say is that we are in the dark.

We walk by faith and not by sight. We see only in a glass darkly the strange things Mary sees in the garden, as night gives way and first light comes.

To speak of darkness on this shimmering day is to say that Easter faith, like the seed of which Jesus spoke, needs its time in the dark. It can’t be believed all at once. It grows up slowly, maturing in the dark good earth of an open heart.

The risen Jesus does not reveal himself all at once. It took forty days for him to materialize—he gave his friends a little glimpse here, another there. It took time before they stopped mistaking him for a gardener, an angel, a ghost, a Bible-teaching stranger on the road. The fullness of Easter waited, curtained, while they prodded his strange body, now solid, with nail holes in his hands; now indeterminate, unhindered by walls and dead-bolted doors.

It took centuries for the deepest questions about him to rise to the surface in the pondering church; centuries for daily encounters in liturgy and service to give up their meaning; centuries for words to be found with which to declare in these and in so many other words, “My Lord and my God!”

It takes more than one trip to the tomb to see him. Before Easter fully dawns on us, we will all bend down more than once to peer in and count the folded garments. Make more than one search of the place. Hold more than one conversation with the angel. And more than once we will turn our heads at the sound of a Voice that knows our name.

We will only slowly learn what all astonished disciples have to learn—that he is especially hard to see if we expect him to be the way he was with us once upon a time. If we want him to put things back in their old places, and restore life like it used to be, he will slip our grasp. What he offers us now is not lucid or familiar; what he tells us now is dark: “Go and meet me someplace else, ahead of where you are today.”

To speak of darkness at Easter is to say that Easter is the thing we find most disconcerting—newness. Resurrection is original. Despite our need and our longing to unburden our pasts, to heal our memories, to change, Easter is the thing we most fear—that nothing will ever be the same. St Paul says, ‘We know what we are now, but what we will be we have no idea. The whole creation is on tiptoe, groaning in anticipation of it.’

Easter is glimmer of it.

It is ray, yes; but it is a ray of darkness.

And O, how good its dark is!

Alleluia!

Up From The Grave: A Meditation for Holy Saturday

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–The Harrowing of Hell, School of Simon Van Taisten, Austria, 1460-ca 1503

At that moment…the tombs were opened, and many who had fallen asleep were raised.” —Matthew 27:45-6

During his earthly ministry, Jesus was shockingly intent on offering the world freedom and life. When it came to rescuing the lost, forgiving sinners, consoling the hurt, welcoming strangers, mending divisions, refreshing the exhausted, and releasing captives, nothing took precedence over freedom and life—not reason, law, moral codes, politeness, political expediency, fiscal prudence, or maintaining family harmony.

Jesus never preached, prayed, commanded or did anything in the name of God that constricted a human heart, afflicted a human body, narrowed or embittered a human mind, or chained the human conscience. He was, he is, nothing but freedom and life.

And so it brings us up short  every year in Holy Week to see him taken, bound, tortured, defeated, paraded around, nailed up, pierced, dead. It disturbs us to hear him groan wildly, like all vulnerable and tortured people do, desperate to know whether the Minder of Life, so mindful of others, has any memory of him.

But it should not surprise us that the moment he dies, the dead live. According to a tradition enshrined in the earliest Christian creeds, and still pointedly celebrated by the Orthodox, the first thing the dead Jesus does is “descend to the dead.’’ On Holy Saturday, he heads down into the haunts of the long-gone.

There he comes face to face with the given-up-on—all his hopeless, ungraced ancestors languishing under the earth—and he preaches the gospel to them. He springs from death his fellow-dead, he “harrows” Hell, he wrests them from the grip of all that would hold them back from life, he carries them away with him, and souls too long consigned to oblivion enter the joy of the living.

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–The Harrowing of Hell, English, c. 1240

The gospel of Matthew notes a bizarre scene: it says that at the moment Jesus gives up his spirit, tombs in the city crack open. Jesus is not yet even deposited in his own grave, and the dead and buried are leaving theirs. They “enter the city and show themselves.”

Even before Jesus is raised, there is so much life still left in his love for us that it cannot help itself: it keeps intruding into forsaken places. It keeps finding lost things, it keeps bringing them home.

What, then, about us who, in our peculiar ways, are shades inhabiting our own indistinct valleys, nether regions of self-concern and self-importance? What about us who languish in the hell of that sophisticated hopelessness we call cynicism, or who are just plain done in by the enormity of justice’s demands? What about us who hide our pain under our privilege, and who cannot for the life of us break the chain of hurts received and hurts inflicted? resurrection

–Resurrection of Christ, unidentified

On this Holy Saturday, and on all our lonely forsaken Holy Saturdays , shall we let the dead Jesus come down to us, to whatever Sheol we have been consigned by life and pride and fear, defeat our demons, and take us with him from shade to light? Dazzled by our rescue, still carrying our shrouds as evidence, will we go about our own cities, giddy and pink with his new breath in our lungs, opened eyes lit by the power of death-defying love? Will we show up in these streets, announcing to all the good news he preached to us—that God loves life fiercely and will not abide anything that constricts a heart, afflicts a body, narrows or embitters a mind, traps a conscience, or seals a human being in a grave? If we knew that neither grave nor Hades could ever hold us again, would civility, law, caution, politeness, harmony, morality, political expediency, fiscal prudence, or anything else ever shame us away from the gospel?

What You Can See Through Tears

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.

 La_Pieta_Santa_Maria_della_Vita_Niccolo_del_Arca_1462

— Niccolo dell’Arca

John 20:1-18

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?

wpe2With 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.”

giottonaIf 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.”

Silence.

The stranger insisted, “Your wordlessness is killing me. I see that it is killing you too.”

More silence.

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.

Mary_Magdalene_sculptureBut 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.

My Love for You Pours from the Empty Tomb

John 21:1-19

I know that this story is about Peter, and we’ll get to him, I promise; but first I want to talk about someone else—Judas.

Do you remember what happened to him, the disciple who sold Jesus for cash?

The gospel of Matthew has one story about it. It says there that when Judas found out that Jesus had been condemned to death, he tried to return the money. But they told him a deal was a deal. If he didn’t like it, it was his problem.  So he ran out, flinging the money behind him. Then he found a rope and hanged himself.

Judas is the rain on the parade of Easter glory. He’s the embarrassing relative, the black sheep snipped out of the photo. The one you don’t mention in front of the kids. Dante consigns him to the lowest circle of Hell.

But I miss him.

Maybe it’s because I know what it’s like to be a Judas. I’ve committed my fair share of betrayals, big and small. I’ve felt the sick feeling that comes over you when you realize that what you’ve done cannot be undone: you want to disappear into the void.

But I’m lucky. And so are you, if you’ve ever done anything you’re ashamed of, because we know something Judas never got to know. We know about an empty tomb. We know that Love poured out of it, for us.

Judas never got to know that. He was the only one in Jesus’ inner circle who never got to see Christ’s shining face, never got to hear the risen Christ say to him, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.”

I know what my life would have been like without the living One in it—how swiftly the shadows would have gathered, how completely the light would have disappeared. And so whenever we re-tell all the happy post-resurrection stories of Jesus appearing to his friends, I get a little sad. I wish Judas could have been with them. I wish he could have held on for just two more days.  I wish his grief and shame had not made him so hopeless so soon.

After all, Judas was not the only one with reason to be ashamed. Other disciples betrayed Jesus, each in his own way. So I wish Judas could have been there when Jesus appeared to all those apostates and traitors and did not say what you would have expected him to say, did not say what he had every right to say: “Why did you abandon me? Why did you hide? Why did you swear up and down that you never knew me?” Judas should have been there to feel the relief they felt when Jesus acted as if nothing bad had ever happened at all.

And I wish Judas could have shown up in our story too, the story of some disciples who went home to Galilee to pick up where they’d left off, to be fishers of fish again, not people. To fish like they fished before they met Jesus. Before what happened to him happened. Before they did what they did.

If Judas had been with them, he too could have lifted his eyes and seen Jesus standing on the shore in first light, and he would have realized that there is no place of hurt or shame or longing any of us can go that Christ will not try to be with us; that there is nothing weak or scared or stupid or cowardly or selfish any of us can do that can keep Christ from wanting us.

If Judas had held on for just two more days, he would have cast a net into the deep where hope always lies waiting to be caught, and he would have hauled up 153 fat, flapping fish; and in that overstuffed, ridiculous instant he would have known it was the Lord standing on that beach. Who else but Jesus can fill up a heart like that?

Just two more days and he would have smelled smoke from a charcoal fire and known it was the Lord grilling bread and fish. Who else but Jesus would think that the thing you do for people who have hurt you so badly is feed them? Who else, after days of terror, abandonment, betrayal, and death would say something so unbearably kind—“Come and have breakfast”?

And after breakfast, Judas would have seen Jesus take Peter aside—Peter, who denied this very Jesus no once, but three times; and he might have overheard their unimaginable dialogue:

Peter, do you love me?

Yes, I love you.  (One.)

Do you love me?

Yes, I love you.  (Two.)

Do you love me?

Lord, you know I love you. (Three.)

Then you, Peter, feed my lambs.

Feed my flock.

Tend my sheep.

Not a word about the past. For Jesus, it’s all about what happens now. And what can happen tomorrow. And I wish Judas could have known that. I wish he could’ve known that God had composed a new song of life out of the silence of death. I wish he’d been able to stand on that beach and hear Jesus sing it. To Peter. To the others. To us. And to him. The song of beginning again, no questions asked. The biggest miracle of Easter—not the rising, but the healing. Not the stone rolled back, but the pardon. Not the tomb empty, but the peace.

From the wreckage of international violence to the wreckage of domestic violence; from the revenge of gang-bangers in South Central LA to honor-killings in Pakistani villages; from campaigns of war to campaigns for the White House; from the bedroom to the boardroom, the human impulse, the natural thing, has always been to feed on grievances and point the finger at the other, to blame and to shame, and to seek satisfaction until the last sword comes down on the innocent neck of the last scapegoat.

We have no experience of a world without blame. In our world, assigning blame and getting even is the thing that makes sense of life. In our world, no victim cooks breakfast for his victimizers. Yet our Easter faith claims that Jesus’ resurrection marks the end of a world based on reprisal. It is the down payment on a world structured for mercy. And God is creating that new world even now in the image of an Innocent Man who returns to those who harmed him, not to torment them for what they did, but to give them a kiss of peace.

These days, many congregations want to renew themselves, so they ask questions about identity and purpose—who are we as a church, what is our mission? Well, here is a model we might all consider: the earliest church—a few sinful, weak, mortified disciples huddled around a fire tended by Jesus, eating with him. A church of apostates, guilty of denials and betrayals and fearful flight. A church born not in rising to the occasion, but in running from it. A congregation of weakness and shame. A fellowship of the unforgivable; a fellowship of the forgiven just the same. Just the kind of church Jesus wanted. The kind of church he’ll always love. The kind of church to which he will always come.  The church in which any Judas could feel at home.

The best thing any church could hope for is to be filled with Judases. With people whose lives are marked by the humiliation and humility that comes from knowing what they deserved, but did not get. People whose actions in the church and in the world are characterized therefore by the most reverent tenderness for the weaknesses of others. The best route to faithfulness any church can take is through human fragility, where the depths of guilt and shame are met by the unrelenting, anticipatory, all-covering, blame-withholding mercy of the Lord.

If what we strive for instead is a church of the strong, the good, the steadfast, and the capable, who are all perfectly capable of cooking breakfast for themselves, we may never have a church at all. And we might never have a mission either, because feeding Jesus’ lambs, inviting the whole world to come and have breakfast, sharing with others the mercy we were given around a charcoal fire—these are not things you can do if you’ve never been around that fire yourself, waiting for the other shoe to drop, if you’ve never felt the joy of realizing it isn’t going to drop—ever; if you’ve never understood how much you actually owe, and how clean the ledger has actually been wiped. It is precisely the ones who should never have been forgiven, but who were, who are called to tend Jesus’ sheep. It’s not something he entrusts to just anyone. He seeks out the worst for the job. And he makes them the best by love.

And it could have happened to Judas too, if only he had given himself a little more time.

It bothers me that the gospel of Matthew has this story about how terribly Judas died, self-hating, ashamed, hopeless, and alone. I want a different ending to his story. I don’t like the ending in Matthew at all.

Back in the Middle Ages, many Christians didn’t like another thing about the resurrection stories. It bothered them that none of the gospels records an appearance of Christ to his own mother! It didn’t seem right that she should not have had a private audience, and so they used their fervent imaginations and invented lots of “true” stories about the joyous reunion of mother and son; and then they preached them as if they were gospel.

And so I’ve been thinking, if they can do it, so can I.

If no one and nothing falls outside Easter’s blazing mercy, then this story is also true. It’s only right that it should be. So here it is, the gospel about Judas, according to me:

Before dawn on the day of his rising, before the women arrived with spices, before breathless disciples peered into the tomb, Jesus got up, left the grave, and went first to Judas.

The betrayer was curled up in a small room lit only by the fading stars. He was still sobbing. He had been sobbing for days. He had wanted to kill himself, but in the end he’d decided not to grant himself even that mercy.

When he saw Jesus, he cried out in horror and shrank against the wall, fending him off with his hands. He knew he was about to pay. He feared he was about to die. But Jesus knelt before him and gathered him into his arms.

Judas tried to speak. To explain, to beg.

No, no. Don’t say anything, Jesus told him. Hush, Judas, not a word. Let me tell you. Let me tell you who I am.

I am the Christ of eternal mercy.

I am the unimaginable God.

I formed you from the earth.

Now I exalt you beyond the stars.

O Judas, my tenderness for you overflows.

My love for you is everlasting.

It pours from the empty tomb.

For you.

Like song.

Alleluia. *

_______________

*These last few lines are borrowed from the Easter cantata, “Amor meus tibi ex sepulcro vacuo effundit” [My love for you pours from the empty tomb] by First Church in Cambridge, Congregational (MA) composer-in-residence, Patricia Van Ness. The English translation of the text is as follows:

You who sought me before dawn

with spices in your hands;

Magdalene;

And you, disciple loved above all disciples,

who lay close to my breast at the table,

and whose heart is one with mine,

My love for you pours from the empty tomb,

like song.

To the two who paused in sadness

walking to Emmaus;

To Simon Peter, warrior and child;

To the Centurian;

To Pilate;

To Judas,

I am the Christ of eternal mercy.

I am the God of compassion.

I am the unimaginable God.

I am the Rose of Sharon.

I have formed you from earth.

And exalt you in the heavens beyond the stars.

My tenderness for you overflows

and pours from the empty tomb,

like song.

Alleluia.

After These Things [John 21:1-14]


After these things and so many more
you decide to go fishing.
You bring up disappointments only.
They thud on the boards,
unwilling to die.

It is hard these days to remember
that once, in the hour before dawn
when even whispers travel
clear and close across water,
you believed.

Your heart filled up like a net let down
on a slow-swimming school.
You hauled them in:                                                                                                 one hundred fifty-three
fish.