I don't know how many of you caught the article in the News-Star last week about the little girl who had a surprise reunion with her daddy at school. He's been serving in Iraq, and though she'd been told he was coming home “sometime soon,” they left the precise timing a surprise. It's a deeply moving picture of a family reunited after a season of absence and worry. This same kind of reunion has happened thousands of times before. But it never stops being joyful, because things don't always end well when a loved one leaves for war.
There must have been a moment, however briefly, when the girl didn't recognize her father. And then, the shock of recognition and tears of joy streaming down her face.
I mention this little girl today, because her story bears a certain resemblance to many versions of the Easter story. At first, Jesus appears to his disciples as a mysterious stranger, until—in one way or another—their eyes are opened and they recognize him. On the road to Emmaus, for example, he is known to them in the breaking the bread. Or, on the Sea of Galilee, when they’ve gone back to fishing, it is the beloved disciple, with the special insight born of love, who must tell the others that the stranger on the beach is Jesus himself. Or today, Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles and the first to see and touch the Lord, recognizes Jesus when he calls her by name.
But the shock of recognition is where the similarity ends. Because, unlike the little girl in the paper, Mary doesn’t expect to see her beloved again. On the contrary, she’s seen him killed in action before her very eyes. Mary arrives at the end of her rope, disconsolate and numb with grief, after a long, dark night spent weeping. She’s come in the wee hours of the morning to care for Jesus--to do what she can for his body. But she has no hope--NONE--of meeting him alive. What's more, even the small comfort of caring for his body is denied her. She finds the tomb empty, and supposes grave robbers (or perhaps the gardener) have taken his body away.
We can hear her anguish as she explains to the angels why she's weeping. They have taken away my Lord, she says, and I do not know where they have laid him.
And then, a little later, she says to the stranger who approaches, Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.
Imagine her surprise when Jesus calls her by name. Mary, he says, and her heart is set on fire. Imagine when she looks him in the face and sees who he is. But it’s far, far more than merely the shock of seeing him alive. When Mary turns to face the Lord, more is involved than mere bodily movement. This is conversion—the reorientation of her entire being, from the inside out. By the movement of the Spirit within her, Mary’s mind, will, and affections are turning to God. Mary is turning from fear and despair to great and boundless joy. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus spoke of the hour when the dead would hear his voice and live. When Mary does so, she passes from death to life—and with her so have WE.
Easter means more than reuniting lost loved ones. Easter means more than eternal life, though it is that as well. Easter means more even than the fact that Jesus who died is now alive, though that is certainly true.
Easter is the beginning of God’s new creation. It is the eruption of the Lord of life in the midst of history, bursting every form of scarcity and every limit posed by the present age, so that Christ the Lord might reign.
Easter is the Lord’s victory over all that enslaves us—first and foremost, sin and death. Like Mary, we come to the tomb bearing many burdens. We come weighed down by various forms of grief and sin and shame. We come bound by poverty, violence, and oppression of one kind or another. We come burdened by various forms of struggle and resentment—by illness and addiction and an uncertain future. By broken promises and broken relationships, some of which we can't make right no matter what we do. We come bound by the chains of memory and regret and the many, many ways we diminish one another. But in Christ, these bonds are burst asunder. In Christ, we lay these burdens down.
Now, it isn’t magic. These things are real, and none of them simply disappears. And yet, in Christ, they lose their power over us, so that our growth in holiness might begin--not in anxious fear about our salvation but in gratitude for life abundant—and a victory already won. For Christ is the Living One, who has flung wide the gates of heaven—and who has conquered, once for all, the fallen powers of sin and death and hell.
Most of us come to Easter with our doubts-- who doesn’t? And yet, in our heart of hearts, we know the story is true. More is given here than we could ever receive. Here we are confronted by God’s wide-open mercy and a love without condition or price. Here the Lord himself meets us, breaking down the walls that imprison us and leading us into freedom.
Since we come face to face with God’s mystery in the Lamb that was slain, we approach Easter best in symbol and story. Like the cross we are flowering this morning, the glorious liturgy we are celebrating, and the jumbled, eyewitness accounts we hear of an empty tomb and of Jesus alive. We meet Jesus, wherever fear is conquered, forgiveness offered, or neighbors served in love. We meet Jesus in quiet moments when he comes and calls us each by name. We meet Jesus in the hope and freedom this day brings—and in the Spirit who now burns in our hearts. We meet Jesus whenever his body is broken and blood poured out. We meet him in the New Community that gathers in his Name. We meet him in our feasting and raucous hymns of joy.
For Christ is risen from the dead—trampling down death by death—and giving life to those in the tomb.
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
And death itself has passed away.