Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter: The Deepest Mystery

The women who go to the tomb at dawn on Easter morning are not seeking resurrection. They are doing the age-old work of being women: preparing a body for a proper burial, one final act of love for a friend, a way of being faithful to the memory of the teacher and leader.  

So ritual is what brings the women to the tomb that morning. Love is what brings them to the tomb that morning. Faithfulness is what brings them to the tomb that morning.  

And it is those things—ritual, love, and faithfulness—that put them in the position to discover that Jesus has been raised. Had they not had those things—ritual, love and faithfulness—would the message to go to Galilee have ever been heard?  

It is no coincidence to me that simple and humble loving actions are what put these women in the position of seeing the angels and becoming the first evangelists for the resurrection. God’s grace is always there; we are the ones who are either open and available to that grace, or not. If we give in to despair after the cross, we may never know that Easter is possible.  

And those three things that brought the women to the tomb—ritual, love and faithfulness—may be similar to what has brought us here today. The ritual of Easter Sunday—you go to church, even if you don’t do so the rest of the year. We seek the ritual of the story, the music, the prayers, the communion with one another and God. Even the ritual of the Easter egg hunt. Ritual has brought us here today. 

Love has brought some of us here today. Love of a family member who wants us to be here; love for this church, this community; love of God; love of Jesus.  

And faithfulness has brought some of us here today. Faithfulness to the Gospel; to seeing Jesus through these three days we have just completed; faithfulness to loved ones who passed on their faith to us.

So now that we’re here, what surprising message are we available to hear? 

When I was reading through the scripture lessons for the day, I saw that the last verse of the 1 Corinthians reading was “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” I usually try not to think of death as an enemy; it is natural, it is universal, and I believe that the death-denying-ness of our culture is dangerous because it doesn’t allow us to die well and with dignity. But this verse resonated with me, partly because it harkens to me of the Easter promise that death “has no more dominion over us,” but also because I knew I’d seen it recently in connection with some popular culture icon—I just couldn’t remember where. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Where had I seen that? Google came to my rescue. It’s the verse that’s engraved on Harry Potter’s parents’ tombstone in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book in the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter is very much about resurrection—about how offering yourself freely to death vanquishes evil and death and causes the triumph of love and life.  

English children’s literature is very much about resurrection; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is probably an even better example of how “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” than Harry Potter is. Aslan, the lion, the Christ figure, has been sacrificed on the Stone Table by the White Witch. Susan and Lucy are mourning when they hear a loud crack as the Stone Table shatters and Aslan’s body is gone.

            “Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

            “Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself….

            “But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

            “It means, said Aslan, “That though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

And with that, Aslan takes the girls on his back and goes to the witch’s palace, where she has turned all sorts of good creatures into statues, and one by one Aslan breathes on them and they come back to life, and together they go and vanquish evil and the witch once and for all. Death has been destroyed; life will prevail.  

I don’t usually like using words like “magic” to describe the Gospel; Jesus’ resurrection is not a magic trick. Resurrection is not a fairy tale; it is not magic; it is not fiction; it is not an “idle tale” as the male disciples believe when they hear the women. It is real. Hear Paul’s confidence in his letter to the Corinthians today, “…in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” We really will be raised with him. Those aren’t just words we say to sound nice, a cold comfort in the shadow of death. But C.S. Lewis’ idea of “deeper magic” as a stand-in for what I might call “deeper mystery” works for me. What we are celebrating today is the deepest of mysteries.  

Because we don’t understand entirely what happened at that tomb in today’s Gospel. It is a deep mystery. And we don’t understand entirely how that triumph over death has released us from death, too; how it is that to paraphrase C.S. Lewis’ words from the novel, “Death will start working backwards” for us as well as for Jesus. The world is not comfortable with mystery today—we would prefer certainty. But certainty is the root of fundamentalism. Mystery is the root of compassion; of discovery; of creativity. Certainty can keep us hiding out after the cross, because Jesus is dead and there’s nothing more to say about that. Mystery is what allows us to go to the tomb, even if we’re not sure what we’ll find there.

So if you didn’t come here today seeking resurrection, that’s fine. We aren’t always seeking resurrection. The women certainly weren’t on their Easter morning. They did not even know that resurrection was something they could hope for. Sometimes we cannot even imagine what resurrection would look like for us. But God can. God’s imagination is greater than ours. We each have an empty tomb inside of us where God has raised something that was once dead and is now alive. So let us rejoice and be glad—as the choir already sang from Psalm 118, “The Lord’s right hand has triumphed; God’s right hand has raised me. The Lord’s right hand has triumphed; I shall not die, I shall live and recount God’s deeds!”

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