“My love for you will never end; I will keep forever my promise of peace.”
Isaiah 54, 5-14
And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat on it…Then the angel said to the women… “Go quickly and tell his disciples ‘He has been raised from the dead and he is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.’ ” Matthew 28, 1-10
Two weeks ago we were invited to ponder Tolstoy’s comment: “Anyone over thirty-five who does not reflect on death is a fool.” Today, we cannot avoid thinking about death, but from an entirely different perspective. After all, one has to love something very, very deeply to want to bring it back from the dead. Think, for example, about what it is that keeps slums from developing. It is a mixture of disdain from those outside and self-hatred on the part of those within that keeps slums the way they are. And it’s a scarcity of caring people that locks entire nations into cycles of poverty, starvation, unemployment and hopelessness. If we all cared enough for the earth, our common home, rivers would run clear again, stars we haven’t seen for decades would reappear, and trees would look resplendent. Dead and strained relationships in families, communities, work places and schools; boredom and edginess; sullen distancing than keeps out strangers - all these could begin to be transformed with a word of encouragement, acceptance, humour or welcome. At Easter, we can dare to ask: Who can love enough to resurrect the earth and all its people? The answer, of course, is to be found in the gospel readings.
But that’s just for starters! What kind of love can brighten the lot of the sick and elderly who wait, frail and faltering, for death to come their way? And, what of all those who, since almost the dawn of time, have lain buried in the earth?
Yet, the focus of our Easter celebration is the boundless love than can handle all this death and more. It is God’s love for Jesus, the Christ. As we listen to the readings and the Easter proclamation, we are given a grandstand view of how God stunningly expresses love for Jesus in a resurrection. Even more incredible is the fact that resurrection is not limited to Jesus, for he has linked himself irrevocably with us, and elicits from God for us the same kind of recreative love that God has for him. Jesus presents us to God as his brothers and sisters, not because of our virtue, but on account of our humanity, however frail it is. In the Easter Vigil reading from Romans, Paul reminds us that, through our Baptism, we have been crucified with Jesus, and, therefore, will be raised with him by God. We can all too easily gloss over the first part of that reminder, giving it dutiful assent, but hoping it won’t come true. But let’s pause to look at what it really means. Baptism is much more than being blessed and doused with water. It means being initiated into a community that tries to reach out to others in love and compassion, and getting criticised and crucified for our efforts. There isn’t one of us who has not been hurt while straining to do our best in the service of compassion and love. Christians don’t have to make arrangements to be crucified. It’s just a consequence of trying to stave off the many kinds of death that plague us as humans. What’s more, if we are honest, we have to admit that we have even done our own share of crucifying. Yet somehow, Jesus spruces us up and presents us to God as old friends who share with him all the limitations that go with being human. Whatever our inadequacies, Jesus sticks by us, overlooking our failures to stand by him. It’s his way of reinforcing his message that God loves us unconditionally, and has always loved us. If we need any further convincing, all we need do is return to the readings of the Easter Vigil, which offer us a panoramic view of the history of God’s love for humanity. Easter is God’s vindication of Jesus, of all that Jesus lived and proclaimed. The empty tomb signals the ultimate victory of the Gospel, of compassion, forgiveness, respect, generosity and love over humanity’s inclination to slip into despair, isolation, prejudice and self-interest.
Easter is not entirely a gentle or welcome experience, for it tumbles us out of the tombs we build for ourselves. Confinement can dull us into a sense of safety and security. After all, we come to know the limits of our tombs, and learn to exist within those limits. Easter signals the return of the risen Christ who comes to dismantle the protective walls we build, to drag us from our tombs and to push us into light and life. Easter is never about safety; it’s about freedom. As one of today’s gospel readings proclaim, Easter is not about the past in Jerusalem, but about the hope and freedom that await us in Galilee. This is all summed up in the words of a poem written by Michelle Berberet:
After the agony and humiliation
would you be willing to give up
the cold comfort of death
for the pain of rebirth
and the cell-splitting joy of glory? (America, Nov 17, 2016)
We manage to adjust to suffering and humiliation; we come to accept our crucifixions and deaths, relieved that they're over. We accept our existence in our "tombs," happy that the humiliation is behind us: a promised promotion doesn’t materialise, so we keep our heads down to hold on to the job we have; we apply for a position in another institution, fail to make the interview list, and try to convince ourselves that we’re better off where we are; the constant clashing with a work colleague has settled into a silent if uneasy truce of sorts, and we pretend that all is well.
We say to ourselves: “Keep the difficult stuff buried. Don't risk anymore. Get on with life.”
But at Easter, our spirits find voice. We're really not satisfied with the incomplete, the broken, the lost, the dysfunctional in our lives. The empty tomb challenges us to give up the Good Fridays we've adjusted to in order to experience the "cell-splitting joy" of Easter. Are we equal to the challenge?