Thursday, April 15, 2010

One Last Easter

John 20:1-18

by Daniel Harrell

If you’re here tonight because you saw our sign outside advertising Easter services—I’m impressed. I say that because the sign has no date on it. It may be that we forgot to put the date on it, or it may be that we didn’t know the date. That’s the problem with Easter—the date changes every year. You can blame the moon. Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred during the Jewish Passover which is set in accordance with a primitive Babylonian lunar calendar. Passover commemorates God’s judgment passing over those whose houses were covered by lamb’s blood. The ancient church wanted to preserve the association between the Passover lamb and Jesus as the Lamb of God who also saves us from judgment by taking away our sins. So the church employed a similar dating method. But since the resurrection happened on a Sunday, the church also needed to guarantee that Easter consistently did the same.

Enter Constantine the Great, the fourth century Roman emperor who converted to Christ and thereby legalized Christianity. He convoked the Council of Nicea—three hundred bishops gathered from throughout the Roman Empire—who unanimously ruled that Easter should begin on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox.

Now while this sounds complicated, it made ancient sense for another reason. In addition to coinciding with Passover, Easter was also designed to overlap with spring (at least in the Northern hemisphere). The annual experience of new life from the dead of winter vividly symbolized the ultimate new life of resurrection. There were no bunnies or eggs involved of course; as ostensibly celibate bishops, fertility symbols would have been the last thing on their minds. Contrary to their pagan counterparts, Christians attributed the renewing of the earth, as they did the renewing of life, to the power of God alone. A sacred linkage between Easter and spring would have been obvious.

However the connection between Easter and spring can also be misleading. After all spring is entirely natural. In Southie I’m fortunate to have this little patio garden that Dawn and I get to dig around in. If you do any gardening yourself, you know that the daffodil or tulip bulbs you planted last fall have finally started coming up as glorious harbingers of spring. Though if you took a good look at one of those bulbs before planting it, you know that they hardly look like spring. They look dead―all brown and scraggly. But this doesn’t bother you. You just bury them in the ground, wait six months and in due time the bulbs predictably rise from the dead in living color. And though this never fails to marvel and delight, it never surprises either. Daffodils and tulips in spring, like spring itself, are entirely natural.

On the other hand, when you bury a dead person in the ground, the result is completely different. You don’t bury people with any expectation that they’ll pop up next season so you can pick up wherever you left off with them. When you bury a person, you say good-by. Funerals are solemn and somber occasions filled with loss, sadness and grief. You file by the freshly turned sod and pay your last respects resolving, somehow, to get on with life as best you can. What other choice do you have? Springtime only happens on top of graves, never in them.

Mary Magdalene was paying her respects at Jesus’ grave early that first Easter morning. John tells us that it was still dark. Yet the weak morning light was sufficient for her to discover a startling and terrible truth: the stone that covered the entry to Jesus’ tomb had been moved! Were the religious authorities not satisfied with killing him that they came and stole his body too? Or was this the sinister work of grave robbers? Robbing tombs was not uncommon in those times. And Jesus had been entombed with seventy-five pounds of pricey spices and costly linen cloth. Hysterical, Mary dashed back to where the disciples were hiding out and dropped the bomb on them: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

Peter and John dashed with her back to the cemetery. John, as the narrator, makes sure to inform us that he ran faster. Getting there first, John looked into the tomb and behold, Mary was right! But he wasn’t going in there to make sure. Peter, however, perhaps in compensation for his cowardice a few nights prior, pushed past John and discovered the strips of burial linen, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. They were nicely folded. Surely, neither the religious authorities nor grave robbers would have taken the time to refold the burial wrappings, not to mention completely abandoning the expensive fabric.

John stepped inside and we read that “he saw and believed.” What did he believe? He believed Mary. Nobody was quite ready to accept the notion of anybody rising from the dead—despite what they’d seen Jesus do with Lazarus and others before. At this point, all that any of them believed was that Jesus was gone. Thus Peter and John sadly returned home like all grieving people inevitably must do. You have to get on with your life as best you can. What other choice do you have? But Mary wasn’t ready to get on with anything but her grief. She was left to grieve alone. Grief is like that. It is an intensely isolating emotion. It closes you off—even from those eager to give comfort. CS Lewis wrote how a grieving person is like a drowning person who can’t be helped because in their flailing distress nobody can get a hold of their hand. In this way grief is a lot like fear. For Mary, Jesus’ death had been horrific enough. Yet in a culture which emphasized the sanctity of a proper burial, the abomination she now confronted unbearably compounded her anguish.

She frantically bent over to look inside the tomb once more. Grief is like this too. It makes you want to turn back the clock. You imagine that by reliving a moment recently past, that somehow the outcome can be different. Maybe if Mary looked again Jesus’ body would be there. But there was no body. There were, however, two angels. Mary was too sad to care. Thus these angels did not utter the customary “fear not.” Instead they asked why she was crying. “Why do you think I’m crying!? They’ve taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him!”

Of course the angels knew he was. I always imagine them pointing just beyond Mary, like in that last scene of the old baseball classic Field of Dreams. [In addition to Easter, today is also Opening Day]. In the movie, Shoeless Joe Jackson points Kevin Costner over toward home plate where a mysterious figure is standing. Mary turns from the angels and bumps not into a baseball catcher, but into the cemetery grounds-keeper. Unlike Kevin Costner and his dead father the baseball catcher, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus. Grief distorts reality. The supposed grounds-keeper repeats the angels’ question: “Woman, why are you crying?” (Mary’s like, “What is it with these people?”) Jesus then slyly adds [smile], “Whom are you looking for?” But Mary is too distraught to get the joke. “Look sir,” she moaned, “if you have carried him away, you just tell me where you have put him, and I will go get him.” So Jesus helps her by saying her name. And at that moment Mary must have Freaked. Stinking. Out. She must have screamed, tackled Jesus and held on for dear life. No way he was getting away from her again! But rather than welcome her embrace, Jesus tells her to back off. Noli me tangere. Don’t touch me.

What a bizarre thing to say. Scholars have puzzled over its meaning for centuries, though artists have had a field day with it. In most of their paintings, Jesus pushes Mary away as if she has cooties or something. In a famous one by Titian, Jesus looks like he’s about to whack Mary in the head with his victory flag. What’s really weird is that Jesus tells Mary to keep her hands to herself while just ten verses later he’s telling Thomas to stick his fingers into the wound on his side. Does the Lord have something against women? None of the guys came to the cemetery that morning. Jesus explains that “he has not yet returned to the Father,” though a better translation would be “not yet ascended.” But what does that mean? Whatever the ascension meant to John, it at least indicated Jesus’ decisive parting from the way things were. In stark contrast to the mere resuscitation of Lazarus, Jesus’ resurrection meant that everything was about to change. Resurrection meant brand new life, not the old life lived over. This is why most translations, instead of “do not touch me,” have Jesus saying to Mary, “do not cling to me.”

You need to move on. That’s what people say when you’ve suffered heartbreaking loss. “You need to let it go.” But how do you do that? It’s not as if you can simply will your grief away. Sure, you can get distracted for a moment or two. Like now during church, you hear all this and think, OK, he’s right, I need to move on. But once you leave and start heading home, all thos emotions will sneak back up on you and you’ll be stuck again. “Let it go” is easy to say, but nearly impossible to do. Christian friends will tack on the caveat, “let go and let God.” But if God was going to do anything about it, wouldn’t he have kept the heartbreaking loss from happening in the first place.

Not exactly. Friends may say “Let go and let God,” but Jesus actually says let go of God. “Stop clinging to me Mary.” Let me hold on to you. It’s time to move on. Or better: it’s time to move up. “I am ascending to my God and my Father,” Jesus says. But by also saying that he’s ascending to “your God and your Father,” Jesus implies that he’s taking us with him. The end-all of human life has never been happiness here, despite the enormous amount of time and energy we spend (and mostly waste) pursuing it. Like daffodils in spring, we expect to find comfort, safety, happiness, success and peace of mind here and now. It’s totally natural. Only the search succeeds in disappointing you over and over again. That’s because happiness on earth-as-it-is was never God’s goal for human existence. Otherwise there would have been no cross and Jesus would still be doling out loaves and fishes.

Instead, the Bible talks about a new heaven and a new earth—a supernatural reality that Jesus died and rose to achieve. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that “God has raised us up and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” But what’s amazing is that Paul wrote this while the Ephesians were still walking on earth. “You have been raised with Christ” already, Paul reiterated to the Colossians while they were still on earth too. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, your future is all set even now. So you can stop clinging to me Mary and “go tell my brothers” by whom Jesus meant his disciples who were hiding out for fear of being strung up like Jesus. Go tell them they don’t need to be afraid anymore. Jesus is living proof. Far from having anything against women, that Jesus sent Mary made a woman the first apostle (since an apostle is one who is sent). This is part of what makes the resurrection story so believable. Given first century attitudes toward women, if someone in the first century had wanted to invent a story about people seeing Jesus alive, they would have never given a starring role to a woman; let alone a woman with a shady past like Mary Magdalene, the former prostitute.

So go tell my brothers to believe it. New life has already started. They don’t need to be afraid to die anymore—and once you’re not afraid to die, you don’t need to be afraid of anything. This explains why we see the weak-kneed disciples turn into emboldened and inspired apostles. Their faith eventually converts the Roman empire and the emperor himself, so that every year since, on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, people all over the world pile into churches and totally unnaturally proclaim about Jesus “He is risen!” Alleluia. It’s time to move on because we’ve already moved up.

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