Sunday is Easter for those of us in the Western form of Christianity. My Orthodox friends have to wait a week longer. I pray for you that the day is full of joy. And I pray that it is full of hope.
These are the great gifts of Easter: joy and hope.
As I’ve noted before, we in the West often don’t quite know what to do with Easter. Our faith tends to focus rather relentlessly on Good Friday, Christ’s suffering and death, willing sacrifice of his life on our behalf. Our theology tends to be focused on atonement — on the guilt of our sin as the problem, and Christ’s sacrificial death as the solution to that problem.
We know that Easter, when Christ has risen from the grave, is supposed to be the source of greatest joy, but, alas, it doesn’t have that much of a place in our schema of guilt, sacrifice, and forgiveness.
We are, in fact, most like the version of the story of Easter as found in Mark: the women came to the empty tomb and were told that Jesus had risen, but they went away scared and confused; in fact they told nobody.
This year, however, if our churches are following the Revised Common Lectionary, we find ourselves in Matthew’s version.
Here in Matthew 28:1-10, those women (just Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” for Matthew) are told to go and tell the rest of the disciples — and they go to do it.
They meet the risen Christ along the way, and he too tells them to go and tell the rest of the disciples — and they get back on the road and do it.
This is another example of Jesus turning first to unlikely evangelists. During his earthly ministry he chose the Woman at the Well to go and tell her Samaritan neighbors about Jesus; and he chose the man freed from a legion of demons to tell the people of the Decapolis what God had done for him. The list could go on.
Here, though, at the crucial moment, the very first witnesses to both the empty tomb and the risen Christ are these women whom Jesus did not place among the Twelve. They are given the Good News to share with those Twelve Apostles, who were, at the time, hunkering in the bunker.
Let us remember that the first evangelists of the Good News of the Resurrection, by the choice of the angel and by the choice of Jesus, were these women.
There are interesting oddities I could regale you with: the fact that the earthquake happens while the women are approaching the tomb, not sometime before as I inwardly picture it. They must have weaved and wobbled up the trail, trying to reach the spot. And there are those soldiers left to cower in fear, or perhaps they actually passed out cold “like dead men.”
But it is a surreal and strangely busy time, this season of quarantine and isolation and social distancing. It is a hard time to string two thoughts together and write you something coherent.
We can’t go out to work, most of us, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The way to love our neighbors is to stay away from them. We are cooped up with our families, or we are cooped up totally alone, even introverts longing for some social contact with strangers.
I find myself reduced to a high-tech hunter-gatherer, sitting at my computer trying to find a store that will let me pick up groceries without going inside, or one that will schlepp them to my doorstep. I’ve filled shopping carts at the three local options, and hourly for three days have tried to check out from just one, any one, hoping that some new pick-up or delivery slots will open up. But I digress.
Easter Hope in the Season of COVID-19
What we need is, in fact, the message of Easter.
In the words of the angel and the risen Christ we are told,
Do not be afraid!” (Matthew 28:5 & 10 NRSV, emphasis added.)
And that is what we need, right?
- We are home, afraid of getting COVID-19, and afraid that we might have it and give it to someone else.
- We are afraid, hearing of public figures who have been sickened or killed by this strange new disease.
- We are afraid, worrying for aged parents and relatives with health conditions that put them at risk.
- We are afraid, having lost a job, or wondering if we will, because the pandemic has wrought economic damage as yet unable to be tallied.
- We are afraid that the world will never return to a condition we can recognize as “normal.”
- In short: we are afraid of death.
Death of self. Death of loved ones. Death of hopes.
But the angel and Jesus told the women
Do not be afraid!
Ah, but when Jesus rose from the grave, his risen life took away the thing that had so filled them with sorrow and fear. They thought they’d lost Jesus. Now they had him back.
Isn’t our situation different?
Well, we too have the good news that Jesus is back. As he will say at the end of the chapter,
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20 NRSV)
Even if our careers, our hopes are decimated, Jesus is with us.
Even if our loved ones die — even if we die— Jesus is with us.
That promise of his presence genuinely matters. That Easter Good News can take away fear, or perhaps more likely, it can be with us in the dark night of our fears.
But you know, my Orthodox friends would tell you that there is more, much more, to this Easter Good News of Christ’s resurrection.
The actual message of the Resurrection is that Jesus has conquered death itself. Yes, Mary and the other Mary, plus all twelve of the Twelve, eventually died. And so did every person to whom they preached the good news.
And so will you and so will I — whether due to COVID-19 or to ripe old age.
We all die.
But death is conquered.
Death is no longer the final enemy.
The new life has begun, and will continue to all eternity.
As the Orthodox will sing about a thousand times during the season of Easter
Christ is risen from the grave
Trampling death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
Christ is risen. Death is conquered. May you know it in your very bones.
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By the way: in the middle of writing this I snagged a delivery time for some groceries. May you be so blessed as well!