An interesting difference between first century Jewish culture and 21st century Americans is our concept of the day. In the story of the creation we are told “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1:5b). In the Jewish culture, even today for those who strictly observe the Sabbath, the new day begins when the sun goes down, and so we begin our celebration of Easter this evening, shortly after the sun has gone down, with the lighting of the new fire and the Pascal candle.
We are at a liminal stage liturgically. We have one foot still in Lent and the other foot stepping over the threshold into Easter. We are still in darkness, but there is hope of the sunrise and a new awakening. This Easter it may seem as though we have a rope tied around our waist with someone pulling us back, refusing to let us move forward. You may not have Easter lilies, Easter outfits, Easter baskets, Easter eggs, Easter bunnies, or the Easter banquets that help propel us out of the fasting and introspective aspect of Lent and into the joyous and celebratory remembrance of our salvation, but Easter will come this night just the same. I would encourage you to find ways to celebrate tomorrow even if it looks a little bit different.
We begin our readings with the remembrance of what God has done throughout Israel’s history. The BCP allows up to nine readings but requires at least two. I chose a happy medium of four, but the reality is there are many more than nine stories recounting God’s mercy and forgiveness in the Old Testament. Why do we do this? We are in a way giving a letter of introduction or recommendation concerning God to those to do not yet know him. Why do we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead? We believe because it is in the nature of God to have chosen to do this for us and we know that because we know God through the stories we have heard about what God had done in the past, the promises that he made, and the promises that he kept to previous generations.
We believe that God created the world, we believe God caused order to come out of chaos – that is what Genesis 1 is saying, and that God created human beings in his own image because he wanted to be in relationship with us. Among the stories we might have read was that of Noah and the flood. Despite the chaos humans created within God’s creation, he chose to save the human race through Noah and give humanity a second chance. We could have read the story of Abraham and how God chose Abraham to be the father of a nation through which God would bless the entire world and how God revealed to Abraham his faithfulness to that promise in ways that proved it was God’s doing and not Abraham’s delusion. We did read about God hearing the cry of his people in bondage and sending Moses, whom he spent 80 years preparing for this task, to bring his people out of Egypt and safely across the Red/Reed sea. We read in Isaiah how God’s salvation is and was always intended to be for all people from every nation. We could have read about Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones that God resurrected when Ezekiel witnessed to them about the power of God. We read that story just a few weeks ago. We read about God’s promise through the prophet Ezekiel to restore Israel. Why do these story matter? Why were we commanded not to forget them, but to tell them to our children and grandchildren? Because this is how we keep alive the knowledge of who God is, but telling of what God has done.
Tonight we tell another story. Perhaps the most important story. It is only the last little portion of the story we have been telling all week, but like any good serial – let me remind you what came before. We began this week with Jesus riding into Jerusalem in what appeared to be a triumph or coronation ceremony. Quietly, but quite visually, Jesus announced the beginning of his reign, the start of the Kingdom of Heaven, in the streets of Jerusalem. Later he drove the money changers and merchants out of the temple courts and talked about the destruction of the temple and his ability to rebuild it in three days. He was speaking of his body, the true temple, but his words were the final straw for many who saw him as a troublemaker. Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room of someone’s home in Jerusalem. There, while sharing the Passover Seder with his closest companions he washed their feet demonstrating his expectation of servant leadership from them, he altered the words of the Haggadah stating that the wine in the Cup of Redemption was his blood and the unleavened bread was his body which would be broken for their salvation. While saying prayers in the garden after the meal, he was betrayed by one of his own, Judas Iscariot, accused by the Jewish leaders, and arrested by Roman soldiers. He was beaten, mocked and though tried by the temple, the Jewish crown, and the Roman prefect – he was found innocent, but too dangerous to release and he was crucified on a Roman cross to please the riotous crowds. Finally, before sundown on Friday night, before the beginning of the Sabbath, he was placed in a borrowed tomb.
It is now the earliest hours of dawn on Sunday morning. The sun is just beginning to emit a faint glow at the horizon and some women, Matthew tells us Mary Magdalene and another Mary, go to Jesus’ tomb with the intention of finishing the process of preparing his body for burial, as they were not able to finish before the Sabbath began Friday evening. Matthew tells us, before the women arrived, an earthquake caused the stone sealing Jesus’ tomb to roll away and an angel descended from heaven and sat on top of the stone frightening the Roman soldiers who were guarding the grave. Romans were a very superstitious people and had no trouble believing in other-worldly happenings but did not necessarily wanted to stick around to see what the angel had planned. The angel greeted the women with the usual greeting from heaven “Do not be afraid” and explained to them what had happened. ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ The angel instructs them to go tell quickly and tell the disciples – the men. They run off with very mixed emotions. They have just been visited by and angel which I’m sure is disconcerting, to say the least, so they are frightened, despite the angel’s insistence that there is nothing to fear, but they are also filled with joy. Their beloved Jesus is alive. Suddenly Jesus, himself, appears before them and in a most casual way, says “Greetings”. The women fall to the ground and reaching out and touching his feet they worship him. Jesus reminds them of the angel’s instructions to go tell the men to meet him in Galilee.
Each gospel tells this story just a bit differently. Tomorrow morning we will hear John’s version, which is my favorite and describes a tender private meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdelene. Matthew’s version seems almost comical by comparison, but the gist of the story is the same. That which they thought was lost has been found. The impossible has become reality. The nightmare has become a message of hope.
I would encourage you, if you find you have time on your hands in the coming weeks, and I know for some of you that is much and others you have even less than you did before, try to spend some time reading the stories in the Bible. If you find it difficult, don’t be embarrassed to use a book of children’s Bible stories or a paraphrased version. The important thing is to familiarize yourself with the stories in the Bible enough that you can tell them to others and know why they matter.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!