He is Not Here

Easter begins in the dark. That might seem like a silly thing to say; technically, all days begin in the dark. But it’s important to point out anyway because that’s not what we think of. For most of us, when we think about Easter it’s somewhere in the sunshine of a spring day. Maybe it’s a morning Easter egg hunt, with eager children scurrying through the house clutching baskets as the morning sun slants through the window shades and the only treasure that parents want sits burbling in the coffeemaker in the kitchen.

Maybe it’s the late morning brightness as the sun sails slowly up to the top of the sky, and you walk through the church doors into the bustling crowd of people already jammed into pews, waiting for the opening fanfare before launching into singing the majesty of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” Maybe it’s early afternoon, when everyone’s back at home and the air is filled with the sweet aroma of baked ham or the savory scent of  roasted lamb, while you try to hold three conversations at once with different members of the extended family that has crammed into the house.

But no, we don’t usually think about Easter beginning in the dark. Matthew’s version of the story says that, “as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.” So that’s where it begins for Jesus’ most faithful followers; waking up in the dark, dressing secretively and making their way through the dark and empty streets as the sky is just beginning to brighten with the dawn of the new day. The sentimental posters often have the sky blazing with beams of orange and red heavenly light above the tomb on the empty cross still standing on the hill outside the city, but that’s probably not what happened.

If it’s like most mornings when you’re awake at that time, you don’t actually see the sunrise directly, unless you’re at the beach or overlooking a mountain vista or something like that. You just see the sky turning slowly lighter, going from black through various shades of grey until the blue of the daytime sky begins to emerge. Unless you happen to glance in the right direction for the few minutes of bright light, or you are camped out somewhere waiting for it to happen, the sunrise happens without your actually seeing it, because your focus is on preparing for the day ahead.

And in this case, the two Marys are focused on their purpose, as well. In several of the gospel accounts of Easter morning, the women go to the tomb to finish the burial rituals for Jesus that they were unable to complete because of the onset of the Sabbath with sundown on Friday night. Both Mark and Luke note that they went to the tomb on the first day of the week carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ body. Matthew has no mention of that purpose, though. For Matthew, the purpose of going to the tomb on Easter morning is simple: they go to grieve.

Literally, as soon as they are able after the Sabbath has ended, before the sky has even begun to brighten, they are already on their way to the tomb for no other discernable purpose than simply to be there because that is where their beloved Lord has been laid to rest, and that’s as close to him as they feel like they can get now that he’s dead. It’s the same reason that people today go to cemeteries to grieve, to sit by the tombstone of someone they love and cry, or leave mementos, or plant flowers or flags, or even to have one-sided conversations with the person whose body or ashes are buried there.

Grief itself is a purpose; it is hard work, as a matter of work, and it is work that simply piles up and threatens to bury us if we aren’t intentional about taking care of it. All those things that people do at cemeteries are different ways of grieving, of processing the boundless sense of loss and pain that come with the death of someone we love. That’s what the two Marys have gone to Jesus’ tomb to do. And so Easter begins in the dark, and it begins with grief and loss.

Which I think is actually comforting this year, in a strange sort of way, as we celebrate Easter, when it still feels very much like Lent. Traditionally, Lent is the Christian season of 40 days before Easter. Historically, particularly in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, it has often involved people giving up pleasures, luxuries, and conveniences, if not food and drink entirely for periods of time as a spiritual practice of fasting. These are all intended as a sign and experience of self-sacrifice and self-denial, and as a means of focusing one’s attention on God.

But this year that has been on a whole new level for most of us. As one meme that has been circulating online puts it: “This is the Lentiest Lent that ever Lented.” Or as Andy Crouch, the new editor of Christianity Today, summed things up around the second week of March as the stay-at-home orders began establishing a life of quarantine for most of the United States, quipping: “I honestly hadn’t planned on giving up quite this much for Lent.”

That actually gets at the heart of our experience of Easter this year. Because certainly none of us planned on giving up as much as we have given up this year during Lent. We’ve all given up many pleasures, luxuries, and conveniences in obeying both the governor’s stay-at-home order and, more profoundly, obeying Jesus’ commandment that we remembered on Maundy Thursday just a few days ago, which he gave to his disciples as his most significant teaching before his arrest: that we love one another just as he loved us.

We’ve even fasted from important things like gathering in-person with family or friends, or worshipping in-person as a church. And for some of us there have been things, important things, not so much given up as taken from us: jobs, healthcare coverage, even the lives of friends or family.

So, yes: it is Easter, and it is also a time of grief, and loss, and darkness. Which feels like it’s not Easter at all, given how we usually celebrate it, with all that abundant sunshine and food and joy and togetherness. But those celebrations are not the story; they are about the meaning of the story, the impact of it, the end result. But the Easter story itself, when you read it, really does begin in the dark, and when the light changes, it does so in ways that are very different from our celebrations. There is no celebratory sky, orange-and-red from the risen sun, that shines down into the garden where Jesus had been entombed.

Rather, there is an sudden earthquake and a flash of lightning piercing the early morning calm in a terrifying appearance of an angelic messenger, who tells the women, “Do not be afraid; I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.” And then presumably seeing the looks on the women’s faces, whether looks of fear or disbelief or simply incomprehension, he continues: “Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘he has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him.’ This is my message,” he concludes.

As it turns out, Easter began before the women ever woke up, much less arrived at the tomb. Sometime well before the first hints of light appeared in the sky, sometime in the full darkness of the pre-dawn morning, Jesus was raised and walked out of the tomb that could not hold him, was raised and walked out without fanfares of trumpets or the beating of drums, without rolling thunder or pealing bells, without even light to see it by if you happened to be sitting in the garden of the tomb.

By the time the women arrive at the tomb, when the light is just starting to reach its fingers over the horizon and into the sky, Easter has not only started, it seems to be over already: “he is not here,” the angel tells the women, and perhaps the looks on their faces in response to that were not fear or disbelief or incomprehension. Perhaps they were looks of disappointment or despair that they missed it, that they missed him; that he has been raised, but that he is not here. Which is why the angel gives them a message that they are to repeat to the others: “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him.”

He is not here; he has been raised from the dead; he is going ahead of you; there you will see him. On March 15, the third Sunday of Lent and the first Sunday we met only online, I mentioned an exchange I saw in a Facebook forum for church leaders in which one person asked, “who out there is cancelling church this Sunday?” and someone responded, “I hope nobody is; I hope church is just getting started.” And for us, that was exactly what happened.

We moved our worship and educational ministries online so that we could continue to enter God’s presence and grow in our faith together. Our Deacons reached out to connect with every member of the congregation multiple times, to see how everyone was doing and what they might need in terms of spiritual or material help. We began a Meal Ministry to serve those for whom shopping for food was dangerous or preparing was difficult.

As we became aware of the desperate shortage of protective equipment for healthcare workers and first responders, we partnered with a local grassroots organization, Mask Force 2020, that sprang up to make and distribute masks for those who have been working so hard to care for us. And through it all we have offered words of prayer, of hope, of love, of concern and support, for each other and for all our neighbors as we have gone through this time together.

He is not here; he has been raised from the dead; he is going ahead of you; there you will see him. That is the essence of the meaning, and power, and promise of Easter that I think we can hear and hold onto this year in a way that we never have before: that it begins in the dark, before we’re ever awake to the reality that it’s happening or even possible, as Christ is raised and goes into the world ahead of us, inviting us to follow, and assuring us if we do, we will see him.

Because for four weeks now, he has not been here; Jesus has gone ahead of us and we have seen him everywhere and every time we and others have gone in faith and love to serve others in these anxious and dangerous times. And Easter reminds us that Christ’s victory over everything that tries to separate us from God or one another is as sure and certain as the sunrise, even over death itself, which trembles in fear and fades away like shadows before the rising light of Christ. Easter, after all, literally means “towards the east, towards the sunrise.”

So as this new Easter dawns, let us take hold of the promise of Easter and let it guide us towards the east, towards the sunrise, in lives of faith and hope and love. Because the good news of Easter is: Jesus is just getting started. He is not here; he has been raised from the dead; he is going ahead of you; there you will see him. Christ is risen; he is risen indeed.

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