She draws the door shut softly behind her, wincing slightly at the sound of the latch clicking. She draws the hood further over her head, glances down the road, and then sets off walking; quickly, but not too quickly. It was important to hurry, but it was also important not to be seen hurrying. That would draw attention and unwanted questions this early in the morning, when the grey sky was just starting to brighten. She clutches her bag a little more firmly, so the jars of spices and ointments would not clink together as she walked.
After a few minutes, she arrives at the gate into the garden where the tomb is. She waits nervously, glancing sharply around at every noise. Before long, she hears a pair of soft footsteps coming up the lane. She tenses, but holds her ground. A figure comes around the corner and stops short; then, recognizing each other, the first relaxes while the second steps beside her. They nod at each other, but make no sound. A few more minutes, another pair of footsteps, another round of tensed and then relaxed shoulders in recognition. And then the three of them enter the garden. They glide through as quietly and smoothly as ghosts, until they stop short when they catch a glimpse of the tomb, because the door is open; the stone has been rolled away. Glancing at each other, they move forward again, and enter the tomb.
The first Easter morning unfolded much differently than you would expect, given how we celebrate today. For many of us, Easter morning is still a lot of hurrying, but a lot more noise and chaos. Families have to solve complex algorithms of how much time you can devote to Easter baskets before wrangling children into special outfits and heading out for church. Others make final preparations for a sumptuous meal after church and the arrival of guests.
Walking into the Sanctuary, we find it covered with lilies and other special flowers and listen to the sound of a guest group of brass musicians warming up. After 40 days of preparation in Lent, we finally shout out, “Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!” echoing one of the most ancient liturgies of the Christian church on Easter. Easter is a time of great celebration, of joy and thanksgiving over Jesus’ triumphant defeat of death through the resurrection.
The strange thing is, none of that is evident in the actual story of Easter morning. There are no trumpets, no angelic choirs, no radiant Jesus pushing the stone across the door of his tomb away and striding out triumphant, arms on his waist like a superhero. The story begins with this small group of women showing up at the tomb in the pre-dawn haze with the spices and ointments they hastily prepared before the Sabbath began on Friday night, intending to at least give Jesus the dignity of a proper burial after the torment and humiliation he received in death by crucifixion.
That’s all they can do; that’s all they can imagine doing. Even finding the stone that had sealed the door to the tomb rolled away doesn’t faze them. Perhaps they concluded that Joseph, the Jewish council leader who had arranged for the tomb, opened it for them, since he clearly cared about Jesus having a proper burial. And that’s all they are doing; that is all they expect to do.
It’s only when they discover that Jesus’ body is missing that they become “perplexed” as Luke puts it. It doesn’t send them to their knees in prayer or leaping up in the air in praise, though. They’re just perplexed because his body is not where it should be. The idea that Jesus has been raised from the dead doesn’t begin to occur to them, because the finality and reality of death seems so obvious.
Yes, Jesus talked to his disciples about how he would be handed over to the elders and chief priests and be killed and then raised on the third day, but… well, you know Jesus, he says all kinds of things that are lovely spiritual ideas, but nobody takes literally: blessed are you who are poor, or hungry, or weeping; forgive, and you will be forgiven; love your neighbor as yourself; love your enemies; love one another just as I have loved you. So the women stand here in the tomb, perplexed by the missing body.
Resurrection is, to put it mildly, a perplexing thing. Bob Benton, who was nominated for the Academy Award for screenplay writing four different times and twice for Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart, was also a faithful attendee of the church I used to serve in New York City. At the time I was there, he had been working on a screenplay about the life of Jesus for over a decade. He had written most of it, and I was lucky enough to get to read several sections of it. It was, far and away, the best version of Jesus’ life and ministry I’ve ever encountered. He depicted Jesus in all of his human fullness: funny, warm, wise, occasionally short-tempered, always loving. But he had never finished it. “I can’t figure out the resurrection,” he explained. The two-time Academy Award-winning writer couldn’t figure out how to tell the story of the resurrection. None of his attempts had worked; they either seemed too simple or too contrived, too small or too overdone, and never really authentic or believable, which was the hallmark of the entire rest of the script. So, he had finally given up and filed it away. I and others would periodically urge him to try and finish, but he would shake his head. “I just can’t figure out the resurrection,” he would say again.
“I can’t figure out the resurrection.” Many of us have probably said some version of that, at some point in our lives. Some of us have wondered if that means we lack faith, if the fact that we can’t get our reason and imagination around Christ being literally raised from the dead means we have fallen short, fallen away. Some have given up on faith because of that, filed it away as a project we would have liked to have had, but just can’t find a way to finish.
Because resurrection flies in the face of everything we know about this world, everything we know about life itself. Too often the church has tried to act as if not only do we have the resurrection completely figured out, but that anybody who doesn’t is being willfully resistant to the obvious truth. But Scripture is more honest about resurrection than the church has tended to be. Resurrection is so far out of mind for the women at the tomb that they forgot all about it until these two angelic messengers tell them to remember that Jesus told them everything, including the resurrection, that was going to happen to him before he was arrested and executed.
Having been reminded of Jesus’ promises, the women hurry back to the male disciples and remind them. And they, the ones who are supposedly the inner circle of Jesus’ ministry, the ones who spent the most time listening to him and following him, who should know and remember more than anyone, snort derisively and wave the women away, calling their proclamation of the gospel on Easter nothing but “an idle tale.” Peter, at least, checks it out, going to the tomb and finding the burial cloths lying there where Jesus discarded them. And he at least has the decency to be amazed, but that’s not the same thing as believing, much less understanding.
The story of Easter, as least as far as Jesus’ disciples go, is that none of them could figure out the resurrection. Which means that we shouldn’t be surprised if we struggle to understand it, too. After all, it took them multiple encounters and experiences and remembrances even to grasp the possibility, and still more to start embracing it. Which makes sense, for them and for us, because through the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter, God has rewritten the most basic rules of reality as we think we know it. Christ’s resurrection does not deny the existence of death; by definition, there can be no resurrection without death. But the reality of the empty tomb on Easter, of the resurrected Christ, denies the real power and victory of death; death no longer gets the last word in the story of our lives.
The question for us, then, is not whether we have Christ’s resurrection figured out; that’s not the point or even possible. The real question that the Easter story poses to us is, whose word are we willing to trust? Are we willing to trust in God’s resurrection promises that are larger than anything we could ever truly understand? Because those are perhaps the only kind of promises that really matter in the end.
And the resurrection of Jesus Christ promises nothing less than God’s grace is stronger than our greatest resistance to it, whether for ourselves or others; that God’s love is stronger than our strongest fears, whether of God or our neighbors or enemies; and that God’s will for us to have life and have it abundantly in Jesus Christ is stronger than the will and power of death to ever claim or capture us, no matter how much of a fight death puts up in trying.
So, this Easter, come look inside the empty tomb where death itself has been chased away. Look at the discarded burial cloths, and be amazed as Peter was. Come to the table, meet the Risen Lord, and be fed and satisfied. And then look to see where Jesus appears next, for he is already out there ahead of us in the world: healing, comforting, challenging, welcoming, and inviting us to follow into all the fullness of life in the presence and promise and power of God, and to share in Christ’s ministry of love: blessing the poor and hungry and weeping; loving our neighbors, and our enemies, and each other just as Christ has loved us. For all the rules, all the possibilities, all of reality are all changed forever. For Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!