"The Darkness of Easter"

John 20:1-18
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” Imagine…. perhaps Mary felt the chill of the early morning dew on her feet, maybe she stumbled on the path as she made her way in the shadows. What might she have heard? The wind rustling through the trees? Or the sandy scuttle of creatures scurrying into the underbrush as she walked by. Was it yet too early to hear the birds greet the morning? I imagine darkness and quiet and the weight of sorrow pressing down.

This is where Easter begins--in the darkness. This most joyful day of the Christian year begins with fear, bewilderment, grief, and a profound lack of certainty. The raucous “Alleluia’s”, joyful hymnody eggs, baskets and gatherings of friends and family--that all came later. On that first Easter morning there were disciples stumbling around in the half-light of morning, confused and afraid, running back with news that a tomb which should have held the body of a would-be messiah was empty. Along with Mary, look into the darkness of the tomb. Are those angels inside? Are the shadows in the corner really grave clothes? And that quiet stranger lingering outside. Who is he? A gardener. Or someone else?

The disciples, Peter and John, returned to their homes with news of the empty tomb. But Mary stays. She lingers. She is still searching for Jesus. And now she looks again inside the tomb, the place of the dead; and sees two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. Still searching she says: “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” And turning around she sees the gardener. And when he speaks her name, “Mary,” she hears--and encounters the risen Lord.

In truth, Easter is not about the empty tomb (it’s not), it’s not about bunnies, chicks, eggs, bonnets or new clothes--grand those these things are. Easter is not about whether the resurrection can be scientifically proven, or whether we should simply focus upon the rebirth of spring and vague feelings of hope within the human breast. None of this. Easter is about encountering the living Christ. Easter is about Jesus. It’s uncomfortable and unprovable. It’s about God working on our behalf in and through the darkness and making a way for us where before there was no way. It is about Jesus triumphing over death.

That’s a far cry from what the world was hoping for that first Easter Morning when Mary was making her way through the shadows of the early morning to the tomb. The people who greeted Jesus at the eastern gate of Jerusalem a week earlier on Palm Sunday, shouting “Hosannah, and waving branches of palm. They weren’t expecting the resurrection from the Messiah, they were asking that Jesus might free them from Pontius Pilate, from Caesar, and from the tyranny of Rome. Here’s the truth. They weren’t thinking large enough--their hope was too small to encompass the enormity of their plight. In the end governments crumble, rulers change--but death remains. Death is the is the real enemy--Pilate, Caesar and Rome--they are small potatoes in comparison. And despite the hopes and pleas of the people--despite the expectations they (and we) heap upon the person of Jesus, despite their disappointment, derision, anger and despair, God was quietly making a way for more hope than anyone had anticipated. The resurrection is a mystery, it was not expected. It made its way through darkness into the light of that first Easter morning and confounded the world. Two thousand years later it continues to do the same.

On this day, in the clear light of morning, we are recipients of the news that God works through the darkness. Whatever it is that we face--whatever our personal version of darkness entails, be it a family rift, a lost job, a friendship gone awry, family problems, terrible news from a physician, fear, depression, grief or anxiety--God makes a way through the darkness. God makes a way for us, and in the end, we are blessed with more hope than we can imagine. On this day we celebrate God’s victory over death. We celebrate the risen Christ. We celebrate the unimaginable in a world firmly grounded in the realities of sin and suffering. On this day we celebrate life triumphing over death. We celebrate the risen Son of God.

In Orthodox iconography of the resurrection, Jesus is never by himself. He is always depicted taking the dead by the hand and pulling them out of their own tombs. Christ’s hand snatching us from death is a vivid image, and George Herbert, a 17th century poet and priest, employs it artfully in his work “Easter”. (He writes) Sing his praise/Without delays/Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise/With him may rise.” Easter is about Jesus--but it is also about ourselves.

That first Easter morning, in the garden, Jesus speaks Mary’s name. He calls to her and she recognizes his voice. She moves out of darkness into the light.

But if Easter is to have meaning for us--in our present time, place, and predicament, we need to make it real in this present moment. Because it occurs once a year, Easter Sunday is sometimes mistaken for a commemorative anniversary of a past event. But in fact, the earliest churches treated the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection as the timeless (or time-full--depending on your perspective) subject of every eucharistic liturgy. For them, and one hopes, for us as well, Easter was celebrated every Sunday.

Jesus has made a way for us. Today our example is Mary--bringing Good News to the disciples “I have seen the Lord.” The news of the resurrection carries light into the dark places of the world. Easter isn’t something we remember--if we do it right--Easter is something we live and breathe.

Alleluia. Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.