The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
April 1, 2018
What are the memories you have of Easter? The sights, sounds, smells, associations you have with this feast, this holiday? I remember Easter lilies on the cross at church, their sweet smell filling the whole space, new Easter clothes, and of course Easter baskets, chocolate bunnies, and always egg hunts. On Easter afternoon after church my parents would hide the plastic eggs stuffed with jellybeans and chocolate pieces in our yard--in clumps of flowers, forks of tree branches, behind stones, anywhere a small child could reach--and we’d find most of the eggs and gorge ourselves on candy before dinner. There were always a few eggs left behind that the dog would find later in the week, but most of them we found ourselves--sometimes with a little help. I always have good memories--good associations--with Easter. And I hope you do, too.
The women in the gospel reading we hear today, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome, wouldn’t have had any such associations. They were going to a tomb to anoint the body of their beloved teacher and friend, their spiritual leader, someone whom they believed was the Messiah--but surely he couldn’t be, for just days after his entry into the city of Jerusalem, he’d been captured, tried, tortured, and executed by the Roman government. They would have gone with mournful hearts, carrying oil and aromatics to treat the body early that morning to counteract the decay in the heat of the day. In their grief they’d not even thought about how they’d get to Jesus’s body, how they’d roll the heavy stone away that had been put there to secure the tomb. And, when they arrived, they were astounded to discover that the stone had already been rolled away--and that there was a young man, all in white, sitting at the side of the tomb, telling them that Jesus had been raised.
They were so astounded, so afraid, that they fled, they ran off, and scripture tells us that they said nothing to anyone about what they had seen.
Now of course the strangeness of this statement, the last one in our gospel reading, is that of course the women DID tell someone. The young man, the angel, whatever he is, told them to go and tell the others¸specifically mentioning Peter. The young man told them to go to Galilee and that there they would see Jesus again.
Now, we hear in John’s gospel about Jesus’s appearances in a locked room to his disciples; from Luke we hear how he appears to two men on the road to Emmaus, and about Jesus’s sharing a meal with his disciples; in Matthew we hear how Jesus meets his disciples--and then from the mountain in Galilee commissioned and sent them out to teach and baptize.
These are the sorts of memories that they would make over the next few hours, the next few days. Memories they would tell and retell and tell again, that they’d write down, that would become the gospel narratives we read tonight.
And all of them, all four gospels, begin with that one event--Mary Magdalene who is present at the tomb, who sees the empty tomb. And while Mark’s gospel tells us that she and Mary the mother of James and Salome were afraid, that they fled in terror, even--that they were so afraid that they told no one--we know from the gospel accounts that this isn’t the end of the story.
Maybe they were terrified! But they told the story. They passed on the reality of the event, the vision, the experience of finding the tomb empty. And they made memory, made meaning, of the event, a memory, a re-membering, an anamnesis in Greek, that we re-member today.
In the 4th century a wealthy woman named Egeria, probably a nun, probably from Spain, made a series of pilgrimages to the near East, to the Holy Land, and specifically to Jerusalem. Egeria wrote about the Holy Week and Easter celebrations in Jerusalem that she saw. During Holy Week particularly, the Christians in the city would move from station to station--a vigil on the Mount of Olives on Thursday, a procession just before dawn through the gate of Jerusalem to the place of the cross, veneration of the cross and then Eucharist there. But every Sunday, in fact, almost every day, there would be prayers at the empty tomb. And offerings, the Eucharist, the mass, there at the empty tomb. Over and over again, wherever their processions and prayers and vigils might take them, the Christians returned to the empty tomb. The Anastasis, Egeria called it-- the word for resurrection. They kept returning to the place of the resurrection--to the resurrection itself.
For them this memory making, this response to memory, was rooted in a physical place. And over and over again they returned to resurrection.
I wonder if the women at the tomb returned. Luke and John seem to indicate that they did. That they went back to the tomb and looked there. More precisely that the men went to look, because what the women were saying was incredulous.
Maybe they returned for strength, to remember, to remind themselves, to live again, in the hope of that moment of the empty tomb, the hope of resurrection. Maybe they returned just because they couldn’t really believe it was true--that Jesus had really risen. Scripture is full of those stories of Jesus’s disciples that couldn’t really believe it. Thomas is the most obvious, who asks to touch our Lord’s wounds before he can really believe Jesus is alive, is risen. But others of Jesus’s followers couldn’t believe that he was risen, either. The men on the road to Emmaus don’t even recognize him until, in this action that prefigures the Eucharist, Jesus takes bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it to them. Some of the disciples run to the tomb to look for themselves to see that it’s empty, because they can’t believe what the women have said they’ve seen. And we hear in Matthew of the officials who won’t believe that Jesus is risen; they pay off some soldiers to say that Jesus’s followers stole his body from the tomb--a bit of first century fake news, obfuscation.
The truth of the claim “He is risen!” was not immediately obvious to the disciples, and certainly not to the world around them. And so they kept going back. They kept telling the story. They kept going back to the resurrection.
And that’s the central thing, isn’t it? That’s the story.
Love itself, the very creating life force that gives birth to all things, came to be a part of creation. God in the flesh came to share our life, to show God’s love. And the world killed him. Love comes and is killed because the world couldn’t believe it.
But love is stronger than death. Christ rises victorious--and invites us into new life.
But the world cannot yet believe that it’s true.
And so we go back. Again and again to the empty tomb. To the resurrection. The Anastasis.
We go back to the story, to the event, to the reality of the thing itself, to touch, taste, hear, smell, re-member what it is that we know in our bones, that we have come to know in our hearts--that God is alive and moving and desires to be with us--and desires us to be with God. That Christ is alive. That he is not dead. He is risen. He lives and moves in the world. In our lives.
And so we go back, again and again, to the memory of the empty tomb. To the place.
But the only reason we can go back--the only reason we know where to go, what happened--is that the women told us about it.
They may have been afraid. They may even have run in fear. But they didn’t stay silent. They told us.
Think back to the place of resurrection for you. Where is your anastasis? Where have you seen the resurrected Jesus? Where have you seen new life--in your own life? In the world around you?
Maybe it’s in a loving relationship. Maybe it’s in a sense of meaning in the work you do. Maybe it’s in a great gift you’ve received, a mercy extended, a reconciliation or restoration. Whatever it is, that’s one place of resurrection--one place you have seen the love of God poured out for you, drawing you nearer into the sacred heart of God.
Maybe you can’t see resurrection today, not just yet. Maybe the stone is still rolled up against the tomb, and just for today it seems too heavy to move. Then where are you longing to see resurrection? When the stone is rolled away, what will you see? What is the thing you’re crying out for, longing for, the place you need new life? Can you imagine that stone rolling back, and Christ himself standing there with outstretched arms, embracing you, drawing you in close to a place of new life, of love, of healing?
Wherever you are today--if you’re feeling the glow of resurrection light, or if you’re dwelling in the dark shadow of the tomb, longing for resurrection, remember what we know. Go back to the anastasis, to the tomb.
He is not here. He is risen.
Go back to the tomb. Again and again.
Listen for the voices of the women who have run from the tomb, and believe what they’re saying.
And then go and see it again for yourself.
Take strength and courage from them, from one another, so that, as you leave the empty tomb, you, like Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome, can go and tell the world.
Sure, they were afraid, but they told the story. And we know they did because now we know it.
What will you tell? And to whom will you tell it?
Love has conquered death! Christ has risen!
The world is waiting to hear.
Return to the place of resurrection. Be raised with Christ. And go with fear and trembling and tell it.
In the name of the risen Lord Jesus, AMEN.