The body of Jesus was buried in the late afternoon on Friday. The women came to the tomb early Sunday morning. The Gospels say nothing about the events that took place in between. It’s in this silence that the ancient celebration of Easter Vigil fits.
We wait with his followers. In the present day, we might remember how it was women among Jesus’ original cohort who planned, and attempted to enact, proper ritual cleansing – anointing, perfuming – and suitable wrapping of the body for appropriate burial. They did so as soon as the Sabbath had ended
It’s these women who break the silence that descends upon our story. They walk to the place where Jesus was laid. We can easily imagine their shadows flitting in and among the silhouetted landscape. We can almost feel their desire to speak mixed with a deep and inexplicable need to remain silent. And when they arrive to see the stone at the tomb’s opening rolled away, we can see with them the gaping emptiness of the tomb.
We, however, cannot pretend to be surprised, for we already know what they will find when they enter. But it’s helpful, in a way, to imagine ourselves in their shoes – sandals, probably – creeping, hearts racing, blinking, dumbfounded. It may be the most appropriate way to encounter God – to encounter God’s absence – God’s awe-inspiring presence in that very absence. We, like they, are, even now, facing a great mystery.
In the face of this mystery, the women in our story bow their faces low to the ground. They are afraid. Yes, it’s appropriate. The stone rolled away, the body of their beloved friend and teacher gone, the presence of two strangely dazzling men – all these things, especially when we consider the events of the preceding days, are enough to produce a terrified awe.
It’s difficult for us to get a true sense of what these women encountered. We moderns are accustomed to the gospels in such a way as to think of Jesus as almost a good buddy, as knowable, and dependable as oatmeal for breakfast, and just as soothing and nourishing if we are lucky. We are not accustomed to linger with these women in the dreadful silence, our faces in the dirt.
We wish, it seems to me sometimes, to housebreak the holy. We are sophisticated and we tend to try and tame everything around us. We are often quite deeply invested in controlling the aspects of life that surround us. And while a certain amount of such effort is helpful as we navigate time and space in order that we might flourish in the physical world, in doing so we also risk missing out on the beauty and wonder true holiness brings.
God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways are beyond human comprehension – they tend to destabilize, upending what we expect – they often require what seems impossible. In fact, God’s ways are holy because they are not of our own making. And when we do actually encounter God’s ways in our lives, our first response ought to be more than a thumbs-up or a nod.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
The angelic figures say this to the back of the women’s heads. And it is a powerful question with far-reaching implication. Have we decided we know God in ways A through Z and have placed that understanding in a box, that we might protect it? We work so hard in life. It’s difficult, sometimes, to let go of admiring all our hard work. Too often we want, instead, to tend the corpses of long-dead ideas and standards. We cling to former visions of ourselves and even our faith communities as if they might come back to life if we can only hold on tight enough and hope against hope. Sometimes we even grab onto our loved ones too tightly, refusing to allow them to change – to become bigger, or smarter, or stronger. We do all this because somewhere, in our hearts, long-dead ideas and standards have become safe. They become something we have polished, until like a great sterling silver anchor, glittering so beautifully, they hold us back. Hold us back from what?
“Remember how he told you?”
The heavenly messengers at the tomb reminded the women how Jesus had told them back when they were in Galilee that he must suffer and die, and on the third day be raised from the dead. We can almost see them sitting back on their heels, slowly raising their faces upward toward the shining figures whose voices came from nowhere and everywhere. Eyes unable to focus for the glare. Heads swimming with the recollection of his words. And then, as if the brightness of the angels in their presence brought about an opening of their minds, they also recalled all his other words and actions – the signs and wonders. They remembered the very human Jesus – the gentle spirit with whom they broke bread so many times – the thoughtful, unselfish friend who healed sick people he didn’t even know – the teacher whose stories of the kingdom of God were so comforting and yet so confounding. They remembered that woman who was bent over and the ten lepers. The paralytic.
Would you like to know the meaning of the empty tomb? Think on Galilee!
The invitation to remember locates the mystery of the resurrection in the world of everyday human life, even as it – as with all of God’s ways – begins to reanimate the long-dead ideas and standards we like to polish, making them into new ways – every day – of enacting the challenging shared practice that Jesus taught.
The tomb cannot be separated from the life and teachings of Jesus. The resurrection is not some suspended concept unattached from a life of seeking and living God’s purpose. The empty tomb is a doorway. The women walked through it and back out into the world – where they proclaimed the good news! We can do the same when we remember our Galilees – when we can recall the place where it all began for us.
Galilee, in the Gospels, represents the place where it all began – where we were first called. In the gospel stories Jesus walked along the shores of the lake as fisher folk were casting their nets. He called them and they left everything to follow him.
To return to Galilee means to re-read everything – looking through the lens of the defeated cross. To re-read everything – Jesus’ preaching, his miracles, the new community, the excitement (misguided as it was at times) – even the betrayal – to re-read everything, starting from the end, which, like the empty tomb from which our women walked into the world, is a new beginning – a new beginning made possible by love. Love.
Do you remember the first time you knew Jesus? For each of us there is a Galilee – it is the origin of our journey with him. To think on Galilee means something quite beautiful. It means re-discovering our baptism as a living fountainhead, drawing energy from the sources of our faith – from the stories written in black and white and from the mysteries that live between the lines – drawing energy from our own experiences of God in our lives, however difficult to articulate they may be.
Returning to Galilee may mean quietly searching my heart to learn how and when I first heard his call – noticing when he passed my way, hand extended – realizing there was an instant when he gazed at me in mercy and softly spoke the words “…come, follow me.” It means reviving the memory of that moment when his eyes met mine, the moment when he made me realize that he loved me.
We may have to take ourselves to that place the women at the tomb did – silent, humbled, bowed-down, awed by the presence of God in the emptiness of our own missing Galilees. Tonight, my friends, you too can ask of God, “Where is my Galilee? Do I remember it? Have I forgotten it? Have I lost my way and inadvertently left the path? I want to believe! Lord, help my unbelief! I want to return there and encounter you – living! – and let myself be embraced by your mercy.”
To find ourselves in that empty tomb, however it is manifest in our lives, is to find ourselves invited to walk through the door and into a world where we live as Jesus lived – a life in which meals are shared with enemies. A life in which healing is offered to the hopeless, and prophetic challenges are issued to the powerful. Only now it’s not Jesus who does these things. He’s modeled all of that for us, beginning in Galilee. From inside that tomb we can now see that the power of the resurrection is itself destabilizing. And that may, ironically, be exactly what gives us the power to live.
On that first shadowy Easter morning when the women, their faces in the dirt, were lifted up by angels who showed them the way out into the full light of morning – in that beautiful moment the power of God was no longer unspoken. The silence was broken and the women rushed back to tell the others the good news. It doesn’t matter that they weren’t believed at first. It doesn’t matter that Peter had to see for himself – who could believe under the circumstances? But the women knew. The women were already remembering Galilee and all the things Jesus had said and done. The women believed. And they responded to their belief by breaking their own silence in order to speak their own truth.
And the good news, dear ones, is that this is exactly what God asks of each of us.
This sermon was delivered by The Rev. Edwin Chinery on the Easter Vigil, March 26, 2016.