March 27, 2016
Preaching about Easter is difficult. It is no easy task to put words to the sheer immensity of what God has wrought in the darkness of night, a cosmic struggle between life and death, grace and sin, light and darkness. On the merely human level, the inner significance of the central celebration of our lives as Christians sometimes lays just beyond what we can grasp or easily appreciate. Now Christmas, on the other hand, is easy! We are immediately attracted by the idea that God became a little child, and entered our world to save us. We can put words to the tenderness of Mary’s motherhood or the strong masculinity of Joseph’s fatherhood as he navigates his relationship with God and seeks to protect and provide for his fledgling family. The cold night of winter, impending danger from Herod, rejection at the inn, mysterious magi —all of this makes for really good story. God’s great work of the Incarnation captures mind and heart and proclaims dramatically God’s intimate, passionate involvement with His people.
It’s different with Easter. Here, Christ Jesus has not entered our familiar life, but opens up the possibility of a new, unimagined life with the Father! Here is not the story of God assuming the limitations of our frail world, but of the triumphant Son breaking through the bonds of death to the vast, unknown expanse beyond the worldly limits of suffering and death. The sheer newness of what God has done at Easter makes it so hard to describe. Easter is about what is unimaginable, and proclaims truly “what eye has not seen and ear has not heard.” And, too, the secularism of our age tends to think about Christmas at a safe distance, as a heart-warming story of God’s love and compassion that doesn’t necessarily bind us morally or change the flow or our daily lives. It’s not so with Easter. There is no “safe distance” because if it is true that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, than that does bind us morally. It means we have to believe all that he said and all that he did as the revelation of the Father’s plan for our salvation.
Because our human experience so fails us before the immensity of the Resurrection, the Church has always translated the Easter mystery into signs and symbols that point to things that words cannot express.
First among these Easter symbols is that of the
light which shatters the darkness. We bless fire and are led by the Paschal Candle into the darkened Church. There, the first strains of Easter pierce the darkness: not Alleluia…but Lumen Christi, Light of Christ! The Church’s first prayer of Easter is a hymn in praise of the light and of the Risen One who brings the light, for we know that whenever light dispels the darkness, something of the Resurrection takes place.
In the centuries of religious art, the Resurrection of Christ remains a theme not largely developed. It is hardly to be found in Church architecture and in the great frescoes and mosaics which adorn the apses of the ancient basilicas. Yet in those same basilicas, the Paschal candle-stand is a solid architectural feature. The Candle has been for centuries understood by the Church as
the image of the risen Christ! It is pierced by nails, as His risen body still bears the marks of His crucifixion. It is inscribed with the Alpha and Omega, as His Resurrection signals the beginning of the New Covenant and the end of the reign of sin and death. It is adorned with the year, because for the believer, Easter is never a past event. It is present. It is now. It has the power to dispel the darkness from even the deepest corners of our hearts, those places where we have trained ourselves over years of practice never to look.
Another Easter symbol that can help us better grasp the meaning of our celebration is the
water. Think of the crossing of the Red Sea. Water can bring death (as it did for the Egyptians) or life (as it did for Israel). For the Church, the Resurrection of Christ is a wellspring, a bubbling oasis of life in the midst of the desert of death. The baptismal waters made holy by the Risen One refresh our souls and wash away sin, that deadly obstacle that prevents us from receiving the new life of Grace. And so we renew our faith and are sprinkled with water, confident that all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism wise with him to newness of life.
Again, Easter is about the new, unimagined power of God at work in ways beyond our sensible grasp. Look at the waters of the baptismal font. That water several inches in depth doesn’t seem like much now. But when infused with the out-poured Holy Spirit, that water is infinitely more powerful than anything that takes place at the Red Sea, merely a passing image of the liberation which God accomplishes in Baptism.
Then there is a third symbol of an altogether different type. If we read the Resurrection accounts of all 4 Gospels at once, there is one and only one Easter symbol found in all four. Not earthquakes, not white lilies, no hosts of angels singing Alleluias. The one thing found in all four Gospels is an
empty tomb. A hollow, empty tomb hewn out of rock. Those who come into contact with the tomb have remarkable different reactions.
Mary Magdalene is overwhelmed. She staggers away in grief and in tears and terrorizes the gardener about where the body of Jesus was taken, failing even to recognize that the man she mistakes for a
gardener is her Risen Lord and Friend. Peter gazes into the tomb and is perplexed. He goes away in silence, consumed by his own thoughts. He doesn’t know what to make of all of this. John on the other hand…merely a boy. He must have been an amazing kid, so open to the love of the Lord Jesus and so free from all the assumptions, rationalizations, and prejudices that blinded the other Apostles two and three times his age. John, Scripture says, peers into the tomb…and believes. Love has transfigured his vision. He sees, and he believes. That is the vision, the certainty of love. That is the vision of Easter.
It is with this same vision that you and I must peer into the tombs that litter our human lives. Whatever those tombs are: illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a fractured relationship, a rejection letter from a college — whatever those tombs might be, Easter prompts us to look through the outward sign of death and see grace. As surely as the light of Christ pierces the darkness, as surely as the waters of Baptism wash away our sins, so too the power of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead permeates every aspect of our lives and transforms the emptiness of our tombs into the moment of grace. God is not absent in those difficult moments of life. It is there, in those moments that feel empty, hollow, cold — tomb-like — that he is most present, most active. If we cannot feel his presence, maybe it is because we are not looking with the vision of Easter, but are allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the tomb like the Magdalene, or withdrawn within our own isolated perplexity like Peter. No, we must be bold, like John, and rush to the tomb! There in our joy and our love for the Lord our vision will be transfigured we can see the great thing God is doing!
This is Easter, the day when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the dead. He has not been taken. He has not been hidden away. He is risen — and He is present here!