|"S2156461" by sheldon0531, on Flickr|
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
There was a brief span of time, late in middle school, when I thought that I wanted to be a nuclear physicist when I grew up.
We had just learned about the basic structure of an atom - protons, neutrons, electrons, and quarks, which I thought were particularly great because I loved that they had names like charm and strange and top and bottom.
We were preparing for a field trip to Fermilab, a national particle physics laboratory complete with particle accelerator that just happened to be in a nearby Chicago suburb. My understanding of particle physics was as rudimentary then as it is now, but I remember loving the idea of doing science by taking atoms, working them up into a frenzy and then, at high speed, crashing them into one another and breaking them open to learn about their insides.
I left that field trip disappointed, though, and willing to rethink my career choice. See, one of the things that we learned on that field trip was that you don't really ever get to see the particles that you are working with. A lot of what you do is examine evidence of where those particles were, and how they traveled, and the trails they left behind. In other words, instead of getting the satisfaction of seeing the thing itself, you instead do a lot of studying and speculating based on evidence of where the thing has been. I gave up my dreams of nuclear physics because I wanted to deal in observable things; to be able to find concrete answers. I didn't like the uncertainty of mystery.
Good thing I became a pastor...
Easter Sunday might involve a cave of stone and a big giant rock, but resurrection, like particle physics, is hardly a concrete matter. The inner working of Christ's resurrection, like the inner workings of an atom, is not something you observe head-on. You only witness the aftermath and are left to ponder the mystery.
The Marys come to the tomb early in the morning. Perhaps they were coming to grieve at the tomb, to show their respects, to linger at the sealed mouth of the tomb and to offer up their tears and sighs. Perhaps they were curious whether Jesus had been telling the truth about all of this rising from the dead stuff. Perhaps they were dubious.
Perhaps their whole world had been shaken by this whirlwind last three years, where Jesus came up out of a river, and the sky cracked open, and God declared him the beloved Son, and from that point onward, Jesus did crazy and rebellious and unthinkable things like healing the sick and touching the unclean and breaking the Sabbath and revising the law and even forgiving sins, which is something that only God himself was supposed to be able to do. And now, after the whirlwind, they had seen their teacher, son, savior, friend die on a cross, and it was as if the world stopped spinning; perhaps the women come to the tomb because they simply don't know what else to do.
I'm guessing that they weren't expecting an earthquake, or an angel, or the stone being rolled away. I'm guessing that they weren't expecting their hearts to leap with shock and awe and fear and joy at the unexpected news that Jesus was not in the tomb, but had risen, and had already set out to meet the disciples in Galilee.
The Marys saw a lot of things that morning, but they didn't see Christ's resurrection. They only saw the glorious aftermath. No one knows what happened inside that cave, how it was that Jesus opened his eyes and took his first breath all over again. No one knows how he left the tomb without disturbing the stone. No one knows whether he saw a bright light or felt a jolt in his chest as his heart started pounding after keeping silent for three days.
What we know is that the tomb that once cradled the body of Christ is now as empty as empty can be. Resurrection has happened and has left the scene, heading up the road, and there is nothing for the Marys to do except follow in Christ's resurrected footsteps and to see the path ahead of them with new eyes, eyes that are able to see life where before they could only see death.
I wonder if, on the way out of the garden, the women noticed flowers blooming that they had not noticed on their way in. I wonder if their eyes were drawn to the golden light of dawn dancing among the shadows on the roadway. I wonder if the air smelled different, like the way the world smells after it rains. I wonder if they felt both warmed and perplexed by the mystery unfolding around them: this mystery of resurrection, of seeing the trails of resurrection and trying to catch up to it.
Is this not what our life of faith is all about? Is this not what it means to follow Jesus?
Of course, following Jesus can be very concrete thing. Jesus tells us to follow him by doing what he does: forgiving, healing, lifting up the broken-hearted, seeking justice for the oppressed, choosing compassion and love even if it puts us at odds with the empire, taking up our crosses, being willing to give up everything, even life itself.
But following Jesus isn't just a set of rules or actions or behavior modifications. Following Jesus also means walking the path of resurrection that he has gone before us to prepare for us, walking forever forward in the mysterious aftermath of life springing up out of impossible death.
Easter morning is cosmic evidence that the tomb cannot contain the life that God brings to all creation. The tomb cannot contain the overwhelming bent of God toward life. Death cannot stand in the way. No stone can stand in the way. No guards can stand in the way. The way of Christ is life, and this life is an unstoppable force.
The tomb cannot contain Jesus, nor can any tombs of our own creating. The work of God is bigger than any limit we try to put around it. It is bigger than any human achievement or mortal aspiration. It is bigger than any evil or failure of human will.
Resurrection is the atomic collision of God's unstoppable force of life and the forces of sin and death and brokenness that try, in vain, to squash it.
We don't get to see the collision. But we do get to see the aftermath.
We get to walk through this world knowing that Jesus is standing down the road, beckoning to us with the promise of life held in his outstretched hands. We get to walk through this world with our eyes open to evidence of resurrection all around us.
Every time that forgiveness happens, every time we hear a surprising word of grace; every time we notice unexpected beauty; every time our hearts feel warmed in the midst of our feeble prayers; every time the hungry are fed and the oppressed win justice; every time we find the strength to cling to hope in the midst of violence; every time we recognize the image of God in our neighbors and our enemies and ourselves; every time peace shows up, even fleeting peace: these are all glimpses of resurrection. They are the mysterious proof that Christ has been raised. They are the mysterious assurance that we, too, will be raised, and with us all creation.
There is no path facing us that Christ has not already walked. There is no trail that Christ has not already charted. And even if faith alone is enough to sustain us as we chase Christ's footsteps out of the garden at dawn, the greatest surprise is that sometimes Jesus turns around and doubles back and meets us along the road, like he met the women. Yes, sometimes when we chase resurrection, we end up bumping into Jesus on the way there.
My siblings in Christ, Easter morning is more than just lilies opening to the dawn. Easter morning is also about bread and wine and the holy meal that we share where we get to reach out and touch Christ in our midst. It is about meeting Christ in scripture and in prayer. It is about the promise of resurrection in the future and the promises of Christ's presence in the present.
So do not be afraid. You might be looking for Jesus amongst the dead, for this world seems full of darkness, but make no mistake: Jesus has been raised, as he said. He has been raised from the dead and indeed he is going ahead of you. It is time to leave the tomb and to step out into the paths of resurrection that lay before us. It is time for us to leave quickly, in fear and in joy, and to run to tell all the world this good news:
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.