A man, his wife, and his mother-in-law, all of them unchurched, went on vacation to Jerusalem. While they were there, the mother-in-law ate a bad matzah ball and died. The undertaker told the man, “You can have your mother-in-law shipped home for $5,000, or you can bury her here, in the Holy Land, for $150.”
The man thought about it and told the undertaker he would have his mother-in-law shipped home. The undertaker asked, “Why would you spend $5,000 to ship her home, when it would be wonderful to have your mother-in-law buried here in this holy place, and you would spend only $150?”
The man replied, “Yesterday our tour guide told us about a guy who died here, was buried here, and three days later rose from the dead. I just can‘t take that chance!”
Folks who are unchurched have a hard time understanding resurrection. When we insist that Jesus rose from the tomb, they imagine that we Christians are talking about something like “The Walking Dead.” But that’s o.k. Those of us who do darken the door of the church have trouble with resurrection, too. We’ve walked a long road since last Sunday. On that day, we celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but with a bittersweet edge kind of like when you know you’re celebrating a terminal friend’s last birthday. On Thursday we remembered Jesus’ poignant last evening with his friends before his chaotic goodbye. On Friday we grieved his death and our own sense of bereavement and loss. Each of those three days—Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday—is visceral. They connect with basic and familiar human emotions and sensibilities. They amplify experiences we have in our own lives, and that’s why our smiles on Palm Sunday are tender, our expressions on Maundy Thursday are shell-shocked, and our tears on Good Friday are real.
Easter is infinitely more difficult. Unbridled joy is the emotion of the day, and the locus of that joy, we are told, is resurrection. But though we search for another human experience similar to this particular kind of joy, we come up lacking, so we clothe our joy in what are some admittedly strange customs, for instance, celebrating giant rabbits who sneak into our homes at night and lay colored eggs.
Perhaps the best analogy to resurrection we can come up with in our lives is what I’d call the “New Year’s impulse,” when we make all those resolutions at the turn of the calendar year to reform or amend some part of our routine to better our lives, and then think of that as a kind of rebirth: This year I will lose 20 pounds, or This year I will learn to play the guitar, or better yet, This year I will attend church more regularly. While all of these are commendable (especially the last one), is that what resurrection means? Is that what it looks like?
To answer that question, we need to join Mary Magdalene, who has just approached the tomb of Jesus. It is misty early morning, and Mary’s eyes swim. For her emotionally, you see, it is still Good Friday. Mary had staked her life on Jesus and pinned her fortune to his. But there have been consequences to that. On Friday when he died on the cross, every hope in her life was crucified with him. She might as well have died, too. The one she loved most in life is gone. No New Year’s-type resolution to better her life can change that. No reordering of things will make any difference. Even to try would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Can we step into her reality? Can we imagine what it’s like for life’s course to feel irrevocably set and headed downhill fast? Many can. The news is replete with those who go so far as to harm themselves and others because they experience life—either due to their own decisions or due to circumstances beyond their control—as fixedly doomed. This must be what Mary feels. She goes to look at Jesus’ body in the grave as final confirmation that all is lost. And when he isn’t there—when the tomb is empty—for her the pit becomes unbelievably deeper. She is without hope, and the silence of a life without hope is deafening.
In that silence and through the dark and tears she barely sees the man who emerges from the mist. But when he speaks her name, the voice is so unexpected that her hopeless world is shattered, and a new world takes its place.
Mary sees Jesus in the dawn of that new day, and she sees him for who he truly is. He is alive, and she realizes that even her earlier expectations of who he was and what he was about are nothing more than a pale shadow of this reality. Being one with Jesus is not about simply reordering the old life, even a good reordering. Being one with Jesus is about looking upon his resurrected self and realizing that the future that had stretched before us—the fixed future of diminished possibilities and sometimes hopelessness—is blessedly gone. In its place the new future is wide open. That’s the source of this crazy joy we feel today.
This is a joy that realizes—unbelievably—that the future isn’t determined by the events we have already experienced or endured in our lives, even those bad decisions in which we are complicit. The ultimate future, whatever we must endure at this moment, is, through Jesus’ rising, opened wide by grace.
New Year’s Day is always a letdown. But for college football bowl games, the wide-eyed hopes of the night before look foolish in the bleary exhaustion of January 1. It is just another day. But what if you woke up this Easter morning, and everything were different?
It is. From this day forward, nothing is the same, not for Mary and not for us. The reality that Jesus has bested death and risen now accompanies us in all our endeavors, all our lives. It blows the future wide-open. Horizons are broader, and even what had seemed like the deepest pit is made shallow because Jesus stands at its other side.
We are invited to participate in Jesus’ resurrection both now and at the end of days. His resurrection remakes us, so that the very basis—the ground—of who we are is found in his resurrected self. This is not a reordering of the old; this is new life altogether.
Today Christ Jesus speaks our name as he did Mary’s in the garden, and for us, too, the deafening and hopeless silence is ended. This is Easter Day. The Lord is resurrected, and we can be, too.