Brief synopsis of the readings: Most of the year we find our first reading from the Old Testament. But during Easter we explore the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles. Here we see Peter testifying about the life of Jesus, how he taught, cured, and traveled to Jerusalem where he was killed. But he rose from the dead and appeared to several chosen people. Peter finishes by promising that those who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven. John’s Gospel recounts Mary Magdalen coming to Jesus’ tomb. Expecting to see the tomb where they took Jesus’ body, she was shocked to find the stone moved from the entrance to the tomb, and she ran to find Peter and John. She told them that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. Several of Jesus’ disciples ran to the tomb. When they found it empty they understood that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Many of us spend Easter morning in a type of frenzy. Christians all over the world will gather for a sunrise service. Others will spend the morning hoping they’ll fit into the suit they haven’t worn since Christmas and attempt to find the tie that they last tied for a family funeral sometime last year. Meanwhile others will pray that they can persuade or guilt a wayward child to join them at church. And others will race home to get into the kitchen to prepare brunch. They will have spent the last evening hiding Easter eggs knowing how much they will find joy in watching children rejoice over finding those same eggs.
It’s a frenzied day and we do so much because we celebrate something that seems impossible: God took on human form and was born in a time and place nobody would have chosen. This infant grew to become a teacher and leader. But when he drew the attention of those in power, the worst happened: powerful and evil men killed him. Those who killed him expected that this would be the end of him and his movement, that he would barely rate a footnote in history and his followers would slink back into the shadows.
Given all this, we find a discord in reading today’s Gospel. I’m struck by how little happened here (all four Gospels give a different account of this morning, but I chose John’s account simply because it’s the only one given in the link to today’s United States Catholic Conference readings). As I spoke of last week, many of those who promised to defend Jesus ran for cover when Jesus was arrested. As Jesus hung on the cross, one of the few who didn’t run was Mary Magdalene.
Of all those who claimed to love Jesus, Mary Magdalene was one of the few who showed that she really did love him beyond her fear. Not only did she show up at his lowest and loneliest point, she showed up after the sabbath to honor his grave. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, she refused to give up her belief in Jesus.
But when she saw the empty tomb she panicked and feared that Jesus’ body had been stolen. Only when she gathered those who abandoned Jesus did she realize that Jesus had indeed defeated death and guaranteed eternal life for all of us.
So now, over two thousand years after the event, what can we gain and understand from this event?
Obviously this gives us an understanding that we have a life after this. Our belief as Christians tells us that those who die before us go to a place that heals them from disease and suffering and pain and that this place will exist forever. And that same belief tells us that some day we will join them and enjoy that same eternal healing.
But what does that mean for us today? Many Christians tell us that our faith tells us that we should ignore what happens here because when we die we’ll go to Heaven and be in communion with God, Jesus, and our loved ones. They tell us that while we are in the world we are not of the world. I regularly see cars with the sticker “NOTW” (not of this world). With all due respect I don’t think that’s true. I believe the empty tomb doesn’t subtract from our experience as humans, but instead gives us the ability to go boldly into the rest of our lives.
I’m not certain where I first heard this, but somewhere I read the question: “What would you do if you knew you would succeed?” I like this question because it gives us a window into our deepest values. Some will answer this with greed and say: “I’ll buy a lottery ticket and get rich.” Others will choose to increase their social standing by traveling to famous places and associating with the rich and beautiful.
But Easter gives us the opportunity to recognize that our promised success isn’t just wealth and popularity, but an eternity without disease or suffering or sickness. Easter gives us the opportunity to dream bigger than wealth or social standing. Easter gives us the opportunity to dream of a place beyond not only our dreams, but everyone’s dreams. Imagine a place where nobody is poor, all life is valued, and nobody suffers. Not physically, not emotionally, and not spiritually.
And not only that, but this success isn’t something passive that we must wait for, but something active that we can participate in. We can see the empty tomb not in terms of what’s not there, but in terms of what we can do to fill that emptiness. We can see the poor and lift them from their poverty. We can see the outcast and welcome them into the community we have been blessed to take for granted.
Many of us live in a place where we are protected from those whose needs should be front and center in our lives. When we learn about the homeless or refugees we are presented with plans to “get rid” of this problem instead of finding ways to solve the underlying causes of their suffering. We are protected from the very people Jesus’ death and resurrection challenges us to recognize.
In the end Easter gives us permission to dream beyond lottery tickets and supermodels. Easter gives us the ability to live eternity with the people who we lifted up when they were down and the people who we were able to lift us when we were down.
And so as we’re spending Easter with frenzy, let’s all recognize that we can dream without abandon of a place where we can fill the empty tomb with the promise of a place without suffering or need.