Sunday, April 08, 2007
Rising: An Easter Sermon/ Magdalene Monologue
April 8, 2007, Easter Sunday, Year C
Let me tell you a tale… a tale of rising. Of a small band of spirit-broken women rising in the dark to go to the darkest place, and finding it instead a place of dazzling light… of our going to the place of death and finding it: a place of rising. But I warn you… there are some who have heard our testimony and called it an idle tale, empty talk, foolish words. You will have to judge for yourself.
You know, of course, of the events of these past days…about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a teacher and healer mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel… we, my sister Joanna and I, Mary (who was the mother of James), and the other women—many others—had bound our lives over to his service, traveling with him, providing for him, so that he could go about his great and mighty work. You know all this… I will tell you what you don’t know.
I will tell you how it was to rise on the morning after his terrible death, having had no sleep the night before, haunted as we all were by the image of his torn and bleeding body, and the sounds of Joanna weeping and moaning on her pallet, and the endless pacing of Mary by the fire. I will tell you of the great expanse of emptiness of that day, on which we were too exhausted even to speak to one another, each locked in her private world of grief and pain. Ordinarily the idleness of the Sabbath is so sweet, and the great Sabbath of Passover sweeter still: a day on which our memory of slavery makes our modest leisure grand, even kingly. But this was a Sabbath like no other. There was no pleasure in celebrating our liberation; there was only the stillness of the shiva, the seven days of mourning. We women circled one another in the small home where we were guests, each like a wounded animal, eyes bloodshot and swollen from torrents of tears, each of us fearing contact even with our closest companions, would unleash anguish too terrible to bear.
With sunset came the small relief that the Sabbath was ended, and so now we could, at last, do something… we could, at least, prepare the spices and ointments with which to anoint his battered and broken corpse. Joanna set to measuring out the olive oil: one half of a kab, about one and a half of your liters. Mary and I measured the spices: I, the 85 shekels each of myrrh and cassia, and Mary about half that amount each of sweet smelling cinnamon and aromatic cane: all told, about a hundred pounds by your measure. Then we set about crushing the spices, with mortars and pestle, and finally, working them into the sweet oil with our hands. As we worked our old familiarity returned in tiny increments. A quiet word here, a nod and a touch of the hand there. We looked into one another’s haunted eyes, in that dim, fire-lit room, made closer and more intimate by the release of the powerful scent. We looked at our hands…these hands…for how long had these hands served Jesus, providing payment for lodging, preparing a meal, weaving and mending garments? These hands, these women’s hands, now fragrant with the oils and spices with which we would anoint Jesus’ body, had only days before chopped the bitter herbs and mixed the dough for the unleavened bread, had taken the Passover lamb from the fire.
Late in the evening we finished. The anointing oils were prepared. We sat before the small fire, gazing at one another, wondering at the work we had just done. We were of one mind: we had served him in life, and our service was not ended. His burial would, finally, be proper, done in accordance with the law. He would not be forgotten. We would render him this final service, this final honor. One by one we excused ourselves and lay down for what we expected would be another long night, but one which, at least, promised the relief of a day in which we could rise and go to the tomb.
Rising… rising in the dark, so that we could proceed to the tomb unharrassed by the Romans, who were still standing vigil lest an uprising occur. The night had been surprisingly short. We dressed quickly, each taking a flask of the prepared spices, and set out. Our walk was long, the tomb was on a hillside, and so we steadily climbed. As we walked it occurred to me that we had not planned well: I remembered the stone. The tomb had been sealed, as each of us had witnessed just two days before, by the rolling of a large stone in front of it, a great enormous stone, like a millstone. How would we roll it away? We had watched Joseph, surprisingly hale and strong for a member of the council, straining and struggling with the rock even with the help of another man, a man we didn’t know. I murmured my worry to Joanna, who replied that surely the three of us could manage it together. In our anxiety we walked all the more quickly, and we arrived winded.
At the tomb we stopped short: the stone was already rolled away. I had a first, ridiculous thought of relief, that we wouldn’t have to struggle with it, followed by a terrible sense of foreboding. Why would the tomb be opened? Who would have need to go the body of Jesus, aside from us? Flasks still in our arms, we crowded into the small space, and found it empty. I turned to my companions, and we saw the panic and confusion in one another’s faces. Huddled at the mouth of the cave, we opened our mouths in protest, and we all began speaking at once.
How can this be?
Where is he?
They have taken our Lord!
Who has taken him?
Why would they take him?
Where would they take him?
I felt anger rising in me… there was one clear culprit, in my mind—the skittish Roman soldiers, who had shown such fear of our peaceful band, and who had treated Jesus with such brutality and contempt. Of course they had taken him… they didn’t want the tomb to become a shrine. They wanted him to fade into obscurity: they wanted his life to count for nothing.
Suddenly I was aware that someone else was in the small space with us, and I whirled around to speak my mind, Roman soldier or no, only… How can I explain to you what I saw? If I were to say I saw the light of a thousand flashes of lighting that might begin to convey the brightness. If I were to say I saw the brilliance of ten suns at midday perhaps you would begin to understand. Two forms stood before us. Were they men? We had heard the secret story, murmured by John and James when Jesus was not listening—they had seen two men, who they swore were Moses and Elijah, appearing in brightest glory. Was that who stood before us? All these thoughts poured into my head in an instant, and I did the only thing that made sense: I threw myself to the ground, and hid my eyes from them. Around me my companions did the same.
Then in my ears sounded something like a noise of rushing water, and also music, and yet I understood words in it. This is what they said:
Why do you look for the living among the dead?
And the whole world was filled with the greatest silence. As I lay face down on the stone floor in this place of death, I heard those words in the deepest place in my heart. And this is the truth: I didn’t want to hear those words. How cruel, to raise our hopes, even for an instant. How cruel, to give us even the tiniest spark to flame. My anger flared again, and again I heard the rushing water music.
He is not here, but has risen. Remember…?
Remember? Of course, I remember. I remember every moment, from the instance he called the demons out of me and made me whole. I remember every word from his mouth, every touch of his hands.
The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
He is not here, but has risen.
And I knew what I must do… I knew what we must do. There was now no doubt in my mind about the brilliant beings: they were messengers of God. I must go—we must go—and look for him among the living.
And so, rising, we did. And we found him. And you will not believe where we found him.
We found him… walking along a road as we made a weary journey.
We found him… at table with us, as we broke bread for our evening meal.
We found him…in our own homes as we talked about these things with one another.
The disciples who dismissed our story at first have seen him now. They have eaten with him, touched him, spoken with him. And they too were terrified and startled but they have seen, and they have believed. The empty tomb was not enough. That I understand. That, I think we all understand. But they—we—all found Jesus, by following the advice of the messengers.
This is what I want to say to you: Stop looking for him among the dead. He is with the living.
He is along the road as you travel from place to place. Look for him. He is there.
He is at table with you, when you break bread. Look for him. He is there.
He is in your home, at your workplace, at the marketplace, and everywhere you are. Look for him, He is there.
And now I leave you to tell me. Was it an idle tale, my tale of rising? Before you answer, look for him. Look for Jesus among the living. And then tell me your answer. Amen.
Image: He Qi Gallery.