Resurrection takes care of itself. It’s getting people into tombs that’s hard.

Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

It always felt like we were getting up in the absolute middle of the night. The sky was still pitch black. Even the lights in the house seemed not to have the courage to shine too brightly. I felt the fuzzy warmth of sleepiness as I dressed and got ready for the big event. The church was dimly lit as well, but it carried the same sense of anticipation, as if the building itself knew that something amazing was about to happen.

There must have been no such anticipation for Joanna and the two Marys as they rose early on that first Sunday morning. They had been there on Friday, had gone with Joseph of Arimathea when he laid the body in the tomb, had hurried to prepare the spices for anointing before the Sabbath sunset. They must have seen the jars and cloths laid out all day Saturday, as if they had needed a reminder that their Lord was dead. Their journey to the tomb must have been grim and anxious, as they prepared to tend a body that would already have been putrefying. Nowhere are we told that they have any inkling of what they’re going to find.

More to the point, they don’t anticipate what will be missing. There’s only an empty tomb. Then there’s an amazing sight, two bright angels who are the first beings to proclaim the resurrection. It’s at this point that things finally fall into place for the women: they remember what Jesus said and race off to tell the other disciples the good news. If I pictured them walking nervously to the tomb, I imagine them running and almost dancing away from it. They carried the weight of death with them before; now they’re floating on the wings of life.

I don’t remember a thing about the service, but I know it was timed to coincide as neatly as possible with the actual sunrise. As the ancient joy was proclaimed, the very light grew and came to life again. It was as if the sun were joining in the celebration of new life, as if the whole world were being painted anew. There was breakfast in the fellowship hall and an Easter-egg hunt at home to fill the time before the second service. One year I even saw the Easter Bunny in the yard between our house and the neighbors’. What I remember most, however, is the dark anticipation of the coming celebration of light.

We have something of an advantage over those first witnesses, in that we have read the whole story. We have four versions of the story sitting at our fingertips, and we know from the first word of the first chapter that the resurrection is coming. We know because we’ve already read it. Yes, Jesus had spoken to the women about his death and resurrection, but they hadn’t been there yet. We’ve been through the Easter story enough times that we don’t have to wonder whether it’s coming.

Our advantage in terms of predicting the story is a disadvantage in terms of experiencing it. We can be so certain that Easter is coming – it’s printed on the calendar, after all – that we often don’t make it all the way to the grave before we’ve started celebrating. There’s a certain truth to that, of course: as creatures of a world that has been forever changed by the resurrection, we bear witness to the truth that death has forever lost its sting. However, it’s the very reality of death that makes this truth so powerful, and we are most changed when we have genuinely experienced the depth of the tomb. Even Jesus tasted death on his way to the joyful feast of Easter.

Saints like Augustine and Francis spoke of physical death as a friend, even a sister, whose unbending reality gave shape and definition to life in this world. Our strength and even our physical existence would disappear, but this passage would deliver us finally, free of baggage, into the everlasting arms of God’s mercy. This life is to be treasured and embraced, but we do not need to flee from death. Instead, we can allow this great change to reveal who we truly are, and who God chooses to be for us, in eternity.

In our time, we have done so much to prolong life and extend health that perhaps physical death no longer registers as the primary boundary of life. Indeed, for many who near the end of terminal or chronic illnesses, death promises the gentle gift of cessation of suffering. Along the way, however, we must die again and again: we lose a loved one to estrangement or their own death; we have to give up a career and its related sense of identity; we realize that sudden injury or nagging pain spell the end of a valued physical activity. Perhaps even these smaller deaths can help turn our attention to God’s steadfast love that endures forever.

Easter – Christ’s resurrection – is the event that sets all these changes in perspective and reveals the new life hidden in the shadow of death. May we have the courage to walk, even if haltingly, with the women as they go to the tomb. Then, may we be blessed to run, dance, shout, and sing the good news that Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

In Christ’s peace,

Nathan

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