Matthew 28: 1-10
I imagine Mary Magdalene and Mary, Jesus’ mother, had been holding the fear and joy that comes from loving somebody of such passion deeply for some time… but especially these last weeks. Their whole world had become more tense in these recently. There were new rumors and threats of arrest circulating about their beloved Jesus every day now. That parade through Jerusalem with all those gorgeous palms and “Hosannas!” was something they rehearsed in their heads over and over with joyful remembering and also fear that maybe it had been too visible, too loud, too in-your-face, too dangerous of a tactic to expose the greed and inequity of Rome for these times. Let alone the fact that right afterwards Jesus had, in a fury of Love not uncommon, entered their beloved temple and began turning over all those tables of the money changers. His teachings were getting more and more direct, more and more obviously about the corruption of the Roman Empire and the way too many of his beloved community had become complicit, sometimes without even realizing.
Mary and Mary knew there would be profound consequences. They could feel it in their bones even before Jesus told them to expect his death… and also something about rising again in a few days. The anxiety of expectation and the unknown was beginning to wear them down. They didn’t have any spiritual or mental space to digest this other possibility about rising and hope through the fog of stress. That’s why it had been so good to gather with the other disciples for dinner the other night as though the times were normal again, to eat and laugh together. Jesus spoke as always about another radiantly just and loving world’s existence, God’s world, as close as their breath, but frustratingly just beyond imagining too. But Jesus had also seemed different. His blessing of their bread and cup were different. And they also realized he had gathered them to say goodbye.
The last few days were a blur of betrayal and grief. The Marys bore agonizing witness to Jesus’ death – they sang, they prayed, they cared for his body with all the ritual and tenderness that was their custom all the while haunted by something he had said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ They weren’t the only ones haunted by that idea. It had made its way to the Roman authorities that put guards outside Jesus’ tomb with a huge stone in front of it. The Marys watched them seal the tomb. Then early the next morning, they returned. And our scripture story of Easter begins.
Beloveds, across the distance of geography and thousands of years, I feel like we too are living like the Marys these days. For some time now, like them, we too have been living in empire times, trying to figure out how to transform them. And we too over a very short period of time have gone from that project being a long-term, sometimes abstract movement to a matter of day-to-day survival. Our whole world, like theirs, has become tense over the last few weeks as the threats have increased dramatically. Yes, of course, one of those sets of threats was that of crucifixion and one is viral. But in some ways, the effect is similar. We too are holding the experience of threat, the ancient adrenaline of fight or flight, in our bodies every day. We too are trying to get through each day with our beloveds safe, though the world grows more and more fragile feeling around us. And depending on how close we are to the people who have become sick, we too have entered the blur of grief.
And yet, we too can also be haunted helpfully by Jesus’ words, “After three days, I will rise again.” And we too have the opportunity to be a part of a story of death that is also a story of new life. We too have the opportunity show up like the Marys again at the site of death, despite the guards and our fears and remake the story into a new rising.
But let me back up. As I have read this story over and over again this week, I keep getting stuck on the guards. They aren’t in all the gospels, but their presence here is telling. They have been sent because they are supposed to keep Jesus’ death from being seen as anything more than an ordinary crucifixion of a common criminal. That’s the headline of the Empire’s preferred news story, buried several pages in, beneath the fold ideally. The guards have been sent to keep Jesus’ death and his body and his story quietly in place.
But the Marys are watching too and they know there is something more. They are writing a different story with God. When they return to the tomb the next morning, they are shaken by the force of an earthquake, a bible-style confirmation of God’s presence with them. An angel arrives and the guards are frozen in fright, like dead men, the story says. The angel roles back the stone the guards had used to seal in Jesus’ body and then assures the Marys they have nothing to fear. He invites them to look inside the tomb because Jesus’ body has been raised from the dead. Notice, the angel doesn’t move the stone to let Jesus out. He moves the stone to let the Marys in. Life as they know it stops. The rules of the universe seem to have broken.
This is the moment we are living right now too. The rules of the universe as we have known it seem to have broken. We are rattled and anxious and exhausted and grief-stricken and yet there is a moment happening when we too are being invited to take a closer look, to move past our fear of the immediate moment on shaky legs and shaken earth by the prophetic messengers of our times and look inside the tomb of our times and our culture to bear witness like the Marys.
Novelist, human rights and climate justice activist Arundhati Roy show us what she sees in the tomb:
“[U]nlike the flow of capital, this virus seeks proliferation, not profit, and has, therefore, inadvertently, to some extent, reversed the direction of the flow. It has mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital surveillance and every other kind of data analytics, and struck hardest — thus far — in the richest, most powerful nations of the world, bringing the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt. Temporarily perhaps, but at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine.
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”
Rome wants the guards want to seal off the tomb, seal off the political and cosmic rupture that has happened. They want to return us to normal, to whatever form of complicity with the way things have been that is our particular comfort. They don’t want us to look too closely in the tomb, that home to death that has become normal, and ask too many questions:
Why is it that when millions of American lose their jobs, they also lose their healthcare? Why is it that we have invested far more of our collective financial resources in our military capabilities than our healthcare system’s capacity? Why is it that some of us have the option to safely work from home while others must choose between their own immediate safety and being able to pay their rent? Why is it that we keep humans in cages we call jails and ICE detention centers that can so easily become death traps in the face of disease? Why is it that so many kids are without enough food for lunch when they can’t get to school? Why is it that so many of our elders live alone in care facilities that don’t actually have the capacity to care for them in the way they should be cared for? Why is it that the smog in the sky is gone now and we had come to think of smog as normal?
As Roy says,
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
This is the call of the angel and Jesus too. Yes, we are scared. Yes, for those of us living in temporarily able bodies, we feel so much more vulnerable and fragile today than we did a month ago. I, for one, have struggled deeply with the anxiety of getting through each day living in a pregnant body and loving people who are at higher risk for complications from this disease. AND, like the Marys, we too are called to something more than our own fear.
As they leave the tomb, the Marys have the gift of an encounter with possibility, with what resurrection looks like, standing before them: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Rejoice!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.” Resurrection is so close they can hug it. And oh how we long to hug resurrection, right? Or even just our friends?
But I haven’t had any encounters of resurrection joy as obvious as the Marys have. That’s because I have been gratefully further from the epicenter of death and pain than they are. So I talked to my friend from seminary who lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her husband is just recovering from COVID-19, despite his own health complications. And she is currently sick herself with presumed COVID-19. I asked her if she was seeing resurrection happening around her at all, or if that felt like a ridiculous question right now as their death rates continue to soar in NYC.
She responded immediately, “Every day. I just learned that our friend came off a vent today after almost three weeks. If that’s not resurrection, I don’t know what is.” And she went on. For her, hope is the word that sums up the more ordinary resurrections happening daily. And hope is blooming like spring around her. “Hope looks like love,” she said. “I haven’t had a kiss in two weeks. But [my husband is] doing my laundry so I can rest and not get sicker. That’s love, and that feels like hope now. Hope is hearing the sirens constantly and knowing that those ambulances are being driven by people from as far away as Minnesota, who came here to help us survive this. Hope is 6 million New Yorkers leaning out their windows every night at 7 pm and yelling their heads off and banging pots and pans for our heroes: medical workers, cashiers, delivery people, transit workers, the people who are making it possible for us to survive.”
And then she said something that made me pause. “Being sick means you have to just stop. All the worry and stress won’t help you get well.” “What helps you get well?” I asked. “Hope. And rest.” She sounded annoyingly like Jesus when he told the Marys, “Rejoice… Do not be afraid.”
We cannot talk our brains out of their evolutionary fight or flight reaction or our bodies out of their own trauma responses. But neither my bestie from seminary nor Jesus are actually telling us to do that. Another way to translate Jesus’ Greek for “do not be afraid” is “do not flee or avoid or withdraw.” In other words, stop, like my bestie says. And then be present to what is happening right now. For the Marys, that meant being present to the reality that they had witnessed crucifixion AND Jesus was standing right in front of them, promising to be with them always. They have both “fear and great joy,” says our scripture. Holding both of these allows them to go out and continue writing a new story with God that doesn’t end with death, holding both allows them to refuse to go back to the normal after what they saw in the tomb, holding both gives them courage to keep on loving and living.
What is happening for you RIGHT NOW? What do you need to stop fleeing from or avoiding so you can feel something more than just fear but also, some hope, some love, some Easter joy? We too are called to fear AND great joy.
It’s not a triumphant Easter message this year. It’s not a regular Easter this year, as it snows outside my window in Minnesota. But it is perhaps more biblical than any other. Holding both our fear and our joy will allow us like the Marys to continue writing a new story with God that doesn’t end with death. It will be about what we saw in the tomb of these days, about how to keep on loving and living with more wellness in all our souls and in all our bodies instead of returning to “normal.” Amen.