Have you ever been awakened from a deep sleep so suddenly that you didn’t know where you were? You look up, startled, trying to recognize the room in which you lie. You check the hour: what time is it? Is that six am or six pm on the clock? Only gradually does your consciousness become functional, and begin to piece together the recognition of where you really are.
The resurrection of our Lord awakens us from just such a deep sleep, startling us so completely that we gaze around uncomprehendingly, feeling totally disoriented, trying to get our bearings. What is this new thing that has so unexpectedly aroused us from our slumbers? And where are we, now that it has awakened us? You and I have been spiritually asleep, you see, ever since we became consciously aware that our lives are leading us inescapably toward death. To a young child, life is lived absolutely, without any sense that it is short and ephemeral. To such a child, every day is an experience unto itself in one long chain of adventure and discovery. That confidence and exhuberance for life remains intact—until one day we discover that death shall put an end to it all, and then the shadow of life’s end begins to cast a great pall over our experience of ourselves. We grow more cautious, anxious that we shall not have time enough to do all that we wish to do, or that our bodies will fail us before we are ready to give in. This anxiety creeps into our minds like a gathering darkness, and we fall into a deep nightmarish slumber in which we struggle day by day to ward off that which we know is inevitable.
But in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are awakened from this compliant bond with death by God’s restoration of that absolute quality of life that was the primal gift of our creation. The risen Jesus demonstrates to us that human life is no longer bound to the limitations of our flesh and bones: the life that we are given, is given absolutely, to be lived abundantly in an unending relationship of communion with God. Yes, its embodied form as we know it now shall come to an end when we come to the grave, but because of the resurrection, we know that then life will continue hidden in some form with God in Christ. So Christ’s resurrection enlarges the horizon of human life beyond the limit of our years, for we see in him a vision of a life that is stronger than death itself—a divine life that is offered to us to receive as our own, even as Christ took human flesh upon himself.
And so on Easter Day we are sharply awakened from our bad dreams of death by the sudden, gratuitous return to us of the life we thought was lost. So no wonder that we look on the empty tomb with such disoriented, startled eyes! The disciples, too, we are told, experienced just such a range of emotion upon discovering the empty tomb: first astonishment, then bewilderment, and even fear. You can imagine the questions cascading throught their minds: Why was the tomb empty? Who had rolled away the stone? Where had they laid Jesus? Was he alive? Were they dreaming all this? Were their exhausted and disillusioned spirits perhaps causing their minds to play tricks on them?
But no, as they get their bearings over the next hours and days, fully awaking from the nightmare of the crucifixion by seeing, hearing, and even touching the risen Lord, they gradually realize that their eyes are not leading them astray, but that they are seeing for the first time who Jesus really is: not just a teacher worthy of their respect, but the Lord of life through whom God has given back to them the possibility of being fully human, alive and completely awake in the enjoyment of God’s life of love.
But that is not all—even more remarkably, the hopes they had in him before his life seemed to some to such a bitter end, are now given back to them, free of any resentment and bitterness. One would have expected, after the disciples’ betrayal of him, that Jesus would have come back to them speaking words of reproach and judgement : “How dare you leave me alone when I most needed you—and after all I had done for you!” But these are not his words; his words are only of peace. Instead of judgement, he offers them a clean slate, a new beginning. And so rather than fear, they are given hope and confidence that this time around, their commitment to Jesus and to one another will not end in despair, but in fulfillment. And ultimately this is the good news of the gospel: that where each of us should expect God’s anger and disappointment at our failings as human beings, God offers us instead another chance. That is the meaning of mercy: hopes and dreams that have died, are given new life. Relationships that have become broken, are redirected toward restoration. Passion and commitment that have fallen asleep, are stirred with new resolve.
And so, we gradually realize that in Jesus, the past has been restored to us—those things which we wish we had done, or had not, no longer haunt us, but open up as possibities for new beginnings. So as we look around, trying to make sense of this new place where we find ourselves, we also begin to direct our attention forward, into the future. And there we see that the resurrected Christ is not just a figure found when we look into the distant past, but someone who gazes at us from our future, beckoning to us and inviting us to embrace a new vision of life that welcomes it as an entirely open-ended possibility. Looking at the risen Lord, we are looking forward into our future, where Jesus is the image of what we shall become: alive, healed, restored, complete. So the light of Easter morning, which at first blinds our minds with its brilliance and confuses our grasp of who and where we are, gradually becomes the light that illumines the path of our lives, the vision of the future that gives us confidence and hope. We gain assurance that human life is worth the struggle, because its potential is ever given back to us in the living Christ. Knowing him, we know that whatever we may lose in life to our own mistakes and failures, even that can be restored to us in the forgiving kindness of Christ.
As a college undergraduate, I looked forward each Easter to hearing Harvard’s great preacher, Peter Gomes, greet the Easter throngs in the university’s Memorial Church with hearty congratulations: looking out upon the crowd for the church’s imposing pulpit, he would wryly say to that learned crowd, with a twinkle in his eye: “You are all better theologians than you realize, for of all the 52 Sundays in the year, you have chosen the right one to be here.” You too are here at the right time, for like the startled and bewildered disciples at the empty tomb, you are in the place where you can also be awakened from the sleep of fear and anxiety that enshrouds the full courage and capacity of who you are. You know what those fears are: the fear that you incapable of what is expected of you, or that in your most intimate relationships you still feel alone, or that who you are is not valued and cherished, or that the sum of your life seems to add up to so little. Whatever your own anxiety, take heart, for the Easter message is intended for you: the Lord is risen, the past is restored, the future is secured, and so your life is worthy of every effort, every heartfelt commitment, every passionate struggle you have to bring to it. As we sing in that greatest of all Easter hymns:
The strife is o’er, the battle done,
The victory of life is won;
The song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!