Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The women left the tomb with fear and great joy.” (Mt. 28)
When stress is applied to a system, the cracks are quickly revealed. A dam, for instance, breaks under pressure from a flood; or a bridge collapses from the burden of too heavy a load. That such failure is revelatory of underlying weaknesses is a truism that has been often repeated as of late. We recognize all to well that the stresses placed on our social system by the coronavirus have revealed some deep cracks within: the consequences of inadequate health care, for instance, or the gap between rich and poor, or the neglect of facts in pursuit of ideological purity.
But that is not the point I want to make here this morning. Rather, I want us to use that image of structural failure resulting from internal flaws, to consider the effect of the stress that was placed on the human condition by the execution of Jesus, the one who spoke only of love. To put Jesus to death, placed a great and unbearable stress on what we all know as the fallen system by which human society functions. Evil and corruption simply could not sustain themselves, brought face to face with his mercy and love — and the effect of that stress, it turns out, was that the system cracked and fell apart.
Out of its ruins, came the new life we call the resurrection — not as a miraculous interruption of the ordinary laws of nature, but as an emergence from the ruins of a corrupted creation of the pulsating, vibrating life that was already within it, and had only been obscured. In the risen Jesus, we don’t encounter some fantastical marvel: what we do encounter (perhaps for the first time) is life as it really is, as it was created in the beginning. Resurrection, in other words, is what is in fact ordinary and commonplace—the darkness of evil may obscure it, but it is the darkness itself that is peculiar.
Traditionally, the homily that is delivered at the Great Vigil of Easter is one that was first given by St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, around the year 400. His Easter homily bubbles over with joy and enthusiasm, as if he just can’t control his eagerness to have everyone included in the Paschal feast: Have you been fasting these 40 days of Lent, he asks? Well then, come, join the celebration! Or have you perhaps been … neglectful? Well no matter, you come in too, for the feast of life is prepared for all!
Alluding to Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the field (who were all paid the same, whether the worked a whole day or only the last hour), Chrysostom exclaims, “Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together!” And how is such an unqualified welcome possible, you may ask? Because above all things, “the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.” That includes you, just as you are.
And it is this level of unqualified acceptance that is, for us, the sign that the old ways of being human have simply collapsed under the weight of their encounter with Jesus. The stress of encountering pure love and compassion, has broken apart the hold that selfishness and deceit have held on humankind.
And so, says Chrysostom, “Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of God’s goodness! Let no one grieve at her poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.”
Surely, these unabashed words of reassurance are a message we long to hear just now: affirmation that out of the rubble of our broken society, a new justice and integrity will arise. Encouragement that out of our dreams that have been eclipsed by economic hardship or physical loss, new opportunities will emerge. Confidence that out of the illness and death that surround us so pervasively on all sides, life will prevail.
Chrysostom imagined the source of such encouragement this way: in his physical death, Jesus descended to the place of the dead itself, and brought with him into those shadowy regions the inexhaustible life through which all things were created. In the person of Jesus, life invaded death. Love squared off with hate. Mercy faced down violence. And the result? Life, love and mercy emerged triumphant, and the powers of darkness crumpled under the shear stress of the encounter.
And so, as that 4th century preacher said in his Easter homily, “Let no one fear death [any longer], for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hell when He descended into it. He put it into chaos even as it tasted of His flesh. … Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it was mocked. It was in an uproar, for it was destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. … O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are destroyed! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever!”
No wonder, then, that when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the tomb on Easter morning to mourn Jesus, and instead encountered an angel who told them, “He is not here, for he has been raised,” they went away with both great fear … and great joy. May that peace and joy also be with you this day. Amen.