Reflection on the Easter Vigil
This year Easter is likely very difficult for very many people. This year there are no Easter eggs rolling down the White House lawn. There is no crowd packed tightly into the square outside St Peter’s for the Pope’s Easter Mass. There is no Easter parade — it seems worldwide there are only funeral processions. And those starkly devoid of the presence of the living. We are forced to ask hard questions — ones we can usually avoid as we celebrate resurrection, new life, death overcome, Jesus alive and with us. How do we balance the joy of Easter with the stark reality of morgues, makeshift hospitals, failed government responses, suffering and frightened people.
Today’s living — like those first disciples — know uncertainty and fear as they’ve lived behind closed doors this Holy Week. It is hard to create hope, to live with joy, to be people of resurrection in the midst of global pandemic and economic collapse. There is reason for fear.
That first Good Friday evening Jesus was dead, sealed in a tomb — we get that probably more profoundly this year than ever before. But Resurrection? What does that mean now? Do we dare proclaim it? Do we dare believe it? Do we dare live it? Or, does it go beyond what even our imaginations are able to hold?
The Gospels tell us frustratingly little — nothing actually — of what happened to Jesus between the time that he was laid in the tomb on a Friday afternoon and the tomb was empty early on the first day of the week. Sealing the stone over the entrance of his tomb was a sure and irrefutable sign that he was dead — the dead separated from the living. No longer of the living. Involuntary images invade my head — the morgue trucks lined up in New York City. The rows of coffins lined up in Italy. The bodies dumped in the street in Ecuador.
The canonical Gospels simply do not say what happened to Jesus, they don’t tell us his experience of resurrection. Nor do they tell us much about what he was really like after the Resurrection. Only the apocryphal Gospel of Peter describes Jesus’ experience — and it does so in language and images that are improbable, even impossible to the imagination in a contemporary context.
What the Gospels do tell us is some of what happened to Jesus’ disciples. While the language and the images may not always be accessible to us, the human experience continues to resonate. It is, perhaps their experience that can be helpful to us today.
It was the women, who had followed Jesus from Galilee and stood at the foot of the cross, who set off for the tomb that first morning of the week. In Matthew’s account of events it is Mary Magdalen and the “other” Mary who make their way to the sealed tomb likely wondering who would roll back the stone for them. They had, despite his promise, expected to find Jesus dead — sealed away in the tomb. It was Sunday — they couldn’t have gone any sooner; Saturday had been the Sabbath. The men of Jesus’ company had denied him, abandoned him, lost faith in him and ran. They were still in hiding, fearful for their own lives. It was the women whose love for Jesus, despite not always understanding, despite a fragile and wavering faith, compelled them back to the tomb. It was relationship that enabled them to struggle with faith when belief faltered.
Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino points out that the women, the first witness to Jesus’ Resurrection, the first to proclaim it, the ones carrying the news and the message to the apostles, were unlikely witnesses. They were women. They were not legal citizens. Legally, as women, they could not give testimony. Their witness was not considered credible. Not valued. Yet here they were. Sent to do exactly that — witnessing, testifying. And the men, who culturally were schooled not to regard the witness of women, had to struggle to believe them. And paradoxically the fact that they were women, illegals, adds to the credibility of their witness — simply because it is so not expected. In Jesus’ death, as in his life, the insignificant, those of no means or no status, the stigmatized outcasts were the first of God’s kingdom. The women spoke from the realness and the honesty of their lives. As did Jesus. And that is to be believed.
The women, as Matthew relates it, saw the stone as it was rolled back. Just as sealing the stone so definitively placed Jesus among the dead — separated from the living — the rolling back of the stone denoted the restoration, the resurrection of his connection, his communion, with the living. And the presence of the angel tells us it was God who was acting. The angel says to the women, “Don’t be afraid,” and we immediately remember those words spoken to Mary at the Annunciation — announcing for the first time Jesus among the living, And that, too, by God’s initiation. And the angel invites them to “come and see,” to come and see the place where he lay. But the tomb is already empty. Jesus is no longer among the dead. While they gave witness to the Resurrection, they really didn’t directly witness it.
They responded to a call, again reminding us of Jesus’ earlier invitation to come and see. And immediately there is a commission, “Go tell the disciples.” Tell them Jesus is risen as he said. Go to Galilee — there they will see him. The faithful woman came and then were sent. Disciples.
It’s only after they set off on their mission do they encounter Jesus. Action comes first. Action confirms and grows faith. Jesus meets them on the road. He greets them. He makes himself known to them. They embrace his feet with their own resurrected faith. And he sends them on — to “tell my brothers to go to Galilee. I go there before them.”
Why didn’t Jesus simply go to the apostles? Why Galilee? What difference did it make where they went? Why did Jesus postpone their seeing him?
Jesus says I will be there before you and you will see me. They hadn’t really believed Jesus when he said he would be killed but rise from the dead on the third day. What he is saying to them now seems both promise and command. You will see me in Galilee but first you have to get yourselves there. You have to get you act together, face your fear, act of the faith in me you once professed. Be willing to be called again. Follow me again.
He is sending them back to Galilee. Go back to the beginning. Let the shore of the sea, the sight of fishing boats, the sand on your feet, stir up your memory. Remember that first call. The day you left your nets, your tax booth, your planned-out life. Remember how your curiosity grew into faith, into desire, into love. Remember me.
They are resurrected. The stone sealed over their hearts is rolled back. They are sent out — to be as Jesus was.
Tonight we stand together in Galilee. This is Galilee for us — the place of beginning. Our lives as Loretto, that call to drop nets, started here. From our scattered places in the world we come here to remember. To have the stones across our hearts rolled back so that we too are resurrected. In hope. In courage. In faith. In joy. In the midst of a stark and threatening reality we are resurrected. We remember that we are sent into that reality to respond as Jesus did. In compassion and mercy.
It is Easter. And Jesus is risen and among us.
Resurrection is present tense. It’s the heartbeat of mission to a world whose heart is broken.