April 4, 2015, Easter Vigil – It’s Not What You’d Expect
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Jesus died just as the Sabbath of the Passover Festival was about to begin, which was just when the sun was about to go down. If anyone had been able to think clearly what was happening at the time, they might have remembered the instructions God gave to Moses 1500 years earlier – “Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household…and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you.”
But Joseph of Arimathea only understood that the greatest of tragedies had occurred. In grief and horror, but also in love, Joseph found the courage to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus, and with the help of Nicodemus, he reverently laid the body in his own tomb, the burying place he had had prepared for himself, while the women stood by and took note of where the body was laid to rest. Nicodemus had brought enough spices and aloes to bury a king – 75 pounds of spices and aloes. But the sun went down too soon, and they were forced to leave things unfinished in obedience to the Sabbath laws. Everyone, the eleven and the women, along with all the Jews in Jerusalem, remained quiet and still on that Sabbath day that must have been the longest Sabbath of all time, and finally, at the crack of dawn on the first day of the week, the women came back to the tomb to do what needed to be done.
The women were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the Apostle – who was sometimes known as James the less, another James, not one of the Zebedee boys – and also Salome, who was Mrs. Zebedee, the mother of James and John. They arrived at the tomb when it was barely light, their arms full of spices and ointments and whatever else was needed for the proper anointing of a body. They were determined to do everything they could do to serve Jesus, even in death. And on the way, they discussed how they were going to accomplish what they had set out to do, even though it was nearly impossible. They asked one another, first of all, how they were going to face the insurmountable obstacle of the huge stone blocking the mouth of the cave. They knew it was way too heavy for them to move, and furthermore, it had been sealed and a guard of Roman soldiers had been set to keep Jesus’ followers from tampering with his body. And still they walked on, side by side, carrying the spices to anoint the body of their beloved Lord.
But just imagine how astonishing it was for them to arrive at the tomb and find that every obstacle had been cleared away for them. The guards were lying there stunned and helpless, like dead men, the seal on the tomb was broken, the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. And the body of Jesus was gone. Suddenly the job they had come to do was not only impossible, but completely unnecessary, because there was no body to anoint. And they didn’t know what to make of that.
And at that point, the eyewitness accounts are exactly as scattered and confused as you would expect from people who were terrified and grief-stricken and astonished and maybe just the littlest bit hopeful – but on the whole mostly clueless and bewildered. Like a news reporter interviewing survivors of an earthquake or a devastating fire, each of the four gospel writers got a slightly different perspective on just what happened that Sunday morning. Mark, who heard the story from Peter, says that the women were terrified and amazed, and ran off, saying nothing to anyone. Matthew, who followed what Mark had to say, but also heard some other accounts of the day, says that the women did eventually run to tell the apostles what the angel had told them, and on the way they saw Jesus himself. Luke, who was scrupulous about finding eyewitness accounts to support everything he wrote, says that the women ran off to tell the apostles, but he adds that when they did, the apostles wouldn’t believe them and ran off to look in the tomb for themselves. And John, who was one of the apostles that ran to see for himself adds the very personal recollection of Mary Magdalene, how she had lingered by the tomb, weeping, confused and afraid, while everyone ran hither and thither, and finally came face to face with the risen Jesus, and mistook him for the gardener – until he spoke her name, and then she knew at once that it was he and that he really had risen from the dead, as impossible as that seemed.
The thing is that nobody, not the women, not the apostles, certainly not the Romans or the Jewish leaders, expected the thing that happened during that twenty-four hours of Sabbath rest that followed the horror of the crucifixion. Jesus had told them exactly what was going to happen – he spelled it out for them loud and clear – I’m going to be arrested and beaten and killed, and on the third day I am going to rise again. And it happened just as he said, he was arrested and beaten, and they saw his lifeless body with their own eyes. But nobody quite comprehended what it was going to mean for Jesus to rise again. It was something that never happened before, never – there was no category for it.
We talk about the empty tomb, and the graveclothes folded and set aside, we talk about the Resurrection, these many years later. But it’s so easy for those to become stale images in our minds. We have to put ourselves in the place of Mary and Salome and John on that Sunday morning, I think, utterly unprepared, utterly confused and frankly terrified, before we can really understand how earth-shattering it was – how earth-shattering it is, that Jesus was alive and whole and well again that first Easter morning.
It is so in keeping with the wonderful humility of our God that the crucial moment in all of history, the moment of our Lord’s greatest triumph and glory, happened quietly and without any fanfare sometime during that Sabbath day. Some time while the people of Jerusalem were observing the the Passover, eating the traditional foods and saying the traditional prayers, gathering their families close after the frightening and terrible events of the previous day: at some moment on that day, it happened. Death met its match in the body laid in the dark tomb and unquenchable life returned to every cell and coursed through his veins and filled his lungs and our Lord Jesus walked out of the tomb and back into the world he had created, victorious. But no-one saw it happen; there was no choir of heavenly angels, no sound of trumpets, just a man who looked so ordinary that Mary Magdalene mistook him for the gardener. No one saw or heard, no one saw it coming. But, at some moment on that Sabbath day, while all of Jerusalem rested, the whole world was changed forever.
And we are left with the chaotic and confused accounts of the people who tried to make sense of the empty tomb: the women who had been hoping for nothing more than to pay respects to the beloved Master they had lost, the apostles who had probably spent the Sabbath in shame and fear, knowing they had betrayed their Lord and wondering if they would be the next victims. They are the ones through whose eyes we get to see the Resurrection. And that’s really perfect, because those witnesses are just like us, aren’t they? How different from those first witnesses are we, really, wanting to do our best to serve God, but disappointing ourselves more often than not, living so much of our lives in the grey valley between shame and anxiety.
And that’s why this story is written for us, because if we are honest with ourselves, most of the time, the astonishing fact of the empty tomb is the last thing we are really expecting. We live our lives, knowing that we will die. We grieve for those who go before us. If we listen to the news, we know that men of violence commit senseless and horrible acts of cruelty every single day. Terrible diseases like cancer and alzheimers claim our friends and family one after another. Death seems to be all around us, and it is very hard to expect anything different. But the reality is that sometime in the quiet of that Sabbath day something happened that changed our lives, that changed all of creation, forever. Jesus walked out of the tomb. He was dead, but now, today, he is alive, in the flesh, and death will never again have the last word on this earth. It’s the last thing we would have ever expected. But Jesus lives. And that makes all the difference in the world.
He is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!