Blessed be the Name of God
How can we keep from singing? “Jesus Christ is risen today. Alleluia. Our triumphant holy day. Alleluia.” That’s our reaction to the news of the morning. We cannot help but sing. “This joyful Eastertide, away with sin and sorrow! My Love, the Crucified, hath sprung to life this morrow.” “Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain, wheat that in dark earth many days hath lain: love lives again, that with the dead has been: Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.” More and more we will sing, ring bells, rattle a tambourine.
Our eyes, our emotions, our faith, they are all directed to Mary Magdalene, who was there that morning. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” It was Jesus, risen, who answered her. “Why are you weeping?” he said. Then he called her by name, “Mary!” and she knew. “I have seen the Lord,” she told the other disciples afterwards as “she told them that he had said these things to her.” [Jn 20.1-18]
This comes to us from John’s account. The other three gospel writers have similar accounts to offer, though each has something unique to tell. It’s worth noting that in every account, it is the women who discovered the tomb empty. Mary Magdalen in our story this morning. In Luke’s story, as we read last night, it was Mary, the mother of James, Mary Magdalen and Joanna.
About this discovery, we sing with joyful, eager hearts, familiar hymns recounting an astounding reality. “Jesus Christ is risen today. Alleluia.”
As much as this story, these stories, have to do with the person of Jesus, the Biblical writers and subsequent generations have taught us that these stories are also about us, you and me, and intimately so. So, then, what about us? How are these stories “ours”?
“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to
be pitied.” So Paul writes to the church in Corinth. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Alongside anything else we have to say this morning, this Easter Morning, we are obliged to allow Paul to speak as he does. As we speak about ourselves and these stories, we must begin there. We must begin with the death of Christ. Elsewhere, Paul says, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” [Romans 6.5] This is the text that Tom Johnson preached on so powerfully last evening.
If we are to rejoice for His rising, and to acknowledge joyfully that we too shall rise, because we are “in Christ,” as Tom said so convincingly, we must admit that our rising with him is intimate to our dying with him.
The way we keep this story, we would account Christ’s death as accomplished last Friday at three in the afternoon. Amy and I and a handful of others had prayed our way through the Good Friday Liturgy, the reading of the Passion Jesus as told by John the Evangelist and the praying of the Solemn Collects. Then, mournfully and movingly, we walked the Stations of the Cross. All this saw Jesus into his time of death, again.
Mary Oliver has written, “To live in this world,/you must be able/to do three things:/ to love what is mortal;/to hold it against your bones knowing your life depends on it;/and, when the time comes, to let it go,/to let it go.” [In Blackwater Woods, New and Selected Poems, Volume One, p. 177]
So with Jesus. “In was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon,…Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” [Lk 23.44-46] When the time came, Jesus let it go.
Last was last Friday, mid-afternoon. Good Friday.
Then, last evening, just before sundown, some of us gathered to strike the new fire, to light the Pascal Candle, to hear Mary Green sing the Exultet so sweetly, and in time, we shouted our Alleluias, rang our bells, and welcomed the Christ who had risen, just as we do this morning, continuing to praise God for this remarkable blessing. Mid-afternoon death, a death “like ours” on the Friday we call “Good” to the evening and morning of Resurrection, the promise of which we share. Our death, our resurrection.
But what of the time in between? What of the time for Jesus between his dying and his rising? Various writers have ventured to say various things about this time. For example, those who fashioned the Apostles’ Creed suggested that he “descended to the dead.” Martin Luther told us in a hymn he wrote that “Christ lay in death’s strong bands” [Christ lag in Todesanden H185, Hymnal 1982] and one of Bach’s earliest and finest cantatas, written for Easter 1707, was prompted by Luther’s hymn text and music. [Joanna plays] Christ lag in Todesbanden. “Christ lay in death’s strong grip.”
Creed writers, Luther and Bach, to this company I intend to add myself and to take you along. “What about the time in between?” What about the time Jesus dwelt in the tomb?
Jesus was a Jew. He knew nothing of Christianity and nothing of what we would make of his life and ministry. Jesus was a Jew. He died late of Friday. As nightfall would have approached, what would an observant Jewish young man do as Friday evening came on?
He would prepare to keep Shabbat, from time immemorial, the way the seventh day of the week was kept by observant Jews. You see, the day that intervenes between Jesus death and our marking of his rising, that day is the Sabbath. Jesus spent the Sabbath in the tomb. And what does one do on a Sabbath, properly kept? One rests. One rests as God rested on the seventh day of creation. One rests in anticipation of what God will yet accomplish. One rests in confidence that the good purposes of God will see fulfillment. Jesus spent his last earthy Sabbath at rest, at rest in death, at rest in the tomb to which Mary Magdalene came. He was wrapped in Sabbat shalom, the peace of the Sabbath.
Paul has spoken to us about being “united with Christ in a death like his,” so that we can and will be united in a resurrection like his. I hope what I have said is what Paul meant. That in sharing a death like his, we will be at rest, just as he was, Sabbath keeping in the company of God.
As I have experienced myself over these many years, I know I have been an old person from the beginning. That being so, as I have moved noticeably further and further into my 80’s, my ninth decade as dear Harry Anderson reminds me, I’m mindful that my death is nearer to me than ever before. And, dear friends, surprise, surprise, the same is true for you, at whatever age. Thus, in marking and celebrating Christ’s Resurrection, as we do, as we must, we are obliged to acknowledge what lay before that stunning event. It was his death. But his death, the tomb-time, such as it was, for that tomb-time, he was at rest. I await my time to join him in that blessed rest.
In the past, I have tried to convince you that Eternal Life means that even in death, we do not lose the companionship of God in Christ. Death does not separate us; we are not abandoned; we are sustained, attended even in death.
What I have realized, just in this most recent time, what I have realized is that in death, we join Jesus at rest and he with us. Dear Friends, rejoice and be glad. When the time comes, we will join Jesus on Holy Saturday, to rest and wait.
Resurrection? Yes, indeed. And before that, Holy Saturday for as long as it takes. Having let go, Sabbath rest. I bid you then, Shabbat shalom!
Blessed be the Name of God