Any of us who have struggled to learn a foreign language can sympathize with the teacher trying to explain the significance of Easter to people with no experience of the Christian faith, especially if these people were also struggling to learn English.
That was the dilemma facing David Sedaris, an American writer living in France, as he sat in a French class with immigrants from around the world. It was Easter season and a Moroccan student, a Muslim, raised her hand and asked in French, “Excuse me, but what is an Easter?”
The teacher called upon the rest of the class to help explain. The Polish students led the charge. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who called his self Jesus . . .” she faltered and one of her countrymen came to her aid: “He call his self Jesus, and then he die one day on two. . . morsels of. . . lumber.”
The rest of the class jumped in: “He died one day and then he go above my head to live with your father.”
“He weared of himself the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back to say ‘hello’ to all the people.”
Part of the problem, Sedaris realized in retrospect, was vocabulary. Nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond them, let alone the nuances of theology.
How do we “translate” Easter? How do we enter into this story 20 centuries later and see what is there for us?
First of all, we show up.
The major player in today’s Gospel is Mary Magdalene, a prostitute, dismissed by the Disciples as irrelevant and often in the way. She shows up at the tomb in a state of shock and grief; she has lost her teacher, her beloved rabbi, her friend, and she is feeling the way we all feel when death takes away someone we loved: pained; abandoned, scared. And she can’t even find the body to anoint it – is it in the cave? Has it been stolen, taken away by enemies or Romans or friends?
And then Jesus appears and calls her by name, “Mary.” I hadn’t noticed this before last week but it’s as if the resurrected Jesus was there, looking for Mary.
And maybe today, as you come here, looking for Jesus, Jesus is looking for you to give you the hope you so desperately need, to encourage you to see more clearly, to love more dearly.
I know I can’t explain why I’ve been in church every Easter Sunday my entire life that I know of, even during times of deep skepticism and cynicism about the church, personal heartbreak, or joy so encompassing that I doubted church could enhance it very much. Yet Easter with its outrageous promises and audacious hope beckoned me irresistibly and there I was, and here we are today, as are millions around the world, looking for and sought by Jesus.
I think we’re also here because we need something and we know it. We need resurrection, new beginnings. Maybe in our relationships… Our families…. Our states of mind… Our “lifestyle”? In something we can’t even name…
In what tombs have your souls been buried this year? Chronic hopelessness? Persistent anxiety? Disappointment? Self-doubt? Fear that our joyousness seems as fragile as it does real? What Wordsworth calls “the sighs that lie too deep for words”? Is it in our seeming inability to take the first step to make needed changes?
We may be here because we are familiar with resurrection. The East Indian Jesuit Pratap Naik writes:
“Each time we love again after having our love rejected, we share in the power of the resurrection.
Each time we hope again after having our hope smashed to pieces, we share in the power of the resurrection.
Each time we pick up the pieces, wipe our tears, face the sun and start again, we share in the power of the resurrection.”
We can also walk away from what is offered us today. A friend of mine writes about the educator and author Parker Palmer and his descent into clinical depression: “As the depression at last began to lift and he could imagine embracing his life again he realized that a part of him didn’t want to. ‘One of the most painful discoveries I made in the midst of the dark woods of depression,’ Palmer said, ‘was that a part of me wanted to stay depressed. As long as I clung to this living death, life was easier; little was expected of me, certainly not serving others.’ He had to choose to live again. Life after death is also something we must choose.
As with most things, context is important. When Mary Magdalene showed up at the tomb early Easter morning, she bore the weight of her culture: living as a Jew in a city occupied by one of the mightiest empires the world has known; how unsettling it must have been each day to see evidence of Roman power–soldiers patrolling the streets on horseback, chariots racing across the square, the coliseum where animals and gladiators battled to the death, an Emperor intent on keeping power at all costs.
The cultural text of our lives is not that different from Mary’s, when you think about it. We, too, live under the weight of a culture defined by military might; where we are entertained by violence – not in a coliseum but on screens of all sizes, where weapons of mass destruction are readily available to kill children, and where the very air we breathe is threatened by the forces of greed. In many ways we are Rome, but with an important difference: we have the technology to activate our most evil and sadistic impulses with a computer code.
We exist today in a religious culture where some branches of our own faith teach that the Creator stands up in heaven with a big bill of sins, saying, “Unless I get some blood, you’re all going to hell.” “Unless you believe in Jesus, you’re going to hell.”
Haven’t you wondered about this picture of the Creator of the universe, the God whose love we experience every day of our lives, who created human life and planets and panda bears and lilacs and music and whose Scriptures are all about forgiveness? Isn’t this demand for atonement, at the least, out of character?
With this comes the teaching that because Jesus took the physical punishment on the cross for our sins, we don’t have to.
Really? Does Good Friday and Easter negate all that Jesus taught us about the necessity for repentance and the constant availability of God’s forgiveness? Our sins are ours to confess and atone for ourselves with repentance and amendment of life and we are indeed promised forgiveness, because that is who God is, not because Jesus had to rescue us from God.
Because Jesus died the way he did, we realize that the God we worship knows what suffering and death is like and we are never alone. Because Jesus rose again, we know that death is not a final ending, but a new beginning.
We also know in the many faiths which do not accept the death of Christ as the atonement for human sin, there is still passionate embrace of resurrections, new life, forgiveness —– and loves still happens there because we don’t own God. This does not preclude a passionate, fervent practice of our own dear faith, Jesus the Christ — that pane of glass through which we see the light of the Divine.
And slowly the Church — including this church — is examining its Scriptures again and the logic of what is really said in much of its theology, liturgy and music. I believe that new life awaits as show up to have this discussion.
The best translation of Easter is this: love wins. In the most heartbreaking of scenarios, love will win. Maybe not in the short-term. Maybe it will take a lifetime. But love will win. And here is where we have proof. The proof is in your own heart, where you know that nothing trumps the love you feel for those dearest to you, whether they alive or dead. You would do anything for them, you would die for them. Today what we celebrate is that even on a cosmic scale – love will win.
Love won three weeks ago in Alabama at a ceremony to honor one of the most-admired public servants in the U.S Congress: John Lewis, an African –American from Georgia, elected in 1987. He was jailed 40 times working for the civil rights movement and never lost his capacity for forgiveness and hope. He was fond of quoting King’s statement: “Do not give up on your white brothers and sisters.”
At a ceremony to honor Lewis on March 2, Montgomery Police Chief Kevin Murphy was there. On more than one occasion, he was part of the police force which did nothing to stop mobs from viciously beating groups of Freedom Riders, Lewis often among them.
Murphy came to the platform to express a public apology to U.S. Rep. John Lewis on behalf of the Montgomery police department—an apology he said that had long been on his heart. Then Murphy took off his badge and gave it to Lewis, moving the Congressman to tears. Murphy stated afterwards: “Mr. Lewis is a man of graciousness and great courage. He is my hero.”
If we accept the invitation of Easter to embrace the new life that awaits each one of us today and after death, we are asked for a commitment to be love, to receive love,. We know which tasks have been assigned specifically to us; they are the words of hope and healing that won’t be spoken at all unless we speak them and the deeds of compassion and courage that which won’t be done unless we do them. Love will not live as fully as it might until you choose to give it life. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, “The One Foundation,” Easter sermon, National Cathedral, 2011.
Richard Rohr, online meditation, Easter, 2012
Barbara Brown Taylor, “In the Name of Law and Order,” in Home by Another Way,” 1999.
Rob Bell, Love Wins, 2011.