Saturday, April 04, 2015

Leaving the Tomb

Here's my homily for the Great Vigil of Easter. The Gospel is Mark 16:1-8.
The three women going to the tomb know what has happened. They know what they will find, and they know what they will do. Jesus has died. At his tomb, a large stone will block the entrance, and they’re worried about whether they’ll be able to move it. But once it’s out of the way, they’ll finish anointing Jesus’ body -- a task already begun by Nicodemus, but delayed by the Sabbath -- with the spices they’ve brought with them.

All of this is horrible. The death of Jesus is the worst thing they can imagine. They’re grieving, heartsick, probably angrier than they’ve ever been at the Romans occupying their country. They’re just as angry at their own people, their kin and tribe, who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday only to cry “Crucify him!” mere days later. They’re probably angry at their friends, the twelve disciples, for abandoning Jesus in his greatest need, for falling asleep in the garden and then running away after the arrest. They may be angry at themselves, wondering if there’s something, anything, any of them could have done to change what happened.

Everyone has failed Jesus. The three women failed him, too. They failed him when he was still alive; they won’t fail him now. They’ll follow the funerary customs, as they do when anyone they love dies. They’ll give Jesus’ body every bit of respect they can, because the Romans didn’t.

All of this is horrible, but at least the three women going to the tomb know what has happened.

The three women leaving the tomb have no idea what has happened. They can’t understand what they just saw, and they have no idea what to do. The stone wasn’t there. Jesus wasn’t there. A young man was there instead, wearing a robe so white it hurt their eyes, a robe so bright they knew the creature wearing it couldn’t be human. An angel, saying impossible things, was sitting in that tomb as casually as if it was somebody’s kitchen. “Jesus?  Oh, he’s not here.  He left; you just missed him. You’ll catch up with him in Galilee. Hurry along, now. You need to let his other friends know where to meet him.”

The three women flee. What would you have done? Angels are terrifying all by themselves, which is why the first thing they always say is, “Don’t be scared.” Disappearing corpses are terrifying, and so is impossible news. Tell the disciples? Who’s going to believe any of this? Jesus died. They all know he died. They watched him die.

We often think of Easter as a purely happy story,  filled with candy and brightly colored eggs and fluffy animals. Eggs and rabbits are symbols of fertility, of renewed life. The annual resurrection of spring is certainly part of Easter, but the other part of Easter is scarier, less domesticated: the full power of God revealed in an empty tomb inhabited not by a corpse, but by an angel. That part of Easter, unlike the yearly return of flowers and baby animals, doesn’t support the ordinary cycles. It turns them upside down. It breaks the mold. It changes the rules, and it leaves everyone who witnesses it reeling, trying to figure out what to do next.

Good news can be as disorienting, as challenging, as tragedy. A few weeks ago, I read an article by a young cancer patient named Suleika Jouade who described her confusion after her treatment ended. Everyone expected her to rejoice at the news that she was in remission, but the reality for Suleika – as for many patients like her -- was more complicated:
I’ve spent the last year of my life searching for Suleika B.C. (before cancer). I’ve looked for her all over New York City — the old bars she used to frequent, the coffee shop where she had her first date with the ex-boyfriend, the apartment above the Pearl Paint sign on Canal Street that she shared with 10 roommates her first summer out of college — but the more I look, the more I’m beginning to realize she no longer exists. There is no going back to my old life. The problem is I don’t know how to move forward either.
I’ve heard recovering addicts and newly released prison inmates say similar things. As welcome as new life may be, it’s also terrifying. It’s too big. The old rules and habits, all the familiar things that kept us safe even as they kept us in pain, won’t work anymore.  Like any newborns, resurrected people don’t know who they are yet.  

How do we move forward into new life?  That’s the question for the three women leaving Jesus’ tomb. It’s the question for Suleika Jouade, leaving the tomb of her cancer diagnosis. And it’s the question for all of us here tonight -- especially those about to be baptized and confirmed -- as we leave behind the tombs of old lives, old expectations, old behaviors.  However God has resurrected us, is resurrecting us, we need to learn who we are becoming, and we need to find ways to help others leave their own tombs. Resurrection isn’t just a gift. It’s a responsibility.
In a few minutes, we will renew our baptismal vows, which offer a kind of road map for this journey. We will promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and to strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being. The forms those actions take will be different for each of us. But all of us are called to the service of new and more abundant life, wherever and however we find it.

The three women going to the tomb carried burial spices, probably myrrh and aloes. The aloes, by the way, would have been agarwood, not aloe vera. But myrrh and agarwood aren’t just funeral spices; they’ve also both been used for centuries as medicine.  Myrrh is an anti-inflammatory and kills bacteria. Agarwood relieves pain and acts as a tranquilizer.

Imagine the three women, fleeing in terror from that empty tomb. They’re clutching their unused spices and trying to catch their breath, wondering what just happened, wondering what they’ll do now. Eventually, after running for a while, they have to slow to a walk.

One of them is Mary Magdalene. She met Jesus when he cast seven demons out of her. She wasn’t a prostitute; that was a rumor started by Pope Gregory. She was probably mentally ill. Jesus restored her to health, and she’s followed him ever since. Of the three women leaving the tomb, I suspect Mary Magdalene was the first to accept the idea that Jesus was alive again, even before she became the first to see the risen Christ. She already knew something about resurrection, and a lot about healing.

Imagine her, on the road from the tomb, slowing to a walk, looking down at the spices she’s carrying. Agarwood was, and is, very expensive. Both that and myrrh are precious stuff.  Holding them, maybe Mary Magdelene remembers all the suffering people she has seen on her journeys with Jesus: the lepers, the lame and the blind, that old woman with a twisted back, the little boy with an infected toe. Maybe she realizes that these precious spices, no longer needed to anoint a dead body, can instead be used to heal the living. And maybe, even before she has seen the risen Christ for herself -- even before joy and wonder have replaced terror and amazement -- she thinks, Yes. Of course that’s what Jesus would want us to do.

The Lord is risen! This Easter season, may all of us rejoice in the sheer, impossible glory of new life, and may we do all we can to share it. Amen.

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