Every year at Easter, I picture myself with Mary Magdalene and the other women quietly working their way through the maze of streets of Jerusalem in the cold, damp dawn. Imagine what thoughts were running through their minds. They had seen their beloved Jesus arrested, dragged before the Roman official Pilate, informed of his sentence. They had stood in the crowd as he carried his crossbar through the streets and watched as nails were driven through his body. Their beloved Jesus treated as a common criminal. He died. He was pulled down off the cross and hastily placed in a borrowed tomb, a cave, outside town. The Sabbath was upon them, so there wasn’t time for them to anoint and prepare his body. This is the task they faced this morning. Grief, anger, horror, betrayal and now not knowing what to expect. What shape would the body be in when they got there? How would they open the tomb that had been sealed with a large boulder?
I need to mentally and spiritually walk quietly with these women on Easter morning because their journey of anguish and hurt is a part of the human condition. I don’t know about your life journey and you don’t know about mine, but there are moments in all of our lives when we are like these women, moving forward with some sense of affliction. We all have our triumphs, but there is also sadness; we have our successes, but there is also defeat. That is life as we know it. A sage once said, “If we never bled, we’d know well less the red warmth of our living.”
Matthew tells the story of the resurrection with a purpose. He is attempting to address some of the sadness that we all feel and that we experience. The resurrection is a story which touches our hearts and our souls and gives us strength.
Someone sent me an email with pictures of billboards from across the United States. There was one which caught my attention: “Everything’s never going to be all right.” I did a little research and found out that it was outside a surgeon’s office in a small country town in North Carolina. He had got it from one of his patients, a man from Central America.
Think of it for a moment. If you say it one way, it is a lament of defeat, a resigned sigh that shuts out all hope and possibility. Everything’s never going to be all right. No matter how hard we try, there will be no success, no victory, no climb to the top of the mountain.
What happens if we move the emphasis to the first word? Everything’s never going to be all right. We know this. What was I thinking when I wished for some kind of perfection in my life and in our world? Let’s just do our best and diligently work and accomplish what we can and build as many fine relationships as possible and heal as many hurts as we can and simply get on with this imperfect? life.
In the midst of their hurt and pain, these women knew that they had to get on with life. There was a body to be anointed with the appropriate ceremonial washing.
The closing words of the poem Birth is a Beginning seem very appropriate for the women’s journey and for our own life journeys. After pointing out the highs and lows of daily living, the poet, Alvin Fine, observes:
From defeat to defeat to defeat
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
A sacred pilgrimage.
Abigail Thomas wrote a memoir about the months surrounding her husband’s death. After he died, she reflected:
The future was also the place where the bad stuff waited in ambush. My children were embarking on their futures in fragile vessels, and I trembled. I wanted to remove obstacles, smooth their way. I wanted to change their childhoods. I needed to be right all the time. I wanted them to listen to me, learn from my mistakes, and save themselves a lot of grief.
Then she realized:
Well, now I know I can control my tongue, my temper, and my appetites, but that’s it. I have no effect on weather, traffic, or luck. I can’t make good things happen. I can’t keep anybody safe. I can’t influence the future and I can’t fix the past. What a relief.
This story in Matthew doesn’t end with the women facing a big stone at the entrance to the tomb. This is the point of the Easter story. It is why we are here. It is the point of the Christian faith. What are the stones in our lives? As Matthew tells the story, he wants us to get the point, to see that with the resurrection of Jesus the stone is rolled away. Matthew wants us to journey past the events of Good Friday, past the bad, the difficult and the ugly in our lives, and get to Easter. He wants us to look at things with different eyes. He wants us to have Easter vision in our lives.
There is the story of the Parisian obstetrician Stéphane Tarnier. In the 1870s, he observed that almost two-thirds of babies born with low birth weights died. One day he was visiting the zoo. He wandered into an exhibit of baby chickens and saw an incubator in use. He built a similar machine for human babies and the mortality rate plummeted. This is Easter vision. A difficult situation seen in a new, different, resurrected light. New possibility where before there had been none.
Fast forward to the Twenty-First Century. A researcher witnessed the death of babies in Indonesian hospitals while incubators sat in unusable condition in the corner. A well-meaning donor had given the machines after the 2004 tsunami. What he didn’t realize was that such equipment requires regular maintenance. The researcher had an Easter vision. He wondered what technology is available in the small villages of Indonesia and other developing countries that could maintain incubators over time. He went out of the hospital and was nearly run over by a car. He suddenly noticed that there were cars everywhere. Mechanics had the expertise to maintain the cars. Could similar expertise be used to maintain incubators? Today countless babies’ lives are saved in developing countries by incubators which maintain a stable body temperature for the infants using radiator fans and headlights. When the incubator fails, the local auto mechanic is called in to make repairs.
Where in our lives are we meant to have Easter vision? Perhaps it is in those situations in life where we find huge stones blocking our way, keeping us from moving forward.
The angel tells the woman to go back and tell the others. The prophet Jeremiah said that it is times like this that people should “take your tambourines and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.” Notice that it is when they are able to go with joy that they see Jesus. As Christians living with Easter vision in our world we live as people who have a vision which goes beyond this world, yet it is a vision which does not take us out of the world. It is a vision that keeps us grounded in the world. It is a vision which makes us want to change the world. It is a vision which enables us to proclaim with the psalmist, “This is the day that the Lord has acted, we will rejoice and be glad in it.”
When the women meet the risen Jesus, he gives them words of comfort, words of comfort for us today as we seek an Easter vision: “Do not be afraid. Go and tell others that you have seen me and they too will see me.” Matthew assures us that, if we can look at our lives and our world and all of the challenges we face with Easter vision, we will find new comfort, new joy in living.