“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark. . .”
Did you hear it? Did you hear the echo? Listen again:
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark. . .” That’s how John’s Easter story begins, the one we just heard.
Does it remind you of another story?
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, darkness covered the face of the deep.”
Maybe you recognize that one. That’s how the creation story begins, the very first verse of the Bible from book of Genesis.
The echo is unmistakeable. The gospel that we heard today is a creation story. And just in case there was any doubt, did you notice where John sets this Easter story? In a garden. Just like the garden that God planted in Eden, which became the setting for the birth of the first human. God formed the adam from the dust of the earth, and breathed into the earth-creature’s nostrils the breathe of life, and the human became a living being.
So not only is this a story of creation, it is also a birthing story. A story of new life which echoes the words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus while it was still dark, “you must be born again,” which in turn echo the words of the prologue to John’s gospel, “to all who received him, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
Do you hear the echoes?
So who is it who is being born in this story that we just heard?
I suppose it’s tempting to say that it’s Jesus who is being born. He has after all been raised from the dead, a birth of sorts, certainly a new creation. But that happens before today’s gospel. In today’s gospel, the birth that we see most clearly is that of Mary.
Have you ever had an experience that changed your life? That gave you a new sense of who you are? That made you feel fully alive?
That’s what happened to Mary. She comes to the garden in the dark, in the midst of chaos, people running back and forth, the stone removed, the body gone, she’s alone, fearful, her life is in shambles, she weeps. And then the one she takes to be the gardener calls her by name, and breathes into her the breath of life. “Mary!”
And she turns. It’s a turning point. She is born again. She comes back to life, a new life. She calls him “Rabbouni”, “My Teacher”, claiming her identity as a disciple.
And this is the Easter moment. New birth. New identity. New purpose. She is commissioned as the first of the apostles, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
And she goes, but did you notice that she doesn’t actually tell them what Jesus has said she should tell them, at least not at first. Because she has something much more important to say.
“I have seen the Lord.” She has to tell them about the Easter moment that changed her life.
Because Easter is not something that happens to Jesus. Easter is something that happens to us. It’s not a historical event that happened one day two thousand years ago. Easter is the new birth, the new creation that is happening all the time.
It happened to Mary. It happened to Paul too. He had his Easter moment a few months later on the road to Damascus, the moment when Christ called him by name and turned his life around. In our New Testament reading, Paul is reflecting on that experience of new life as he writes to the Corinthians about resurrection. By his resurrection, Paul says, Christ became a life-giving spirit so that all will be made alive in Christ. Now, certainly Paul is talking about what he expects to happen to us when we die. But he is also talking about being made fully alive in this life, in the here and now, through our encounter with the risen Christ. Because that was what Paul had experienced.
Rebirth, new creation, resurrection, becoming fully alive, life-changing experiences, these are a present reality, not just historical events or hoped for futures. In fact for many of us, I suspect that’s why we’re here today. Because we’ve experienced something. Because we’ve experienced the risen Christ as alive, as present and as a life-changing power in our own lives.
Certainly we’re here because we rely on the testimony of witnesses who have proclaimed the resurrection of Christ to us down through the ages, that great chain of witnesses whose own lives were changed as a result of their testimony. Certainly we rely on the communion of saints, we rely on being part of a community whose corporate proclamation of faith buttresses our own.
But Easter is also personal. Mary shows us that. Many of us have had experiences that have changed our own lives, experiences of “something more”, experiences that we dare to articulate as encounters with the risen Christ. Life-changing events. Easter moments. They’re not all the same, they’re not all instantaneous, they’re not all dramatic. Even in John’s gospel story, we see three very different Easter experiences: Peter who sees but does not yet believe, the other disciple who sees and believes but says nothing, and then Mary who sees, and then proclaims “I have seen the Lord.” Different experiences, different reactions, but eventually, for all three of them, Easter changes everything.
Thirteen years ago, I spent a summer as a student chaplain at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, the psych hospital, learning how to provide spiritual care with patients who had severe mental illness. It was a challenging, in fact I would even call it a dark time in my life. I had just finished my first year of seminary and was trying to figure out if I should continue on the path towards ordination. That same summer my wife was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo surgery. In the psych hospital, I encountered despair and darkness like I’d never seen before in the lives of many men and women, and most of the time there wasn’t anything that I could do to help. It was a stressful time, a time of waiting for test results, a time of watching patients slide into despair, a time of trying to keep it all together at home. It was also a time of questioning whether I was going down the right path as far as ordination was concerned.
On the floor where I was working, there was a woman who spent virtually the whole day moaning in a near catatonic state. I had yet to go into her room, afraid I guess, that I wouldn’t be able to do anything for her. One day, for whatever reason, I felt prompted to go into her room and I sat beside her. I tried talking to her but that didn’t get me too far. I tried just sitting in silence. No apparent awareness that I was there. I was just about to give up and leave when the idea came to me that I could try humming. So I hummed a few bars of Amazing Grace. And to my amazement, Mary stopped moaning, straightened up a bit and started singing Amazing Grace in a beautiful clear voice.
A bit later that same afternoon, I was walking down the hall past the room of another woman who screamed non-stop. Again, it was someone I’d never summoned up the courage to visit. As I walked past, the screaming was particularly loud and agitated. Just as I was passing the doorway, one of the nurses stormed out of the room, looked at me, and said “Go in there and do something.” So, I walked through the doorway, glanced at the name on the way in, squatted down in front of the woman and said “Hi Angie.” And again to my amazement, she stopped screaming, looked up at me and started talking to me calmly. We talked a bit, and then I left.
That evening as I was driving home from the hospital, I had an overwhelming sense of a presence descending on me, and a feeling of intense emotion that brought tears to my eyes. And in that instant I was aware that I wasn’t alone, that Christ was and had been with me that afternoon. It was an Easter moment in my spiritual journey. Life-giving and life-changing. Without it, well, I don’t suppose that I’d be here today. I have seen the Lord.
Easter is not something that happened two thousand years ago. Easter is something that happens all the time. Alleluia, Christ is risen, risen indeed, and Christ is alive and present, here and now, in our lives and in our world. May you come to know the joy and power of Easter in your life.
Homily: Easter. April 21 2019. St. Albans
Readings: Acts 10.34-43; Ps 118; 1 Cor 15.19-26; John 20.1-18
Image: Stained Glass at St. Albans Church