The Cathedral of St Stephen
12 April 2020
Easter is nothing if not surprising. Consider the women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary – who go before dawn to visit the tomb where they had seen Jesus laid the evening before. They hadn’t had time to prepare the body properly for burial and were hoping to do it now. There’s the problem of the heavy stone of the entrance to the tomb; they’re not sure how they’ll shift it; but they’ll give it a try. Love drives them on; but once they get to the tomb, everything changes.
∙ They expect to find Jesus a corpse – but they find him astonishingly alive.
∙ They expect to go to him – but he comes to them.
∙ They expect to struggle to shift the stone – but an angel shifts it for them.
∙ They expect to find a tomb full of death – but they find it empty.
∙ They expect to find a dark tomb – but they find it full of light.
∙ They expect their service to Jesus will be to prepare his corpse properly for burial – but in fact it will be to pass on the news of his Resurrection.
∙ They expect to trudge home mournfully after this final act of love – but they run home joyfully to tell the others.
So Easter is not just surprising: it shatters all human expectations. That’s why the Gospel tells of an earthquake when the women arrive at the tomb. I’ve never been in an earthquake, but I have seen the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch. Years after the quake, parts of the city were still in ruins. The landscape was vastly changed, and that’s what earthquakes do. They change the landscape for ever. And that’s what Easter does: it shatters our expectations and changes the human landscape forever. It opens up vast and unimagined new possibilities – possibilities even of hope from what seemed utterly hopeless, joy from even the deepest sorrow. It turns an end to a beginning, the tomb becomes a womb.
There’s no social distancing as the women make their way to the tomb. They stay close together because this is a dark and dangerous world. They need each other for protection in a violent world where death rules. But beyond the earthquake, they fly home together through the morning light bonded by a joy that has come, it seems, from nowhere.
We are those women. Our expectations too have been shattered by the earthquake of COVID-19. And a new and disheartening set of expectations, shaped by fear, can take their place. We fear the effects of long-term shutdown; we fear uncertainty about how long the crisis will last and what life will be like on the other side; we fear running short in the meantime; we fear no quick and effective cure and no future of any kind we would choose. It’s as if we’re sealed in a dark tomb, isolated, with no way out. The women wonder who will roll the stone away for them; we wonder who will roll the stone away for us.
But there is an earthquake for us today. An angel appears to us as it did to the women – his appearance like lightning, his robe as white as snow. This is the angel of the earthquake, the angel of Easter, who is as present in this empty cathedral or in your home as he ever was on that first Easter morning. And he speaks to us. “Do not be afraid”, he says, “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; he has been raised, as he said”.
We are looking for Jesus, but we fear he’s nowhere to be found. We’re told he’s been raised; but what on earth might that mean? It’s not on the radar screen of our expectations. But, all of a sudden, there’s not just the shining angel: Jesus himself, astonishingly, appears. Unlike the angel, we’re told nothing of what he looks like – but we hear him. “Greetings!” he says. “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers and sisters that they must leave for Galilee. There they will see me”.
So we are to share the news of this extraordinary encounter with our brothers and sisters. We are to tell them, all of them, to go to Galilee – the Galilee which is always and everywhere. Go to that place where they will not only see Jesus but also hear him. And what they will hear from him is the Great Commission: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28: 19-20). Go to the place where the mission of the Church is born, because the Resurrection isn’t just for Jesus himself or for his community of disciples but for the whole world.
We speak these days of a pandemic, and rightly so. The word “pandemic” (from the Greek) means something for “all the people”. Well, COVID-19 is certainly a threat to “all the people”, but Easter is a far greater promise to “all the people”. COVID-19 may be the virus born from hell, but Easter is the vaccine born from heaven. It’s the pandemic of God.
In raising Jesus from the dead, God shatters all our expectations and fears and brings to birth a hope and a joy which nothing and no-one can dispel. The power that raises Jesus from the dead, the great earthquake of God which changes everything, is called love, self-sacrificing love. It’s the only power stronger than death, and nothing can keep it out or hold it back.
When Jesus is born, perfect love touches down in a violent world where death holds sway; when Jesus is crucified, that perfect love is perfectly violated; but when Jesus is raised from the dead, the perfect love is perfectly vindicated. Love has the triumph, and it holds sway forever. That is the truth. Love has the last word; love is the last word – and for that on this day of days we praise the Easter God who shatters all our expectations and opens every tomb. Alleluia!