Sermon for Easter Sunday
St. Mark 18:1-8
This is truly the day that the Lord has made! This is truly the feast of victory for our God! Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!
The goal toward which God’s holy Church strove for the forty days of Lent, the goal outlined for us already at the beginning of Advent, has finally been achieved: the triumph of Love and Light over all. Easter is the Feast of feasts and the climax of the Church’s year of grace. It has always been a time when joy and jubilance is unrestrained. Not only literally outside, but also spiritually in our hearts, the sun beams. Our God of Light has beamed into our lives, with warmth, with clarity and with eternal assurance of salvation.
Give thanks, says the apostle, to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col 1:12-13) The dire, fallen and lost state of mankind that we have reflected upon during lent mercilessly and directly to Christ’s death on the cross at Golgotha. Self-righteousness, ambition, hatred and pride led to the murder of Divine Love and the extinguishing of Divine Light. To symbolize the humiliation of Christ, we stripped the altar on Maundy Thursday. To symbolize the death of Christ and the end of his earthly ministry, we closed the Book of Life and performed the Office of Shadows, which is what tenebrae means, for Good Friday. Today we have adorned the church as gloriously and beautifully as we are able—and many thanks to those who have made that possible—because today we celebrate that the Father has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption.
There could be no greater sign of God’s love and grace than this. In a world of darkness, light triumphs. In a world of hatred and enmity, love is victorious. In a world of death and decay, life itself is crowned with glory. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, (John 10:11) Christ told his disciples. Today we reap the undeserved fruits of the selflessness and sacrifice of our good shepherd.
Our Paschal mystery, our Easter mystery has two aspects: by his death, Jesus Christ freed us from sin; and by his resurrection, he opened for us the way to eternal life. These go together, liturgically, theologically and spiritually. You cannot have one without the other; we cannot have the joy of Resurrection Sunday if we did not also have the misery of Good Friday. Every day is Good Friday, every place of Golgotha. Every day is a day of lamenting the state of the world, and every place is the place of Christ’s torment by sin and evil. But this morning we are assured that every day is also Resurrection Day and every place is also the empty tomb—where we know that all the prophecies of Scripture; all that was spoken by God’s holy prophets Isaiah, and Jeremiah and Hosea, Zechariah, and by King David and others—all their words about what lay ahead came true.
This, however, is what is called objective salvation. These are the spiritual realities that are there for us, independent of us. They require a response – subjective salvation. God offers these truths, we have the responsibility to respond, as subjects, as individuals, to that reality. How do we do that?
“For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe-that unless I believe I shall not understand.” This statement by the patron saint of this parish has no greater applicability than when it comes to the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. I believe in order to understand.
Faith is prior to understanding. Revelation precedes reason. In this day and age, and in the past too, for that matter, religious faith is somehow thought to be unpalatable if it does not conform to reason. We see it in the arguments of those who despise religious faith, but we also see it in many of the arguments of those who claim to defend it. Faith is refashioned so as to appear rational, even scientific. Whether it be the efforts, that have gone on for almost as long as the Church has existed, to conform faith to Greek philosophy, or the more recent attempts to pretend that Biblical narratives are, in fact, 100% literal, chronological history that are threatened by scientific advances—both these involve abandoning the primacy of faith and accepting that faith must conform to some other body of thought in order for it to be true and relevant.
Consider for a moment the three women on whom the Great Dawn of the Resurrection cast its first rays if divine light. They looked at the empty tomb, they were told by the angel that Christ had risen and would fulfill his promises—yet they ran away trembling and afraid. Why? These were devoted followers of Christ, and the life of Christ in almost every single one of its aspects had been prophesied in great detail: The Messiah will be the seed of a woman, we read in Genesis (3:15). He will be born in Bethlehem, said Micah (5:2), by a virgin, according to Isaiah (7:14). Jeremiah (31:15) foretold Herod’s slaughter of the holy innocents, the firstborn, and Hosea (11:1) prophesied that the holy family would flee to Egypt. Zechariah foretold that he would enter Jerusalem on a donkey, and that his betrayal would come at the price of thirty pieces of silver (9:9; 11:12). In Psalms we read how he the Messiah would be accused by false witnesses (27:12), hated without reason (69:4), and that his garments would be divided and they would gamble for his clothing (22:18) We read detailed accounts of how his hands and feet would be pierced (22:16), how he would agonize in thirst (22:15), given gall and vinegar to drink (69:21), how he would be abused, but that none of his bones would be broken (34:20). Zechariah (12:10) tells us how his side would be pierced and that his followers would scatter and desert him (13:7) Isaiah prophesied that he would be crucified with villain (53:12) And all this came to pass.
Yet as each of these things happened, no one, not one, put the pieces together. No one drew the right conclusions. It would have been easy for the disciples, the followers, these women at the tomb, to employ some logical deduction and, when they arrive at the empty tomb, say “yup, he is risen, Alleluia!” Instead they ran away in fear. They looked at the empty tomb, they were even told by the angel that Christ had risen in fulfillment of his promises—yet they ran away trembling and afraid.
Reason, intellect and the power of deduction are not what reconcile us with our heavenly parent. Faith reconciles, devotion to Jesus reconciles. We know that these women were devoted to Jesus. They mourned his death, and even in the face of the utter disappointment that his death must have been to them, they were devoted to him. They came to honor him. They loved him. Even though they had given up hope and possibly even faith; their immortal savior being dead and all. This devotion and love for a dead activist who claimed immortality and divinity was, frankly, irrational. At the very least, it was confused.
And in the midst of this hazy mixture of love and devotion, something happens: they encounter an angel. We speak of angels often, and in popular culture these rosy-cheeked, winged creatures are thicker than flies. In Scripture, however, angels are actually rare. In St. Matthew’s account, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and to Jesus as he rejects the temptations of Satan—and then, a third time, to the women at the empty tomb. In Mark, the only living person said to have encountered angels—except the women at the tomb—is St John the Baptist. In Luke, there are a few more: the righteous priest Zacharias, the Blessed Virgin, and the shepherds in the field are visited by an angel. Jesus was strengthened by an angel from heaven as he underwent torment in Gethsemane. And then, as in the other gospel accounts, the women at the empty tomb. In John, the one and only appearance of angels is—you guessed it, at the empty tomb.
Why are they there? Well, what is an angel? There is a lot of theology surrounding this, much of it not very useful, including taxonomies and divisions into categories, their nature and essence, and so forth. The Greek word angelos, just like the Hebrew word malakh, means quite simply a messenger. In both the old and new testaments, those referred to as “messengers” are sometimes human beings, sometimes not. When they are not, they are messengers of God; messengers that communicate God’s truth or offer God’s comfort.
So let us disregard all the accumulated theology for a moment. As the women, in their devotion, came to the tomb and found it empty, they were met by a messenger of God who proclaimed to them that Christ is risen. This is how we know the truth of our faith—revelation from God. Not logic, not reason, not deduction, not science—but revelation. In Christ, every single prophecy of the Old Testament was fulfilled and completed, yet even his most devoted friends thought he was dead.
Isaiah, roughly seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, wrote this: Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:4-5). Yet not one of his friends saw it as it happened before their very eyes. Hosea, who also prophesied a about seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, said this of the Messiah: After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight (Hos 6:2). But the devoted women expected him to be dead nonetheless. Why? Well, what happened is not a regularly occurring phenomenon, it is not expected. Statistically, it is an aberration. In terms of biology, chemistry, and every type of material cause and effect and can think of, dying and rising are not commonly sequential. The women relied on their experience and knowledge of the material world and therefore expected him to be dead. It took a messenger from God to jolt them into understanding. Again, the words of St Anselm: I believe in order to understand, not the other way around.
One of the Church Fathers (Severianus) wrote “Your breast was darkened, your eyes shut, and therefore ye did not before see the glory of the opened sepulcher.” The Venerable Bede wrote of that “the rolling away of the stone means mystically the opening of the Christian sacraments, which were held under the veil of the law; for the law was written on stone.” Many of the Church Fathers understood the tomb to be an image of the human heart, and an image of human salvation. Severianus wrote that the women “entered the sepulcher, that being buried with Christ they might rise again from the tomb with Christ. They see the young man, that is, they see the time of the Resurrection, for the Resurrection has no old age…”
They beheld an image of the Resurrection, timeless, ageless; they were allowed to peek at eternity, at eternal life in the midst of a tomb. Truly the tomb is an image of our hearts: it is within our hearts that our devotion to Christ must be real. It is within our hearts where all that is earthly must die. It is within our hearts that Christ must rise, and reconcile us with the Father.
Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.