Sermon for Easter Sunday
Reading: St John 20:1-10
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!
“He rose in accordance with the Scriptures.” This is what we confess when we recite the Nicene creed, and today the feast is here. Easter is the Feast of feasts and the climax of the Church’s year of grace: The Living Light has beamed into our lives, with warmth, with clarity and with eternal assurance of salvation.
“He rose in accordance with the Scriptures.” I want to dwell on this for a moment, because that little phrase – “in accordance with the scriptures” – is central to why we are here; central, but certainly not self-evident or obvious. Consider for a moment Mary Magdalene, on whom the Great Dawn of the Resurrection cast its first rays if divine light in this morning’s reading, and then two of the disciples. She looked at the stone that had ben rolled away, looked at the empty tomb. The two disciples went into the tomb, found it empty – in accordance with the Scriptures – and then they just sort of went home. There is a feeling of unease in the reading, rather than revelation and jubilation.
How could they not get it? 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, and this morning of grace is always a particularly apt day to recount those prophecies: 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). All this came to pass.
Isaiah, roughly seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, wrote this: Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted, But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed (Isaiah 53:4-5). In Hosea (6:2) it is foretold about Israel and the Messiah that, He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence. God through his prophet Zechariah (12:10) states that when they look on him whom they have thrust through, they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and they will grieve for him as one grieves over a firstborn. The death of the son of man, and his resurrection foretold.
Yet as each of these things happened, no one saw the big picture. No one drew the right conclusions. In the account of the resurrection given by St Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him (Mark 15:1). The Church father Severianus writes about them that “they do not bring him faith as though he were alive, but ointment as to one dead; and they prepare the service of their grief for him as buried, not the joys of heavenly triumph for him as risen.” (Occ. Ap. Chrysologum Serm. 82)
In John’s account, Mary Magdalene and the two disciples just sort of leave the scene. In Mark’s account, the three women run away afraid. Everyone fails to connect the dots – because the meaning of prophecy only becomes clear in the light of the resurrection. It would be unrealistic and unfair to expect this to be instantly clear to the disciples on that first Easter morn. When Jesus said on the cross it is finished (John 19:30), he was referring to his earthly ministry. The man Jesus had been obedient unto death, even death upon a cross – but there was still something unfinished belonging to his divine nature. In the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead.” Or, as the Paschal Troparion of the Eastern Church proclaims, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
The descent into hell and resurrection of Christ change everything. They shed new light upon, and establish an entirely new context for Scripture. New meanings, true meanings, emerge as the veil is removed from our reading – but, again, it would be quite unfair to expect all this to happen on that first Easter morn. An excellent example of the glorious effects of the light of the resurrection is Psalm 88, arguably the darkest and most somber of the psalms. In the words of Fr Patrick Reardon, Psalm 88 (counted as Psalm 87 in the Eastern Church) is “not only darksome in its every line; almost alone among the psalms, it even ends on a dark note” (Christ in the Psalms. Conciliar Press, Ben Lomond, CA, p. 173). In the Divine Office, Psalm 88 is read at Matins in the early hours of Easter Eve. At that point in the Triduum, Jesus has been betrayed, tortured, humiliated, killed. By Saturday morning, there is only the silence of the tomb, the despair of the disciples, sorrow and confusion. And we read the psalmist’s lament:
LORD, the God of my salvation, I call out by day;
at night I cry aloud in your presence.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is filled with troubles;
my life draws near to Sheol.
I am reckoned with those who go down to the pit;
I am like a warrior without strength.
My couch is among the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave.
You remember them no more;
they are cut off from your influence.
You plunge me into the bottom of the pit,
into the darkness of the abyss.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me;
all your waves crash over me.
Because of you my acquaintances shun me;
you make me loathsome to them;
Caged in, I cannot escape;
my eyes grow dim from trouble.
All day I call on you, LORD;
I stretch out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades arise and praise you?
Is your mercy proclaimed in the grave,
your faithfulness among those who have perished?
Are your marvels declared in the darkness,
your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
But I cry out to you, LORD;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why do you reject my soul, LORD,
and hide your face from me?
I have been mortally afflicted since youth;
I have borne your terrors and I am made numb.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day they surge round like a flood;
from every side they encircle me.
Because of you friend and neighbor shun me;
my only friend is darkness.
Mournful and darksome, indeed… but, friends, in the wake of Jesus’ death on the cross, something is happening. Behind the silence, a song of praise can be heard… in the middle of the darkness, a flickering light… The shadows are pushed back, dispelled until, on Easter morning, the bright light of the resurrection fills all of creation. Christ’s descent into hell and his resurrection brings about a new reality. A reality in which this psalm is no longer a mere lament, but a prophecy of a joy. Because Christ has trampled death by death; because he descended into Hell and rose again, the psalmist’s expressions of despair suddenly have a joyful and affirmative answer:
Does God work wonders for the dead? Yes he does!
Do the shades arise and praise him? Yes they do!
Is his mercy proclaimed in the grave, his faithfulness among those who have perished? Are his marvels declared in the darkness and his righteous deeds in the land of oblivion? Yes they are because “He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead.”
In the brilliant light of the resurrection, everything has changed! Everything – and everyone who proclaims the resurrection of Christ. And this, friends, is truly important: this is not an abstract change that happens over there, happens in general, happens somewhere else. It is a change that happens in our heart: if we truly affirm and honestly proclaim faith in the resurrection of Christ, if the brilliant light of the resurrection has dispelled the shadows in our heart, then it follows naturally and inevitably that we are changed. In his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul writes: Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough, inasmuch as you are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor 5:7-8) This is what Easter does: it makes Christians. It changes people into Christians. And Christians, my friends, are people called to love. Easter is a divine calling to love and service. A calling to active compassion and mercy towards their neighbor.
How could it be otherwise? The great drama of the Paschal Triduum takes us through betrayal, violence, death, and darkness, followed by boundless joy and brilliant light in the resurrection. At the same time, the tragic reality of a broken world is that so many of our brothers and sisters in the human family live in a constant darkness of oppression, fear, murder, slavery, war; unable to see or even hope for light and relief. Always Good Friday, never Easter Sunday…
Today, then, as we throw out the old leaven, is a worthy day to ponder those words spoken by Christ when he comes again: Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me (Mt 25:40b). Let us remember that there is no point in contemplating the wounds of Jesus with passionate piety if we go on to ignore the wounds of our neighbor. It is useless to grieve for His death if we are unmoved by the death of countless innocents around us. It serves no purpose to lament the treachery and injustice done to Him if we simply shrug our shoulders at the injustices done to our neighbors – regardless of who they are and where they are. We come out of this feast changed people. There is no other way. “Above all, see Jesus in every person,” said Blessed Charles de Foucauld. There is no other way. If we want the least of our brothers and sisters to have the relief that we have given, then we have to be that relief for them. If we want our brothers and sisters to see the brilliant light of the resurrection that we been allowed to see, then we have to reflect that light. There is no other way.