The Third Day ~ Phyllis Levin
When they came to the tomb
What did they see?
Only what they could not say.
Too empty, too cold
To say what they saw,
Too full to say empty
And cold, but full.
They said what they said,
Saw what they saw,
And knew they could not
Say what they saw.
They did not know
That whatever words they found
To say would fill the world
With those very words,
The best they could find
In that place, that time,
When all words fail or fall.
After the stone is rolled away,
After the sky refuses to reply,
Comes the heaviness of being here.
For centuries, before live-streamed movies, Google, and audible books, ancient people relied on story tellers and poets for news and entertainment. The guardians of the oral tradition were prolific storytellers. They served as the keepers of wisdom and folklore, adding new details as they learned them. As a story was repeated, the simplest tale was transformed into an amazingly embroidered account of fantastic adventures, with richly detailed characters and poetic language. The oral tradition is the source of all of our scripture, Hebrew and Christian, and serves as the foundation of our faith.
It can be disconcerting when different accounts of the same biblical events do not always match precisely, that many events are not readily explainable, that history is inconsistent. Such is our life. When we hear scripture stories as our community’s wisdom and tradition, however, we may want to listen for the lesson they intend to impart. These accounts of God’s action in human history are not intended to be audited like a financial report. The Word of God was not given or received as dictation. The scriptures are, in fact, crammed with metaphor and symbolism and poetry, as well as factual events remembered from multiple perspectives. That is the reason we have chosen literary paraphrases for the usual vigil lessons this evening. In the Easter Vigil, we hear the bedtime stories of our salvation, teaching us who God is, who we are, and in what ways our stories are stories of blessing.
We heard great stories this evening.
The story that the Holy One created all that is. And the created world is good. So good.
The story that the Holy One shows us the way into new life. The Chosen People remember their escape from enslavement and the destruction of their oppressors as they walked unscathed through the parted waters of the Red Sea.
The story that the Holy One is a God of the living. The prophet Ezekiel has a mystical encounter with the Almighty as he witnesses the resuscitation of the mortal remains of a destroyed army in the desert.
The story of the mystery at the tomb. After Jesus dies and is buried, the women encounter an angel at his empty tomb and they are terrified because they do not understand yet.
Twenty years after the Resurrection, the apostle Paul teaches his disciples that our baptism buries us with Jesus and promises us the same sort of resurrection.
What strikes me about all these lessons from our tradition – all five thousand years of it – is that the Holy One is extremely engaged in the very physical and very fragile existence of the creation. The earth matters to God. We matter to God. All the messy incarnational stuff of life – from the oceans and the stars, to the plants and the critters, and the complex issues of justice and health of humanity – seems to matter to the Creator. It matters enough that the Holy One became enfleshed and dwelt among us, willing to suffer our most devastating loss.
After a year of pandemic-related suffering, loss, and anxiety, we may find ourselves in the emotional locus of the women performing their religious duty after a death: we too have experienced abundant shock and pain and we are a bit overwhelmed. We would prefer no additional surprises, thank you. It has all been so terrifying. Have you wanted to run away recently?
The longstanding tradition of our faith teaches us that the Holy One, who had the power to create everything, does not exercise that power capriciously by controlling or manipulating the creation. Instead, the loving hand and heart of God allow us to exercise our free will and intellect to transform a world disordered by sin. Those things that transgress the laws of nature are rightly labelled miracles: they are objects of wonder which astonish us. Beyond the miraculous intervention of God, there is no possible explanation for Jesus’ return to life. Before seeing him in the flesh, scarred yet inexplicably alive, the women run away, terrified, because his body is gone. Would we do anything different?
We have an advantage because we know more details than the first disciples. We know that when they finally encounter the risen Christ, everything changes. It is amazing, and it is a bit frightening. Resurrection is not resuscitation. A resurrected life is changed not restored to its previous iteration. The Holy One promises us new life, not old life re-heated.
That is good news, because this new life is a blessing. It is bad news, because this new life is, well, new. That is the heaviness of being here. We need to navigate in a different context. We want to move forward, and we wonder how that is going to look. What have we learned about life after a time of tragedy? What does it all mean?
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus promises he will be with his friends to the end of ages. In the Gospel of John, he breathes the Holy Spirit into the room. In the Mark, there is a painful and awkward silence at the end of the story. No divine voice in the garden. No encounter on the road. As uncomfortable as this is, it is entirely applicable this year. We have a mystery to unravel.
We are living the story of the Acts of the Apostles. Our story is that we will move forward cautiously, step by step, with prayer and with attention to our community. We will discern what to do next. We trust that God in Christ is faithful and present among us and that the Holy Spirit will guide us. We trust that the promise of resurrection is our light in a confusing world, shadowed by stories of suffering, sin, and human fragility.
If Jesus rose, all shall be well.
If Jesus rose, there is nothing left to fear.
The story of our life with God continues.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!