April 8th, Easter Sunday

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Well, it’s finally arrived – the high point of the Christian year. Today is Easter Sunday, and, before the procession today, we recited the classic response, when I said: Christ is risen, and you replied: He is risen, indeed. I never realized how ingrained this has become with some people until one year, when I was preaching at St. Brigid’s. It was just after Easter, and I happened to use that phrase in my reflection. I was not prepared for the small congregation to respond, since it WAS part of the sermon, but they did. Now, you need to understand that some of the worshippers at St. Brigid’s have been unable to communicate for years. And yet, somewhere, deep inside, was the response to the sentence, and when I said my part, they replied, without hesitation. This is the great statement of our faith, the fact that he IS risen, that he DID rise, and that we will rise with him.
Easter, as we know it, has come to have many symbols associated with it over the years. The lilies, which you can see in the sanctuary today, are a symbol for several reasons. The patriotic hymn Battle Hymn Of The Republic begins with the words: In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me. So here we have the lilies associated with Jesus’ birth. Of course, we ourselves tend to associate lilies with death, as they are often the flower of choice at funerals. If we put these together, we cannot help but think of Jesus’ death and resurrection – a rebirth, if you will, into the glory that was always his. From my own point of view, the lily, along with other early spring flowers, reminds me that, each year, no matter how long winter is, spring comes again. It is a symbol of hope, a symbol of the joy which is waiting for us, when we are reborn into eternal life.
The symbol I used as part of the children’s story – the egg – is also a symbol of birth. In orthodox denominations, the egg is a huge part of the Easter story. Members of the congregation are given dyed eggs at the conclusion of the Easter Saturday Vigil, and eggs are traditionally served after an Easter Sunday sunrise service. A special Easter bread is made, in which a whole egg – still in the shell – is baked into the dough. When I was a child, and later, when my own children were young, we used to make a big deal out of emptying the egg by carefully punching a hole in each end of the egg, and blowing out the contents. This empty egg, then, was a symbol of the empty tomb which Jesus’ followers discovered on the first Easter morning.
And, of course, let’s not forget the rabbit! The rabbit, along with the lamb, are both connected with Easter. The lamb, aside from being born in the spring, represents Jesus himself, whom we refer to as the Lamb of God, and the Paschal Lamb. As well, the first Easter happened at around the time of Passover, when orthodox Jews would have eaten lamb flavoured with bitter herbs, as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt. And the rabbit became part of the Christian celebration simply because it is also a symbol of life.
How this all translated to chocolate is something that has never been explained to me, but I would assume that it was clever marketing on the part of chocolate makers everywhere, and it has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Which brings us to food. Food seems to be one of the central connecting forces in our church life. Every Sunday, after worship, we gather together for fellowship and food. We have started having regular luncheons, and on special days, we have a potluck, when everyone brings food to share. Communion is another type of meal, based as it is on the Last Supper. And it is obvious to me that food is a central theme in Scripture as well. Our reading from Isaiah on this Easter certainly proves this, as the Lord is promising a feast for all peoples. Note, NOT for the CHOSEN people, but for ALL peoples. Reading it almost makes one ask “What’s for dinner?”
On Easter Sunday, as on other special days throughout the year, many families gather together around a groaning table. If you were to look in just about any woman’s magazine for the month of April, you would find recipes for Easter dinner, and let’s not even talk about what we can see on The Food Network or on any of the cooking shows on network television and other cable channels. You will find recipes for glazed ham with scalloped potatoes – a traditional Easter dinner. For the not-so-traditional diners, you can find recipes for salmon served with assorted salads. And, of course, let’s not forget the hot cross buns, which, in my family, were a staple of Easter breakfast.
According to Isaiah, the meal prepared by the Lord will be no less satisfying than any of the foods we serve at home and in the Kirk Hall. For he will make a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. I noticed, in particular, Isaiah’s elaboration on the food to be served. Not only was it to be rich food, but rich food full of marrow. Now, we in the 21st century tend to avoid eating marrow, because it is not particularly healthy. But, in ancient times, Marrow was essential to a healthy diet, providing as it did, fat which was not available elsewhere. And the wine was not to be just any wine. Rather, it was aged wine, well refined. You see, new wine is not especially tasty. It is sharp to the taste, and should really be left to age so that the taste is more pleasing to the palate. So the Lord is planning to serve a first-class feast to all people, which includes us.
What is so interesting about this text is its placement in the Book of Isaiah. You will remember that Isaiah is actually three books, and the first section, from chapter 1 to 39, is the only one which scholars now believe to have been written by Isaiah himself. In this section, known as Proto-Isaiah, we hear prophecies of doom and gloom; we hear dire warnings. And then, suddenly, Isaiah switches to a hymn of praise, and to a promise that God will swallow up death forever. This is an odd statement to make, especially in the wake of what we know about death. While medical science has found ways to prolong life, we know for sure that it will come to each one of us eventually. Not one person sitting here now will get out of life alive. But Isaiah said that God will swallow up death. Which is exactly what happened on the first Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians, we see proof of this, as Paul talks about the events on that Easter morning, but he doesn’t just leave it there. Rather, this chapter presents the resurrection as the first in a series of events. First came the resurrection, and then appearances to various people, until, in verse 26, we can read: The last enemy to be destroyed is death, and in verse 54: Death is swallowed up in victory. This means that death no longer has any power over God’s people, for we have now become an Easter people.
You will no doubt have noticed that our Gospel reading today ends before the end of Mark’s Gospel. It is believed that this was the original ending of the Gospel, with the women running away from the tomb, full of fear. For us, as an Easter people, this is not completely satisfactory, and some of the early church fathers must have agreed with us. You see, at some point, some member of the Marcan community added another 11 chapters, detailing the early appearances of Jesus. I have often wondered why this was done, and think that maybe it is because Mark wants us to focus on the cross, rather than on the resurrection. After all, the resurrection was more to give us hope. But the cross was the means of our redemption.
Throughout our readings from Mark during the past few months, I have several times mentioned the rapidity with which things happened. It seems that the whole point of the first 13 chapters was to get us as quickly as possible to the passion and death. In fact, Mark’s gospel has often been called The Gospel Of The Cross, because of its focus on the crucifixion. In the book, Preaching Through The Christian Year B, Fred Craddock suggests that Mark’s “accent” on the cross is the very reason that he didn’t include resurrection appearances that might pull focus away from it as the meaning of discipleship: “For Mark, the resurrection served the cross; Easter did not eradicate but vindicated Good Friday”. In all of our Easter finery, in our celebration and our Alleluias, in flowers and white cloths, it jars our sensibilities to be reminded of Good Friday, to think that we worship an “executed God”.
You will have noticed that the reason the women came to the tomb that morning was to anoint Jesus’ body with the spices that were traditionally used for burial It had not been done at the time of burial because there was just no time to do it. They did not expect Jesus to have risen, and they were his devoted followers. Here, as is typical in Mark’s Gospel, we see what is referred to as OUTSIDERS – the women standing near the cross, watching Jesus die – suddenly become INSIDERS – the first to know of his resurrection, and the only ones who were brave enough to venture to the tomb. Remember, Jesus’ followers were also open to persecution, simply because they WERE his followers. So I have to ask myself WHY would they do this? Remember, they had just witnessed a particularly brutal form of execution. Those of you who have seen The Passion Of The Christ will realize that there was nothing pretty about a crucifixion. Most of the pictures and statues of the crucifixion of Jesus don’t come near to capturing the horror of that kind of death.
As followers of Jesus, they must have been totally confused. Whatever they expected from him, this wasn’t it. They had regarded him as their saviour, and now that he was dead – they had no idea what would happen. Remember, they were not yet an Easter people, not yet a people who knew about the resurrection.
So, they go to the tomb, to do the things that need to be done, to show the proper respect for the dead body. But there is no dead body. The tomb is empty, and they are the first people to whom the resurrection is revealed. Again, I can only imagine what they must have been thinking. And you know what? It is no wonder that they ran away. This was something which was completely outside of their experience, something which they could not have possibly imagined. Today, we talk about soldiers returning home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after some horrific experiences, and I would also apply that term to explain the women’s reaction. They just wanted to get away as fast as they could. They wanted to put this all behind them. They saw Jesus die, and now the tomb is empty. Their whole world had changed, in more ways that they could have thought possible.
Let’s leave them, running away in terror, and turn back to the tomb, which had been closed by a large rock. While the women were approaching the tomb, they were discussing this rock among themselves, and wondering whom they could ask to roll it away for them, because it was very large. Mark thought that it was important that we know this about the stone; otherwise, he would not have mentioned it. We can view it as a metaphor for everything which keeps us from faith, for every stumbling block which is put in our way. For each one of us, the stumbling block may be different, but it is something which we all have, or have had at some point.
Theologian Megan McKenna says: we may not want to see or face certain things, but all of us need to remember the path that has brought us this far, and the failures we experienced along the way, just like the disciples so long ago, whether they were cowards, or just clueless, or worse. Remember, after the crucifixion, they huddled together in an upper room, afraid for their very lives. And we, in the 21st century, we may think we know this story of the resurrection, because it is so familiar, so central to the life of the church and the life of faith, but somehow we’ve lost the passion of our youthful enthusiasm for God, no matter what age we became Christians. Mark, McKenna writes, “summons us to return to the intensity of our first commitments”.
When this intensity fades, one of two things can happen. People can start to take their faith for granted, or, worse, they become cynical, and full of doubt. They question things which they once accepted, and don’t seem to be able to move beyond that. No matter how hard they try, they cannot become an Easter people. But there is a way to move from this apathy, this cynicism. Look at the story of the resurrection with fresh eyes. Look at it with the eyes of faith, and God will bring back to life that which has died. What we believe, what we accept with faith – it is that which shapes us, and makes us the people we are. What we believe can open us up to the power of God, or it can blind us to what we can be and to what God can do for us. God can bring good out of evil, love out of hate, and hope out of despair. This is what we believe. And because of what we believe, we are an Easter people! Thanks be to God.


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