Homilyfor Easter Vigil, March 26, 2005, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
The Power of Easter
Americans like us don’t put much stock in miracles. Most of us are a pragmatic, down-to-earth lot. Give us cold, hard facts, something we can measure, predict, and – best of all – control. Scientific proof is what we like: objective evidence, the laws of nature, reason, logic, a universe whose workings can be grasped by the human mind.
Miracles violate scientific proof. They fly in the face of the laws of nature. They make light of reason and logic, and blow apart the constructions of our minds. We may come to church on Easter. We may come to church every Sunday of the year. But something in us likes to whisper: just don’t go too far with this stuff. Miracles aren’t really real. Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. It’s obviously impossible. There’s got to be a logical explanation. Maybe some disciples came in secret and stole the body so that they could point to the empty tomb and claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. Or maybe Jesus was only in a coma when he was taken down from the cross, and eventually recovered. Or maybe the story of the resurrection is only that: a story, a metaphor, a legend – and nothing more.
Into this rational, skeptical world explodes the miracle of the first Easter: an earthquake–an angel bright as lightning, who rolls away the stone–an empty tomb–two women overcome with terror and joy–the discovery that Jesus is alive. This is no petty miracle, no bizarre story straight from the local tabloid or a consumer item like MiracleWhip or Miracle-Gro that we can buy for a few bucks, use up, and throw away. This is the miracle that makes a difference, the miracle that the powers that rule this world tried in vain to prevent, and that they try to this day to deny.
Matthew’s account of the Resurrection begins and ends by describing how Pilate and the religious authorities try to keep the miracle at bay: to stop it from happening in the first place and, when it happens anyway, to hide it. A squad of Roman soldiers seal up the tomb and stand guard before it. As Pilate had ordered them, they make the tomb secure. But human efforts to prevent the Resurrection are impossible. God’s life, God’s power bursts forth. In a wonderful touch of irony, the guards, who are there to guarantee the finality of Christ’s death, become themselves “like dead men,” terrified by the new life that has been unleashed before their very eyes. The miracle has taken place. Nothing can stop it. The religious and civic authorities are shocked, and, as Matthew tells it, they rush to set up an elaborate scheme of bribes and lies to conceal the news as best they can.
It should come as no surprise that Jesus’ enemies did everything in their power to destroy Jesus and his works, including, above all, the fact of his resurrection. The Resurrection is a miracle that makes a difference.
If Christ is alive, then there has been unleashed into our world a power that is greater than death, a source of love and energy and hope that nothing and no one can destroy.
If Christ is alive, then there is no suffering we can endure, no anguish we can bear, no loss or disappointment we can undergo, which Christ himself does not suffer with us.
If Christ is alive, then we are, each one of us, equally beloved and cherished by God, and drawn irresistibly to create new forms of community that overturn the systems of rank and privilege and domination that divide us and set us against each other.
If Christ is alive, then there is no need to settle for a life that is under-girded and overshadowed by the nagging fear of death.
If Christ is alive, then eternal life begins not at the end of time, nor on our deathbed, but right now.
If Christ is alive, then eternal life exists on both sides of the grave, and we are invited to enter the life and light and power of God right now.
If Christ is alive, then we are free to be our largest, truest selves: a people free to be vulnerable, free to be generous, free to fall in love with life.
If Christ is alive, then there is nothing more real than love, nothing more true than love, nothing more enduring than love.
The Resurrection is a miracle that makes a difference, but it is not a miracle that ignores the reality of suffering or the fact of death. The first Easter did not come in soft pastel tones, shrink-wrapped in plastic. Jesus despaired and groaned and bled on the Cross. His suffering was real and his death was real. Our faith has nothing to do with wishful thinking, with gazing off fondly into space and imagining away the suffering and brutality of the world. Our faith looks squarely into suffering and brutality, and discovers that God accompanies us even here, when we are frightened or overwhelmed, confused or ashamed. In the crucified and risen Christ we find a love that grieves with us, that comforts us and empowers us, a love that is infinite and that will never let us go.
We all have times of doubting that miracles can happen. That’s OK. What actually took place on that first Easter no one really knows. God is not afraid of our doubts, and it is good to question, to test, to explore for ourselves what this miracle might mean. At their best, our minds are dim and the ways of God are a mystery: no wonder our intellects balk and our words stumble if we try to “explain” the Resurrection! But I am convinced that Jesus’ rising from the dead is one miracle that can’t be assessed and understood from the outside: we can only know its reality and power if we dare to step inside it and make Jesus’ resurrection our own. The Resurrection is not just something that happened once, two thousand years ago. Nor is the Resurrection something that happened only to Jesus. Christ has been raised, and we have been raised: eternal life is a present reality, not just a future possibility. It’s not enough just to gaze on the Resurrection from afar: this is not only Jesus’ miracle, it is our miracle, too, a miracle that we are invited to make more real every day of our lives, a miracle that we will know in full when we pass at last through the weakness and helplessness of our own death.
In the quiet joy of this night, maybe you hear the sound that rings out as Easter dawns–not only here in Amherst, but across the United States and around the world. There is an Alleluia springing up today from the depth of the human spirit. Today, as Easter dawns on the earth, in our different languages and liturgies Christians around the world remember the history of God’s love affair with creation. God has loved us since the beginning of time, guiding us safely through the Red Sea, across the wilderness, and through the darkness – and the light of Christ will carry us safely home. This miracle is God’s miracle. It is our miracle, too, God’s gift to us in Christ.
O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?
My friends, we have been set free.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed!