Jeremiah 31:1-6; Matthew 28:1-10
Easter is a day of joy, when the alleluias hidden for Lent can be taken out, dusted off, and raised with all our heart. Those alleluias went missing a long time ago.
At last, this is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it! A day filled with flowers and song and feasting, when the earth itself shows signs of renewed life.
“Tis the spring of souls today,” John of Damascus said on an 8th-century Easter morn, “Christ has burst his prison, and from three days’ sleep in death as a sun has risen.”
There’s good reason to rejoice. Love reigns this day: “Where, O Grave, is your victory? Where, O Death, your sting?”
Why not do what the prophet Jeremiah proposes: “Take tambourines, and go forth in the dance of merrymakers.” Ring the bells! Ring the Easter bells!
But that’s not quite what happens the first Easter dawn. No one that morning mentions the spring of souls. The primary response to the empty tomb is fear. No one even attempts an alleluia. When the stone rolls away, the guards are so afraid they become “like dead men.”
Likewise, the two Marys are so terrified the angel has to tend to them before getting to the good news of resurrection. “Do not be afraid,” is the first thing the figure in dazzling white says, rather than an enthusiastic and straightforward “Christ is risen!”
After the angel calms them and the women learn that Jesus has been raised, only then does joy begin to percolate. But when they leave to go spread the news, they bump into the risen Jesus – and their fear returns. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus has to say, before telling them about what has happened.
From a close reading of Matthew’s gospel, the resurrection is as much about freeing people of their fear as it is a celebration of life conquering death. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe Easter is not only about the defeat of death, but also the defeat of fear.
That’s good news to us in our time, because we are anxiety-ridden people. We’re like the guards at the tomb – so afraid we can hardly move. So afraid, we can’t listen to one another and, therefore, assume the worst of each other. So afraid, we can’t ask for or offer forgiveness, even to those we love. So afraid, we have trouble hearing the truth about race in this land. So afraid, we avoid the hard work of discussing reparations and ending poverty and pursuing justice. So afraid, we can’t find the courage to get serious about slowing down climate change. So afraid, we give up too easily in trying to stop gun violence.
Living with all that dread is debilitating, exhausting, and hope-depleting. No wonder there isn’t much joy that day, or, perhaps for many of us, this day; it is smothered by fear. If what we hear from the angel and from Jesus is true – that Easter marks the defeat of fear – then this day liberates us from the trepidation trap in which we have long been snared.
In her poem Don’t Hesitate, Mary Oliver invites wants us to give joy a chance.
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give into it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
Sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. That sounds like what God says through the prophet: “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”
That sounds like Easter. Do not be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
Do not be afraid, the angel and Jesus both say at the tomb. We first hear that in the story of the birth of Jesus. Angels appear to Zechariah, to Joseph, to Mary, to the shepherds, and in each instance, before the heavenly messengers can deliver their news, they feel compelled to say, do not be afraid. This is good news of great joy. Don’t be afraid of its plenty.
During his ministry Jesus constantly addresses people’s fear. Do not be afraid, he says to the fishermen when he calls them to follow. Do not be afraid he says when he comes across the water on a stormy night. Do not be afraid he says to people as he heals them. Do not be afraid he says up on the mountaintop. He even says it on Palm Sunday as people worry about him riding a donkey into the city.
Why are we so afraid? Why are we so unwilling to step out of our own safe circles and put into action what we say we believe? We’ll make mistakes, but that’s how we learn. Why can’t we muster the courage to do what we know is right, in our personal relationships or in the community? Why are we afraid to trust those we love, or strangers, or ourselves, or God?
An Easter faith is willing to take risks and trust the plenty in joy and justice. If we want to love and to live in the way of the risen Jesus, whether in our families, church, workplace, school, community, or in the global village, then we’re going to have to be Easter people, and let go of our fear and learn to share the plenty with others.
You may have seen in the news recently that a number of prominent white Minnesota business leaders who’ve long talked about supporting racial equity recently came to a new conclusion about how to pursue that aim. After taking the lead themselves and not making much progress over many years, they’re now de-centering themselves and following the direction of Black leaders in the community. Together they’ve created something called the Alliance of Alliances and are developing a decade-long plan to address racial disparities. It’s a new sign of hope.
If ever we needed Easter, if ever we needed to get out those alleluias and share the plenty, this is the year.
Easter marks the end of one time and the start of another. Before, we were afraid; now, fear has been defeated. Before, there was Good Friday and suffering, before, there was the cross and death; now, Easter and an empty tomb and a risen Jesus have brought new life and resurrected hope. The power of Easter is not merely living into the joy of what is now, though. It springs from remembering what was before.
And this year we must remember.
We cannot forget how death came on an unimaginable scale, from a pandemic that ravaged human communities everywhere. The numbers are staggering – now approaching 130 million cases and 3 million lives lost in 192 countries around the globe – in only 12 months. Almost a quarter of those deaths – 550,000 – happened right here in the U.S. (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-51235105)
And Covid is still very much with us. We’re pre-recording this Easter service because of that reality. With vaccinations increasing there’s light at the end of the Covid tunnel, but we are still in the tunnel and cannot become complacent.
And then there’s the trial happening just blocks from here. We must remember that part of this past year, of these many past years, of these many past centuries, in fact, of racial injustice in America. The whole world is watching. In this Easter moment, when we can move beyond the way things have been to the way things might be, will we give up our fear of one another and our resistance to change so that the plenty is given a chance to be enjoyed by all?
After what we all have been through, and as a way to lead us into the future, we need a religious festival that stares down death and celebrates life. Easter is the clear signal that hope has arrived in the form of a promise of love stronger than the grave, a love that defeats even fear.
Every Tuesday for the last 16 years, poet Maya Stein has written a ten-line poem and posted it on the Internet. Last October – halfway through this year of Covid and racial pandemic – she wrote:
When we get through this, I want us to set a table with all of the loaves of bread we’d practiced in our quiet houses. I want us clutching fistfuls of the cilantro we coaxed from our city windowsills, and I want the nascent musicians, the ones who learned old songs on their new ukuleles, or warbled choruses on isolated balconies, to take the stage together. I want all the knitted, crocheted, stitched, and mended things pooled at our feet, warming our ankles. I want us to greet each other in unfamiliar languages, to tell the stories of those who have been lost. I want us to look, in unison, toward the world millions of miles and light-years away, to take in what is before us, and beyond us. I want us to wake to the magnitude of our fortune against the smallness of our time. And then I want us to remember this, and to keep remembering.
Easter happens because it’s connected to what came before, when we remember what we have done and who we have been. Only then – when we can hear and trust the words, Do not be afraid – can we live into the joy of this day.
This table is set with that joy, the plenty of bread and cup. We come to this meal to remember, and to proclaim: Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God.