What a beautiful start to a beautiful day! As we’ve seen, and felt, and tasted, and heard, Easter is all about joy. The joy of being together, the joy of life—present life, eternal life—and a celebration of arrival at a big moment after a long and difficult journey. It’s a journey that spans not just one lifetime but all lifetimes, and it is the journey of us all as prodigal children—the ones who hid themselves from God in the Garden of Eden. But Jesus finished that story for us, bringing us back into relationship with God, showing us when the stone was rolled away that our life is spirit, eternally one with our Loving Father, and that nothing in this world—not problems, not illness, not troubles, not even the tomb—can hold us back from the joy that is eternally ours. Christ showed us the way. Christ showed us the truth—not only about who he was but also who we are. We are mirrors of that same love and light, appearing now in every life. Our stones will be rolled away one day too. And today is a taste of the joy we feel as we realize that.
The circumstances of our chaotic, confusing world often make it hard for us to see and know that. This is the day we celebrate the living presence of Christ, but we came to understand that only gradually, after going through much heartache and fear and struggle. For much of the story, it didn’t look like things would end well. This loved and loving, peaceable teacher was arrested and then crucified, and along with him, the hopes and dreams of his followers. They had believed he would at some point rise up and become a great leader—perhaps with military might—and lead them out from under Roman rule. Even those who had followed Jesus all along, listening to him, loving him, and traveling with him, harbored hopes that when push came to shove, he would be their leader in a rebellion that would break their bonds of oppression in the name of God.
Of course, that fight, that battle, that resistance never came. That’s not who Jesus was or what he came to teach. Jesus had a much bigger hope in mind than the deliverance of one group, one culture, one generation. And that hope would prevail—and still prevails—even though it is sometimes hard to see with our troubled and worried oh-so-human minds. We can feel hope more easily in our hearts, as a constant pulse when we meet there with God. It makes me think of the Emily Dickinson poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul; and sings the tune without the words, and never stops—at all.”
But after the tragic crucifixion of Jesus, the people were a long way from hope. They were in despair, and for good reason. They weren’t grieving only on a personal level—heartsick over losing a friend and beloved teacher—but they also now realized that their dreams of freedom, their hopes for justice had crumbled as well. Life looked bleak. The promise they’d heard, the change they anticipated had suddenly been snatched away.
But as we all know, God wasn’t done with this story. As God so often does, God was about to once again bring light into the darkness of their experience. We can hear in the verses from Psalms that the writer has experienced this and has even come to expect it in his own life. He knows that in those times when all seems lost, when everything looks bleak, when no solutions can be found, God still—and always—has a plan of love unfolding:
I will exalt you, Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths
and did not let my enemies gloat over me,
Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
you spared me from going down to the pit.
Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people;
praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
When we’re grieving or hurting or struggling, it’s hard if not impossible to hold on to the idea—to hope for the possibility—that rejoicing will come in the morning. That life can get good again. That’s because our minds are filled with the pain of the circumstance we’re living through—whether we’re mourning the loss of someone we love, lamenting a missed opportunity, struggling with ill health, or feeling upset about a difficult relationship. Whatever the trouble is, we get flooded with agonizing emotions, overwhelmed with sadness or frustration or fear, and it can be very hard to lift our heads enough to look around and listen in our hearts for new possibilities. When our present reality is a painful one; it is hard for our minds and hearts to grasp that no matter how bad things look, God is still bringing something good—and maybe as soon as the next sunrise.
When Mary headed to the tomb that morning, she wasn’t expecting anything good to happen. She had no hope of ever seeing Jesus alive again. She was probably reeling with the shock and injustice and pain of it all, feeling angry at the authorities who let this happen, bewildered that her own people had called for Jesus’s death, and anxious about whether they all, as followers of Jesus, would now be pursued and persecuted.
Mary’s task that morning was a sad one—she was taking a collection of herbs she would use to prepare Jesus’s body for burial—and when she got to the tomb, she saw that the huge stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She looked inside and saw that the body of Jesus was gone. The surprise must have shocked her out of her sadness and despair for a moment—it wasn’t what she had expected to see. She ran back to the house to tell Peter and John, and they went quickly to the tomb and saw for themselves—yes, it was true—the stone was rolled away, and Jesus was not there. None of them yet had any idea what this might mean; in their grief and hopelessness, it didn’t occur to them that there might be a joyful, astounding, miraculous reason for things to be unfolding as they were. They didn’t see the fingerprints of God in their upsetting circumstances.
After Peter and John saw the empty tomb, the scripture says, they returned home. And Mary was left there alone, heartsick, with her basket of herbs, not knowing what to do or where to go next. She stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she glanced again into the tomb and saw two angels now sitting where Jesus’s body had been. You might think that Mary would be shocked or excited or at least curious about seeing these two angelic beings sitting there. But scripture doesn’t make note of any reaction—we can’t be sure Mary even realized they were angels. She was still blinded by her grief, imprisoned by her sorrow—her heart was unavailable to hope. When they asked her why she was crying, she told them that someone had taken away her Lord, and she didn’t know where to find him.
After she said this, Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t recognize him as Jesus. Her mind at that moment—filled with upset and painful thoughts—could see only the gardener. He also asked why she was crying and she said, thinking perhaps he’s the one who moved Jesus’s body, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
And what happens next is what I think is one of the most beautiful moments in all of scripture. It’s a snapshot of an experience we’ve all had: the sudden moment God speaks to our hearts or lifts our eyes or helps us see things more clearly or in a new way. The light dawns in the darkness of our struggle, and our hearts know it’s true. Our hearts know God is there, helping us, loving us. “Jesus said to her: Mary.”
This, finally, was the moment that cut through the fog of Mary’s grief and despair, that raised her thoughts above the injustice and anger and fear the events of the last few days had brought. It was the voice of Christ, speaking her name—a sound, a word, a love she recognized beyond anything this world could offer. She saw, heard, and knew the truth of God’s living presence with her when he called her by name. “Mary.”
In our circumstances, too, God calls our names, sometimes in surprising ways, to help us see that Christ is present, right in the middle of what may seem like the most unlikely of circumstances. Right in the middle of our fear, when we feel isolated and alone. Just when we are despairing about the state of the world, giving up hope for peace, struggling with ideas of injustice, worrying about an illness or a family member or a friend. Right there, in the center of the upset, chaos, confusion, and uncertainty; that’s where God is, calling our names, helping us, loving us.
In the places we hurt the most, the people we dislike the most, the dreams we’ve given up for lost, there God is, asking us to look again and see God’s fingerprints—find God’s presence—right there where God doesn’t seem to be. Christ points the way for us to find that bigger hope—an unlimited hope that spreads beyond our personal circumstances and goes everywhere it is needed: repairing broken hearts, broken relationships, broken ideas all the world around by reuniting us with our all-loving eternal Father, present with us here and now. That’s the work of Christ as it has been, is now, and ever will be.
Perhaps that is what George Fox was pointing to when he wrote,
“Sing and rejoice ye children of the day and the light; for the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt: and the Truth doth flourish as the rose, and lilies do grow among the thorns and the plants atop the hills, and upon them the lambs doth skip and play.”
How could Fox offer such a hopeful vision of encouragement when Friends in his time were being imprisoned and tortured and, in some cases, put to death for their faith? Like the psalmist, Fox had learned in his own experience, during his own time of depression and despair, that Christ comes to teach each of us himself, leading and loving, healing and guiding, without fail. Even now, Christ is standing outside the tomb where we mourn what we’ve lost, waiting for us to notice. God has another answer. God’s fingerprints are there.
Perhaps this Easter we can celebrate in a new and more immediate way the living presence of Christ with us—not entombed in the past, not a prisoner of ritual and dogma, not an ornate figure affixed to a cross on a church wall—but the real and living presence of love and wholeness and a truth so sweet, so gently insistent, that it will sooner or later free us of all our limited beliefs about God, about ourselves, and about each other. Christ brings the hope we need in order to find “that of God” in all the world, one empty tomb at a time.
I’d like to close with a prayer called the World Peace Prayer. It was first offered publicly by Mother Teresa in 1981. And every day at noon, all around the world, people of all faiths and no particular faith say this prayer to help bring about an era of peace and hope in our world:
Lead me from death to life,
from falsehood to truth;
lead me from despair to hope,
from fear to trust;
lead me from hate to love,
from war to peace.
Let peace fill our heart,
our world, our universe.
May it be so, with Christ—so tenderly close—as our personal guide, today and every day. Happy Easter, Friends.
- OT Psalm 30: 1-5
- NT John 20: 11-18
- Fox, George. The Journal of George Fox. https://www.google.com/books/edition/A_Journal_Or_Historical_Account_of_the_L/CRMFAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover
- World Peace Prayer. https://liturgy.co.nz/reflections/world-peace-prayer