The Holy and the Broken

Service on April 12, 2020
by Stacey Simpson Duke

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This is not the Easter we wanted.


It’s not the April we wanted, not the spring we wanted, not the ending of the school year we wanted. This isn’t the world we wanted.


And right now, some of us are having a hard time imagining ever getting back to a life that looks the way we want.


The truth is, though, that we are probably closer now than we’ve ever been to living into the truth of that first Easter morning.

The world had come to an end for the followers of Jesus. When he rode into Jerusalem, they had hopes of a bright future, a revolution that would recreate the world. By the end of the week, Jesus had been executed by the state, brought down by an unholy alliance between the political establishment and the religious establishment.


His disciples had fled in fear, but the women remained. They had followed him from Galilee and had provided for him. They watched his crucifixion from a distance, powerless to stand there and bear witness to the horror. Two of them, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, accompanied the body to the tomb. They watched as Joseph of Arimathea closed the tomb with a huge stone. Later, Pilate would send soldiers to secure the tomb by sealing the stone; the soldiers stayed and guarded the tomb.


The way Matthew tells it, the two women got up at dawn the day after the Sabbath to go back and visit the tomb. Mark and Luke explain that they intended to continue their burial rituals. But even that would not go the way they’d planned.

When someone you love dies, the trauma of it shakes your whole reality. it ends your world. At least the world as you knew it. You want with everything in you to go back. If you could just move even a few clicks back into the past, when your beloved was still alive, present, physically, palpably present in the world. If you could just go back, wind back reality, just a little….


And as impossible as it is to move backwards, it can feel almost equally impossible to move forwards. How can we keep going? How can we move into the future when our whole world has been blown up?


If you’ve ever been through a significant loss, you know that waking up each morning can be the worst part, as you open your eyes and remember all over again that he’s gone, she’s gone. I’ve heard people talk about the pandemic this way lately, too. Waking up and remembering again that we are shut down, locked in, closed up. The force of the new reality dawns again and again.


After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary woke up again to their fresh grief. They hadn’t been able to do anything to stop his death, but they could at least go honor his body. It’s the most natural thing in the world. They needed to see the tomb. They needed to grieve. They needed to touch the stone. They needed to somehow honor and bless their deceased, beloved friend. They knew he was dead, but they still needed that physical contact.


But trauma compounded trauma. The earth shook. An angel appeared and rolled back the stone. The guards fainted. And Jesus was not there.


Everything that was already hard, everything that was already sad, everything that was already scary has now just been made worse. They aren’t even able to grieve the way they’re supposed to be able to.


And isn’t this our experience, too? It would be hard enough to be worried about illness, but we’re also worried about the healthcare system, and the economy. And our children can’t even go to school. And we can’t even go to church. And people are dying alone. And we can’t even have proper funerals. Any one of those things – any one of our losses – would be hard enough on its own. But each one amplifies the rest. And all of it is made worse by the fact that we can’t even be together. We can’t do the one thing as a community that helps us endure and make sense of things – physically gather and participate in our sacred rituals.


All Mary Magdalene and the other Mary want to do that first morning is be together and grieve, in the physical presence of each other and the tomb, the body. And they are denied even that.


And then the angel has the audacity to tell them not to be afraid.


He follows that by telling them, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here.” – as if that’s supposed to help them not to be afraid – “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”


The angel didn’t roll the stone away to let Jesus out. He was already gone. The angel rolled the stone away to let the women in. The angel rolled the stone away so they could come and see.


Can you imagine? They went to see the tomb and they ended up getting invited to come inside of it. Come into this grave. Come into this place of death. Come into this place where death is supposed to be. Come into the emptiness. Come into this darkness. Come into the space where everything is changed, where even reality itself has been remade. Come into the place where a future you cannot imagine has already begun.


Notice, please, that on this first Easter morning, there are no lilies. There are no trumpets. There is no pipe organ. No choir. No steeple or stained glass. No full pews or parking lots. There are just two women, grieving, standing in the dark, where a body is supposed to be.


This. This. This is what Easter is and always has been. An empty tomb. Not even a body. Not even the physical, reassuring presence of the resurrected Christ. Just an empty space where a body was supposed to be.


This is where resurrection starts – with grief, confusion, emptiness, fear.


And even though the angel told the women not to be afraid, they still feel the full range of their emotions. Matthew tells us they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy. No matter what anyone may tell you, authentic faith is not an either/or proposition. You can be afraid and also joyful. You can be confused and also hopeful. You can be angry and also kind. You can express lament and also praise. Authentic faith is large enough for the word “and.”


So the women go running from the tomb to tell the disciples. And suddenly Jesus meets them and says, “Good morning.” And the first thing they do is touch him. They rush to him and grab hold of his feet and worship him. Their encounter with the full truth of the resurrection – the actual, embodied presence of Jesus – only happened after their time in the emptiness of the tomb; it only happened as they went forward into an unknown future.

We want so much right now for life to go back to “normal.” We want so much for the threat of the virus to be over. For businesses to reopen, for people to get their jobs back, for kids to go back to school. We want to be together again. We want to be able to touch people, to see people. We want to go to church. We want to be able to travel. If only we could just roll back time, just a little bit, stop the horror of what has happened from happening.


But the trauma of the pandemic has shaken our entire reality. Life has changed in previously unimaginable ways. and sometimes, the worst part of it is not knowing when it’s all going to end, so that we can move into some new version of normal. We don’t know what that new version of normal might look like.


So we’re in this surreal moment right now, where reality itself seems wide open. There’s no way back to our old life, but right now there’s also no way forward. Not yet. There is just now. This day. Emptied of normal reality. Emptied of plans on the calendar. Emptied of our rhythms and our rituals.


But this emptiness, this is where resurrection begins. The beginning of the good news starts in a tomb. It starts in a tomb where even death doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to. It starts in the dark space where we’re confronted with the limits of our power and the limits of our imagination and the limits of our faith. We stand in the emptiness of that tomb and realize we can’t control it; we can only bear witness to it. We can only be present to it. We stand inside the emptiness and realize that there is no resurrection without death. And as we stumble forward into a future we can’t predict, we also affirm, there is no death without resurrection.

This is not the Easter we wanted. This is not the world we wanted. This is not the reality we wanted. And we have no idea how life is going to go from here. We don’t know.


But one thing we do know is a truth that starts in the dark, upending even death, before it meets us in the light of a future we can’t imagine. And that truth is this: Christ is risen. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.