Readings: Isaiah 42:5-9, John 20:1-18, Secrets of Heaven 2916 (see below)
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Thumbnail photo: Johannes Plenio on Pexels
Dear Friends, how wonderful it is to be together on Easter after two years of celebrating Easter online. I cannot be more grateful for the ways that you have continued to show up for our community during these past two years. And boy, what a two years it has been!
I don’t know about you but I certainly do resonate with Mary Magdalene, wandering around crying outside of the tomb, knowing that something is off, something big and strange has happened, but doesn’t quite know how to process it. Where is Jesus? Where have you taken him? Please tell me where you have put him!
We ourselves might well likewise be asking these days: Where have you taken my stability, my certainty, my energy, my faith in humanity, my hope for a better future? It’s been a tough few years, full of loss and change. We’ve had a lot revealed to us, and this revealing is still happening. We are discombobulated. Recent articles point to the uptick in crime during the pandemic, we note a decline in teenage mental health (likely exacerbated but not caused by the pandemic), we note seemingly intractable political divisiveness, we note the rise of brazen authoritarianism around the world, we note a closing window of time to mitigate climate change.
Yes, we are back together, but we also may well feel traumatized and off-balance and anxious, and thus Mary is our perfect avatar today.
And yet, the bleakness that I have just described is not the only story. According to the World Happiness Report, and quoted as follows (on Twitter) by University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant:
The untold story of 2021: people became kinder. Global rates of helping strangers, volunteering, and giving to charity are nearly 25% above pre-pandemic levels. The dominant response to suffering is not selfishness. It’s compassion. The worst of times bring out the best in us.
The resurrection of Jesus tells the same story, a story in which trauma, violence, and cruelty do not have the last word, a story in which God births life within that which seems dead, a story that allows for hope where we did not dare to have any.
And what a balm it is to hope. In the face of all the suffering in our lives and in the world, brought so quickly and acutely into our awareness now via our newsfeeds, what a relief to know that we can hope in humanity, that overall, when tested, humanity reacts with compassion over fear and selfishness. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that is the case.
And so we resonate also with Mary’s tearful surprise and joy: Rabboni! Teacher! Life appears into a space where all seemed lost, where it seemed impossible.
But almost as quickly as that joy is expressed, Jesus appears to put a damper on it. Do not hold on me, he says, the greek implies a kind of clinging. On the face of it, it seems callous - why curtail Mary’s joy? Why prevent her from embracing her beloved teacher, it seems such a natural and poignant impulse. And it was certainly not because Jesus didn’t want to be touched - he later would invite a doubting Thomas to touch his wounds. Jesus gave Thomas what he needed in that moment, and likewise Jesus gives Mary (and perhaps us) what she needs in her moment as well, as much as we might not want to hear it.
A natural reaction to good news in the midst of a crisis is the hope that things can now go back to what we considered to be normal. To the extent that a crisis, by definition, is an interruption of a preferred state, well, of course we want to return to that preferred state. Remember life before covid existed? Before the loss of 980,000 Americans and 6.2 million people worldwide? Many of us would give much to go back to that time.
But we can’t. Not only because time only flows one way, but because we have been changed by our experiences. We have been changed by what we have seen, we have been changed by what has been revealed to us. The fragility of our democracy and a peaceful world order, the depth of systemic racism and discrimination, the inter-relatedness of our supply systems, the nearness of many to hunger, homelessness, and loneliness. And to the many who had never noticed these things before, we have had our privilege revealed to us as well. We can’t go back to the way things were, and we shouldn’t want to.
Easter Sunday was never meant to erase Good Friday. So it is my preference not to describe Jesus as conquering, defeating, or vanquishing death. He did die, he didn’t escape it. We are *supposed* to remember what happened to Jesus at the hands of the powerful, even on this day. What he did do though, was demonstrate that death, that suffering, is never the final word. This is what we celebrate. We celebrate that global rates of compassion are up 25% and did we have any right at all to expect that, to hope for that? We celebrate that people of good conscience put on masks and sacrificed gathering together for the sake of each other’s health. We celebrate that healthcare workers and teachers worked twice as hard to take care of us all and our children, and scientists doubled down to develop a vaccine at lightning speed. We celebrate scores of people who showed up for each other, who created ways to support each other. These are miracles.
Because this, again, is the resurrection story writ large. Jesus rises from the tomb inside our own hearts and minds when we take the realizations that crisis has created within us and we use that insight, these new hearts of flesh, to make things better. Jesus did not rise from the dead to make us happy; he did it so humanity would understand that even from the shame and the pain of the crucifixion there could still come life; that God’s divine design never leaves us anywhere so dark that light cannot exist.
So, the resurrection that we celebrate today is not only a joy but a challenge. For Mary, she would come to understand that Jesus couldn’t stay, and that it would be up to Jesus’ followers to build a movement that embodied Jesus’ teachings. And now we, in the face of our own resurrection, our own return to the somewhat familiar (for now), what will God’s challenge to us be? If, in the moment of embracing Jesus, Mary dared to hope everything would be as it was, Jesus gently reminded her that she was to take this miracle and live it forward, not backward. And so it is with us, in every resurrection of life that we experience, large and small, God is calling us into new life, and that new life gives us an opportunity to love more and better and stronger. As we heard in our Swedenborg reading, we live out the Easter story on a metaphorical level over and over with each crisis in our lives; in our tradition we call that regeneration, and the rest of the world might call it spiritual growth. Either way, it is God’s gift to us. In our Isaiah reading, God has new things to declare; the question is are we listening?
Mary, to her credit, listened to Jesus right away, when he told her not to hold on. I’m quite sure I would have needed more persuading than that. But the text then tells us that "Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” May we all be as responsive and resilient as she.
5 This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8 “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
Secrets of Heaven #2916
The reason it means life…is that angels, who possess the internal sense of the Word, have no other concept of a grave, because they have no other concept of death. Consequently instead of a grave they perceive nothing else than the continuation of life, and so resurrection… Now because 'burial' means resurrection, it also means regeneration, since regeneration is the primary resurrection of a person, for when regenerated they die as regards their former self and rise again as regards the new.