I’ve never gotten the impression that Easter is the great victory people seem to want it to be, the downfall of death and the devil, the whole putting your enemies under your feet thing, the martial language, it is all a very celebratory thing and I guess I just don’t celebrate victory that way, I mean I was glad that the threat of Osama Bin Laden was ended and I was glad that he was gone but I didn’t celebrate his death. By my lights, death comes for everyone and doesn’t need cheerleaders. It was a good thing on aggregate, but the joy felt at this individual’s demise was disturbing to me.
Just so all of the military imagery we get from Paul, who, if I read the scriptures correctly, wasn’t a military man. But he summons up a lot of victory talk, destroying every ruler and every authority and power. It makes it seem as if this were the battle fought in the book of John’s Revelation, a grand clash of armies, good on one side, death on the other across a great battlefield, each side brandishing weapons of war.
It invites us, I think, to view ourselves as marching in the victorious parade, ticker tapes a-flying.
It is a time for shouting, for great gouts of breath expelled in joyful song and praises. This is no time to hold anything back.
If you need to see what this might look like, or indeed does look like, then go to your computer, I almost said “go to the library,” but then came to my senses; go to your computer and look up the word “Crusades” and see what it is when whole nations come to think of themselves as warriors for God, defenders of the faith, slayers of the unbelievers for the cause of Christ.
Slayers for the cause of the Prince of Peace. Is that too “spelled out” to be considered ironic?
I think that people like that sense of camaraderie, that feeling of being together in common cause because we want to be on the winning side. As soon as I thought that line the Oingo Boingo song “The Winning Side” popped into my head. “Everyone is cheering for the winning side, children leave their homes to join the Winning Side when Jesus comes he’ll march on with the Winning Side.”
We tell people, when we talk about our local sports team we use the plural “we” all the time as if we were out there swinging the bat or blocking for the running back. There is a thrill in being a part of the action and we all want to be a part of the action.
But for me, after the long Lenten holding of the breath, the expectation and self-examination, the seeking after meaning and purpose, the quiet time of fellowship and gathering together for simpler pleasures, well after all of that, Easter morning is the big exhale, such a release this morning.
We can return to our lives for another year.
Okay, after our kids’ sugar high and then inevitable sugar crash from all of that chocolate, then we can return to our lives.
Not as victorious Holy Warriors, no matter how attractive the winning side is it is a poor description of who and what we truly are this morning, staring into the open tomb in wonder and amazement.
It is instead as if we were watching the big game on one channel and on another side of the world, something happened that changed our lives forever and nobody noticed because it wasn’t well lit, and there weren’t commentators already standing by, and nobody issued a press-release beforehand.
Like a thief in the night, it happened and the disciples finally told the story and the world finally heard about it, but it happened for us, and not with us, no matter how pleased it might make us feel to have been included in the battle.
The important stuff happened more quietly anyway.
We may sing, “This is the feast of victory for our God” but it is probably more realistic for us to think about the feast and not so much about the victory. Jesus never did pull the flaming sword of God’s righteousness and Jesus never did lead the Israelites to victory over the Romans and God’s anger at Mankind’s sinfulness never did find any other satisfaction than in the cross and we wake up the next morning, after watching the big game, and can only stare in awe at the open tomb, its mouth gaping as if something had been snatched from it, as indeed something was.
We were snatched out of it.
So we exhale into that moment, after the long Lenten contemplation of our gratitude and we finally come to see that while we were looking the other way, a bridge was built, a gate made between us and heaven, a debt we owed was paid and we are freed in an instant, an instant we weren’t even attentive to.
The open tomb is the signpost for us, the remnants of the night-before’s activities, like keg cups and cigarette butts marking where a party once was, so stands the empty tomb like a cairn of stones from older times, it marks the spot where something happened, a guide-post for others to see and to wonder at, maybe someday to understand.
As if it were a mouth from God it speaks to us and tells us the story of death, how it was once the fearful ravager of the countryside, scooping up all in its eternal wake, laying waste to the efforts of mankind, laying waste to everything it encountered and how, in only three days, its power crumbled and fell. Sure, it could still claim the ones you loved, but that would no longer be the end of them, they would rise as the one who once laid inside this tomb arose and is no longer here for us to find.
The first to find the tomb were the women, naturally. If there was work to be done, you would naturally expect the women to be about that business. Seriously, until Paul comes around, all you ever hear about these guys is what they used to do, nothing about what they did for a living while they followed Jesus.
Mary comes in this morning’s reading from John, Luke just describes “the women” not for sentiment but for a purpose. Death is a known thing and they know what comes next. In three days the body begins to decompose and since they do not bury people under the ground but rather in tombs carved out of the rock, there is little in the way of people noticing that the body has begun to decompose.
So the work for the day is to bring spices and incense and other fragrant things to the tomb, to make allowances for death, to do the feeble little things we did once, when Death was master of life and we had no other option. We tried, the women in this morning’s Gospel tried to cover it up and make it “not so bad.”
So they too are holding their breath. It is not a pleasant duty so they hold their breath. It is a smelly thing so they hold their breath, they have been with Jesus so long and their loss is profound and so they hold their breath.
Unlike us, who are allowed to let the breath out slowly, with measured gratitude and love, it is driven from them by the shock of the empty tomb, by the enormity of the failure of their expectations to paint a picture of what they were to find. Everything they knew to be true is tossed aside while they slept. All of their grief and all of their pain masked the words Jesus had spoken to them about rebuilding the temple in three days and so when they get there, the breath is driven from them and the words return to them.
They do not yet believe, but they are breathless nonetheless.
They cast about, still trying to make the new reality fit into their old understanding, they ask for the body, they look at the linen wrappings, they want to know where the body went and they are still holding their breath because they cannot quite grasp the truth yet. They still think that they know what reality is and that they understand everything.
Sound like anybody else you know? Sound like everybody else you know?
The action, this great battle that the prophets of old wrote about, that was supposed to be how things changed. This thing here, this empty tomb? We don’t get that, we’re not a part of it, we’re still holding our breath and waiting for the real battle to begin so we can be on the winning side.
On Ash Wednesday we all took a big inhale for the wait to come. Lent began and we did not feel the blessing of God’s forgiveness pronounced upon us for all of Lent. It was still there, have no fear, but like Christians of old it is something you appreciate more for its absence and upon its return it is fresh and new again in our estimation.
Ash Wednesday is the big inhale as the story begins to unfold, the “battle” waged solely in the pages of the Bible because we are far removed from its actual waging, the actual work of salvation is removed from us, more removed even than the exploits of our sports teams.
We inhale so that we can feel the pressure again, the pressure we haven’t felt since Jesus made a way for us, since that hour we first believed as the hymn goes.
We live in the aftermath, in the great understanding, the freedom won on the cross just a few days ago in our church year, but a million miles away in reality. It is so ingrained in us that we might very well take it for granted and most of us probably do, but when those ashes touch our skin, left over from the celebrations of Palm Sunday the previous year, they are a reminder of how far we have come, of how far Jesus came to get us, those ashes bring us all back to the beginning and we inhale and hold our breath for a while.
We have walked the final days of Jesus, we have heard him speak, we have felt the water washing our feet as we felt not just the blessing of service and of being served but also the return of forgiveness because as we learn what forgiveness means, we learn what service truly is and we gladly, gleefully kneel and give to one another the sign of love that Jesus commended to us.
We knelt at the cross on Friday, illuminated here on the floor and considered the sacrifice, the oddest of all victories, the bloodiest of all victors, the deliverance that came while we were expecting something else. There were tears, even in this jaded age.
And this morning we allow ourselves a long, leisurely exhale. Not the guys, they are too busy recovering from their early morning pancake exploits, but their time will come. But the rest of us are finally at the end of the journey, through the Hosanna’s and the ashes that come from such shallow praise through the journey toward the cross, to the meal of giving and love, the blessing of Mary and the washing of the feet of the disciples through the climb to Golgotha and the kneeling we have come, holding our breath.
Today we exhale, the battle, such as it was, is done.
With alleluias galore we welcome the new life that was won in this most odd of battlefields, the flesh of Christ and breathe freely again as if for the first time.
Peace is ours. Hope is ours. Assurance, blessed assurance is ours. Christ is ours and so everything else is ours as well. And it happened while we were holding our breath, waiting for something else, something more in keeping with some of the language in the scriptures.
But ours is a crafty God, and the surprises God has for us, well they are all joyous. Christ is risen!