What joy it is to return to Easter services together, to be able to gather with loved ones and beloved strangers alike to rejoice that: Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
We have missed this, these past two years, huddled around our computer screens in our pyjamas. But on the third Easter Day, we are arisen, and we are here. Thanks be to God!
I do not want to take anything away from that joy: not the alleluias, nor the anthems, nor even the Easter egg hunt. The first Eucharist of Easter, rechristening the altar after its Good Friday burden as a tomb, is always a particularly poignant one for me.
And still, we know that when Jesus rose from the dead, all was not as it had been. There are strange stories of people who loved him closely yet did not recognize him. He had to eat fish in front of them to prove that he was not a ghost.
His body had changed, too. It bore the scars – not even the scars, but the wounds of crucifixion.
We come together as the body of Christ, restored and regathered on the third Easter Day, and we have not escaped the changes of time or the passage of life in between. We come together as the body of Christ, restored and regathered on the third Easter Day since we were scattered by a serious pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 6 million people since it began. And there are ways in which we are not the same.
“No more,” says the prophet, “shall there be … an infant that lives but a few days, … for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth.” Yet our common life expectancy in this country dropped two full years during the first year of the pandemic. We have seen and wept over the infants and children and their mothers and their grandfathers killed in Ukraine. We have buried our own loved ones, quietly or aloud.
“They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord,” says the prophet. Yet our world has seen, continues to see catastrophe, war, and chaos. Our nation continues to reckon with deadly racism, a crisis of democracy and freedom. In the years since we last met on Easter Sunday, gun violence has become the leading cause of death for children and teenagers in this nation. Just last week, an attack on a subway system shocked a city into remembrance of how dangerous the world still can be. Even though nobody died in that incident, lives were altered in those moments, for the wounded and for those who will continue to care for them.
Few of us look the same as we did before we entered the tomb. Yet here, here on the third Easter Day, we are back because we trust that there is resurrection.
Relighting the Paschal candle, fire newly kindled, reminds us that even in life, we know death, but that even in death, there is new life. Jesus, too, was changed by his experience of humanity, of mortality. His descent to the dead means that we, too, have the hope of eternal life.
The prophet promises a way of life that is abundant, peaceful, safe from harm. Paul, writing his epistle centuries later recognizes that we still struggle in an imperfect world, in a world that too often prefers the way of the crucifier to the way of the cross, and Paul reaches instead for hope of the life to come, the promises of heaven.
But Jesus returned to his friends, to his loved ones, to those in need of hope on this earth, in this life, in that place still so badly in need of peace, before he ascended into heaven.
When the angels asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead,” they did not mean that he had left them alone among the tombstones of the world, but that he was even now living and breathing among them, ready to renew their spirits and refresh their joy. He had not, despite everything, given up hope for us.
Yesterday, I took to my flower beds to examine the damage wrought by winter and my own inexpert gardening. I was all ready to pull out the hydrangeas I planted last year, convinced that I had killed them, like so many plants before them. But beneath their Elizabethan ruff of last year’s leaves, I discovered new eruptions of green. They had, it seems, forgiven me, and although they are not in the same shape as when I planted them last spring, they are ready for a new lease on life.
They have forgiven me. They are not in the same shape as before. They are ready to burst out in new life. It was a fine lesson for Holy Saturday.
The new life of Easter, eternal and irrepressible, always unexpected, even though we were told that it was coming, reeking of mercy and forgiveness, not unscarred by experience, but bearing the promise of glory: that is what Jesus brought back with him from the grave, from the tomb, from three days’ separation from our sight.
Except that we never did lose sight of him, did we? Because he had promised us long ago that he will be with us to the end of the age, and we know that nothing as feeble as death nor as evil as sin can keep him from keeping his promises. He is risen!
And so here we are, the body of Christ gathered with our scars and our new wrinkles and our old foibles, ready to roll away some stones and let in new light, wondering what shape this new life that God has ready for us will take; arisen, alive, awake, and ready anyway to greet the Risen One with alleluias.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.