What Is So Good About Easter?
March 27, 2005
It is Easter. But it seems like we were celebrating Christmas only yesterday. Now I know that Easter comes early this year, but I don’t think that the early date is the whole of the explanation. The truth is that Christmas remains in our minds because it is easier to celebrate Christmas than Easter. Look at the Christmas story. It is clear; it is peaceful; it is well defined. In the Christmas story, you know where Jesus is—he is in the manger. You can say, “Look, there is where to find him. See him, touch him, love him.” Easter is more elusive, more nebulous. There is very little of serenity and peace in the Easter stories. Instead we find people scurrying about, frightened, conflicted, confused.
Look at the images of Christmas: a star, a silent night, shepherds in the fields, a lovely baby, a mother’s constant care. Then look at the images of Easter: grieving women, an earthquake, angels pushing stones around, and Jesus suddenly appearing and then as easily disappearing. You can focus on Christmas. You can see the baby. You can sense the peace and the love. But Easter is more difficult to take in. Easter challenges us to believe. It dares us to accept a goodness that is greater than anything we could imagine.
What is that goodness? What is the good news of Easter? It is important that we get this straight. Yes, it begins with Jesus’ resurrection, but that is not the whole story. It starts on the first Easter Sunday, but it does not end there. From the earliest times, Christians have believed that Jesus’ resurrection was only the first step in a much larger plan of God, a plan to establish the kingdom of God. In God’s kingdom evil would no longer exist. Jesus’ resurrection was the first step in God’s action to eliminate evil, suffering, and pain from our midst. It is only when we understand that, that we understand why Easter is good news for us, why we sing Alleluia today. We rejoice on Easter because we believe that God has begun to eliminate the evil from our world.
Now that is the truth of Easter, but it is a hard truth to accept. It is no wonder that so many people are more comfortable with the simpler and smaller truth of Christmas. To believe that God is in our world destroying evil, that God has begun to eliminate all suffering and pain from our midst, is a large step to take, a big truth to swallow. Any one of us could say, “Look at the wars and violence present in our world. Are you telling me that God has begun to establish the kingdom? Look at the misunderstandings between countries and in the pain within my own family: manipulation, self-interest, unresolved hurts. Are you telling me that God is destroying the evil in my world? Look at how I struggle with fear and sickness and loss. Are you telling me that Jesus’ resurrection really makes a difference?”
You see, the challenge of Easter is that we believe that God has begun to destroy the evil of the world even as that evil still continues around us. It is no wonder that it is so difficult to accept the truth of Easter. It is no wonder that Easter remains for so many a weak sister to Christmas. We must be courageous enough to believe in the hopeful truth that God is establishing the kingdom, that God is conquering death.
How do we do it? How can we swallow the difficult truth of Easter? St. Augustine comes to the rescue. St. Augustine says, “Give me a lover and you will understand the resurrection.” Give me a lover and you will understand the resurrection. Augustine is right. The truth of Easter, the truth of the resurrection, is something that can only be seen with the eyes of love. You cannot reason to it. You cannot argue to it. You can only accept the truth of Easter when you enter a relationship, when you accept that God loves you as a son or daughter. It is then that you see clearly, that you understand deeply something that you could never comprehend merely with your mind.
Now, you can test this through your own experience. Think of a time in your life when you truly loved another human being. Think of a moment when that love was tangible and real. Was there not a mystery in that moment? Was there not a gift that you could never completely explain? You still saw all the things that were present in your life before, but did not love make them different, deeper? Have you ever noticed how lovers can overlook issues that seem very important to other people? Lovers are often challenged by those who say, “Isn’t she a little old for you? Doesn’t he bring a good deal of baggage? Are you sure you want to relate to this person?” When those questions are posed, lovers always answer in the same way—yes. . . but. Believers use those same words when they try to understand the truth of Easter. Is there violence and war still in our world? Yes … but I believe in a God who is still establishing a kingdom of peace. Do I have my share of misunderstanding and stress and resentment and unresolved issues? Yes … but I believe in a God who loves me and is leading me to life. Do sickness and violence and death still occur around me? Yes … but I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that that same God loves me and is my hope.
Clearly, Christmas is an easier sell, a more popular celebration. But it is Easter that is at the heart of our faith, at the center of the gospel. And only lovers can understand the truth of the resurrection. It is only when we accept God’s love for us and stand in that love that we, despite all the things that are wrong with our world and our lives, can nevertheless perceive our God establishing the kingdom. It is only when we stand in that love that we can understand Easter. It is only when we stand in that love that we can sing, “Alleluia.”
Racism and Resurrection
March 22, 2008
Well, it’s Easter. Most of us have experienced many Easters. Many of us have experienced a number of Easters here at St. Noel. So I imagine that as you were driving to church today, if you were in a reflective mood, you might have easily come up with a list of terms that you would expect to hear in today’s homily. Those terms might be: Resurrection, new life, Baptism, joy, Alleluia. If you were a young person, you might even be thinking, “If Fr. George is in a playful mood, he might even say something about the Easter bunny.” But I bet none of you, on the way to church today, would ever have expected that in my Easter homily I would mention Barack Obama. Barack Obama does not fit easily into the list of expected Easter themes. But now that I have mentioned him, I will need to spend the rest of the homily telling you why I am thinking of him and how that relates to Easter.
I have not mentioned Barack Obama to encourage you to vote for him. Who you vote for president, as we discussed several homilies ago, is a complex matter that you must decide within your own heart in the presence of God. I am thinking about Barack Obama because he is the first credible, black candidate for president in the history of our nation. I am thinking of him because this past week the issue of racism emerged dramatically within his campaign. He has been charged with having too close a relationship to his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who has said a number of things in his sermons which many find offensive and some even anti-American. In response to these charges, Mr. Obama gave a speech last week to discuss the issue. Many commentators say that it was the finest political speech since Jack Kennedy discussed his Catholicism in 1960. In this speech Mr. Obama disagreed with his pastor but understood the anger and frustration which caused Pastor Wright to make his remarks. Mr. Obama drew the attention of our nation to the presence of racism in our country. There are in fact two different Americas, white America and Black America. These two Americas see the world very differently.
For example: Jeremiah Wright suggested in one of his sermons that there was a government plot to release the Aids virus into black neighborhoods to kill black people. Now as a white American, I consider this suggestion, absurd. Our government, at times, may be incompetent. But I do not believe that it consciously seeks to eliminate parts of our population. I am sure that there are many black Americans who would agree with me—but not as many as you might think. Surveys have shown that thirty percent of black Americans consider the possibility of a government plot to release the Aids virus as plausible. As plausible! Thirty percent, that’s almost a third!
There are a significant number of black Americans who see things very differently than most of us in church today. Those differences remind us that there remains a racial division in our country, a division that comes to the surface now and again. Some of you might remember how after O.J. Simpson was found not guilty for murder, only four out of ten white Americans thought that it was the right decision. In contrast, nine out of ten black Americans felt that the verdict was justified.
What’s going on here? Two different worlds, two different ways of looking at government, at law, at police enforcement, at education, at the prison system, at health care. I am not wise enough to tell you, which one of these two views is more accurate. But what is clear is that as a country, we remain racially divided.
And that brings us to Easter. Our God does not want us to be divided. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead is the God who created all things. As Creator, God gave to each person, a dignity and a worth that cannot be erased—to each person, black and white, red and brown and yellow. From God’s perspective, the divisions that exist within humanity are flaws in creation. God raised Jesus from the dead to bring us together. As the letter to the Colossians says: “Jesus came to reconcile all things to God—all things in heaven and on earth, making peace through the blood of his cross.” It is God’s purpose to heal every division between us, and we who believe in God are called to make God’s purposes our own.
Now there are, of course, all kinds of divisions. Some we see more clearly than others. We see divisions in our families. We see economic divisions which pit us one against another. We see divisions in terms of ideology, in terms of deeply held convictions, in terms of religious faith. Racism is only one of the divisions that are opposed to God’s will, but the Obama campaign makes it a topical one and one that we should follow in the months ahead.
As Christians we are committed to oppose divisions among us where ever they are found. We cannot hold that Easter candle and deny the cracks that exist among us which that light reveals. We cannot stand here and renew our Baptismal promises—professing our faith in Father, Son and Spirit—and forget that the oneness of our God is the model upon which a united humanity is to be built. We cannot feel the wetness of the Baptismal waters and at the same time deny the thirst of so many—the thirst for justice, unity, and peace.
But you say: “This mission of reconciliation, this mission of unity is not practical. There are so many divisions that exist between us that we will never be one.” God did not raise Jesus from the dead because it was practical. Jesus did not come out of the tomb because it was likely. Faith does not mean that we believe in the things which we think are possible. Faith means that we trust in God’s promises of what is possible. That is why in faith we hold on to the hope that we can heal the divisions between us. That is why, in faith, we are committed to make God’s purposes our own.
So you came tonight expecting Alleluias and the Easter Bunny, and what you got was racism and a mission to heal the divisions of our world. Sorry about that. But welcome to Christianity. Welcome to Easter.
The Emptiness of Easter
April 24, 2011
Romans 6:3-11 / Matthew 28:1-10
Easter is certainly a joyful feast. But the beginning of Easter is emptiness. There is not a gospel writer who tells the story of Easter by beginning with the risen Christ. Every gospel writer begins with the empty tomb. The gospel we just heard from Matthew proves this point. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary come. But what they first see is not Jesus but the empty tomb, and they hear the angel’s announcement. Only then do they encounter the risen Christ and embrace him.
First comes emptiness; then comes rejoicing. First comes absence; then comes glory. Now Easter begins with emptiness because life begins with emptiness. Every time we take a step forward in life we must leave something behind. Before we can embrace new life, we must empty ourselves of the life we already possess. Before we can take our first breath, we have to leave the comfort of our mother’s womb. Before we can commit ourselves to someone in marriage, we have to let go of our independence. Before we can respond to a vocation or a career, we have to let go of all the other things that we might be called to do. If we are going to receive new life, we must be empty enough to accept it.
This is why Jesus asks us not to fill our self up with other things. If we fill ourselves and are satisfied, if we fill our lives with resentment, anger, jealousy, or grief, Christ is still risen. But we might not be able to accept the Good News because there is no room for it. If we fill up our lives with goods and gadgets, if we spend our time with stratagems to increase our own importance, God still loves us. But we can never appreciate that love because there is no space to take it in. This is why Jesus spent so much of his time talking to those who were poor, hungry, and rejected. Jesus knew that they were empty enough to hear him. It is the suffering, the grieving, the poor, who have more than enough room to let God’s love in.
St. Paul certainly knew this truth because he used it to describe our Baptism, our entry into Christ. He said that first we must die with Christ in the waters of Baptism so that we could rise to new life. We first must be buried with Christ, emptied by Christ of whatever holds us back so that we might rise from the waters and walk in the newness of life.
So if Easter begins with emptiness, the way to celebrate Easter is to locate our own emptiness. That could be the emptiness of loss because someone who we love is no longer with us. It could be the emptiness of fear: the fear of a medical condition, the fear of deteriorating health because of advancing age, or the fear of economic hardship. It could be the emptiness of disappointment: disappointment in ourselves or disappointment in others in whom we trusted. It might simply be that we have no direction in life, we do not know where we are going, and we know we need to find a direction soon. Whatever your emptiness is, do not deny it—claim it. Emptiness is not a liability. It is an opportunity. When we claim our emptiness we own our dependence on God. When we claim our need we open the door to Easter.
The Risen Christ calls us to new life. Let us stand before him today in our emptiness and let his resurrection in.
Earthquakes and Galilee
April 20, 2014
Matthew 28: 1-10
Earthquake. Go. Galilee.
These are three words from today’s gospel. If we combine them together, the deepest meaning of Easter will emerge. Matthew is the only one of the gospel writers who includes an earthquake in his Easter story. It is not there as a casual detail. Throughout the Bible, earthquakes are signs that God is changing things, that God is transforming the world. So Matthew includes an earthquake to make it clear that the resurrection of Jesus is not only about Jesus, nor it is only an event that happened two thousand years ago. Jesus’ resurrection is about God changing the world today. You see, on that first Easter, God began the process of cleaning up the mess of this world. God began to destroy every evil and all that was opposed to God’s will. God raised Jesus up and made him the Lord of a new creation, a creation without poverty and hunger, a creation without injustice and violence, a creation without sickness and death. Now of course this new creation is still a work in progress. It will not be completed until Jesus returns again in glory. But it started at the empty tomb. That is why the earth shook, because it knew that its transformation had begun.
But the earthquake leads to the command: “Go.” Both the angel and Jesus tell the women to “go.” Easter is not about hanging around the empty tomb or clinging to the risen Lord. Easter is being sent out, going out to participate in Jesus’ mission. If God has begun in Christ to establish a new creation, we are to go and become a part of building it. We are to be God’s agents in the world, attacking poverty and hunger, opposing injustice and violence, comforting the sick and the dying. Being a disciple of Jesus is more than avoiding sin or coming to Church or learning our catechism. Being a disciple of Jesus is joining with Jesus in building the kingdom of God.
Now how do we do that? Here is where the third word is helpful: “Galilee.” Galilee was the home of Jesus and his disciples. They left Galilee to come to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. There, Jesus was crucified and raised up. But on Easter the women are sent to Galilee. They are sent home. They are to go to where they live, where they have connections and influence. The presence of Galilee in today’s gospel is a reminder to us that as agents of God’s transformation we are to go to where we live, to where our work on behalf of the kingdom can have the most influence. We will not be able to bring about peace in Syria or the Ukraine, but we can be peacemakers in our own families by our patience, by our honesty, and by our willingness to forgive. We cannot free those who are oppressed by inhuman working conditions in South East Asia, but we can stand up for the kid at school who is bullied or support the woman in our workplace who is demeaned or treated unjustly. We might not be able to feed hungry children in Africa, but we can cooperate with our friends and our colleagues to look at the issues of hunger in our own city and discover ways in which the poor can learn skills that will allow them to support themselves.
Earthquake. Go. Galilee.
Easter is about God cleaning up the mess of our world. We are called to go to those Galilees where we live and have influence and join in the effort. Easter is not about bunnies and pastel eggs. It is a bold proclamation that God has begun to transform this broken world, and that we are to go out in Jesus’ name and help God shake the earth!
The Time for Hope
April 16, 2017
Tristan Bernard was a popular poet, novelist, and playwright living in Paris in the first part of the 20th century. When Hitler’s troops invaded France, Bernard knew that because of his Jewish heritage he would be targeted for deportation and death. For several years he waited for the Gestapo to strike. When they finally arrived at his door in order to take him and his family to the deportation camp, his wife began to cry. Bernard turned to her and said, “The time for fear is over. Now is the time for hope.”
When that which we dread finally occurs, there is nothing left to fear. When we lose someone we love in death, when the cancer returns, when our marriage ends, the time for fear is over. Then, facing the evil that is before us, we must choose between hope and despair. The resurrection of Jesus is the source of Christian hope. Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb is the revelation of a God who loves humanity and is able and willing to act in our lives and in our world.
Now it takes faith to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. There is no way to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead. But those gifted with faith dare to believe that God is real enough and powerful enough to raise one who is crucified to new life. And if God is able to raise up one man, then God is real enough and powerful enough to move us from death to life and to transform this broken world into the Kingdom of God. This is why Christ’s resurrection is at the heart of Christianity. It testifies that hope is always possible because God is real and God can act. It is this faith that those who are going to be baptized tonight profess. As they are buried in the waters of Baptism and rise to leave the font, they testify to the power and the hope of a God who is real enough to transform them and change them.
Christian hope is not about inaction. We know that as Christians we must oppose injustice and serve one another. But Christian hope does not rise primarily from our own abilities and successes, but from the power of the God of Resurrection. So when what you dread occurs, when your life falls apart, when the world is in disarray, when human rights are violated, when the environment is ignored, when you look evil in the eye, remember: the time for fear is over. Now is the time to hope in the power of the One who raised Jesus from the dead.