March 31, 2024

“Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome . . . went to the tomb when the sun had risen . . . And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back . . . [and] they saw a young man…[who] said to them, ‘Do not be amazed . . . .’”


I like Franco Zepherelli’s production, Jesus of Nazareth.  Particularly his depiction of the resurrection story.  He adds no angel choirs, no trumpets, no dazzling special effects.  He simply offers the image that is foremost in our gospel reading this morning:  a few women walking through a garden on a quiet morning to the sound of chirping birds, and finding nothing; finding an empty tomb.


We’ve been conditioned over the years, not only by Hollywood but by Renaissance art, to visualize the resurrection in great other worldly images: angel wings fluttering all about and a 120 piece orchestra accompanying the Mormon Tabernacle choir.  Medieval paintings provide us with an angelic-looking Jesus floating up in the air with the clouds parting, soldiers falling to the ground  in shock, and a blinding light emanating from the tomb.  Our individual images of the first Easter are surely cluttered with people, noises, lights, angels, and most certainly wouldn’t be complete without trumpets.


We are unprepared for the stillness of the morning, the soft sound of footsteps on the garden path, the chirping of the birds, and the silence of the empty tomb.  To imagine it all in that way makes it seem like ordinary experience – much less amazing.  But why not?  After all, that was the advice of the “young man” who greeted those women at the tomb on that quiet morning.  He simply said, “Don’t be amazed.”


We have as hard a time hearing and heading that word as did those three women in the graveyard.  We expect that if new life were to burst forth from our deadening experience, it would have to be something amazing!  If something is truly going to happen to resurrect our hope and send our spirits soaring out of the darkness of our stone-covered cynicism, it would need to be earth-shaking, with trumpets and choirs, no less.


In our own experience, we look for the old and ugly, the pesky and pernicious, the deadly and destructive

of our lives to be somehow blasted away by religious ritual or proper penance.  And then, when we don’t hear the trumpets, when we look at our broken promises, our selfish tendencies, our superficial commitments, we find despair moving into our souls like a cloud, to darken the joy of hope for new life. Then, Easter seems unrelated to our experience; the resurrection becomes just another church story.  Amazing things don’t seem to happen anymore – at least not to us.  So, if unable to find satisfaction, we at least find a little distraction in the family dinners, the painted eggs, and the chocolate bunnies.


But my message this morning is: Don’t give up on Easter.  Don’t leave it to the righteous believers and the exemplary holy ones.  The distance from Jesus’ surprisingly empty crypt to your unremarkably full life is not as great as you might believe.


The resurrection, you see, is not amazing.  It’s a prototypical experience.  It’s the miraculous nature of things woven into the very fabric of life.  People who have been dwelling among the breathless tombs of alcoholism have been raised from that creeping demise into sobriety.  Every day, someone caught in the death grip of an abusive relationship finds help and rises up to new life.  Even hour by hour, the power of resurrection breathes through your experience.  When you find yourself facing the dead-end of the same argument with your spouse, the same challenging relationship with a parent, the same incorrigibility of a child, the same humiliating experience with a colleague that you’ve dealt with over and over, and you feel the hope for any better outcome draining out of your soul, sometimes all it takes is a touch, a look, a laugh, a brief conversation, to feel the breath of possibility coming back into your lungs.  Resurrection is not amazing; it’s the way things are.  That’s what the young man at the tomb said: “Don’t be amazed.  Jesus is raised from the dead, and he is going on ahead to meet you – as he said he would.”


Jesus, you see, was one of those remarkable oddities: he was a man of his word.  And his words were always about new life and possibility.  He spoke of new wine in new wineskins, and being born anew.  He told parables about people finding something of great value, of growing into something grand, of turning for home and discovering joyous living.  He said that the whole purpose of his ministry, of everything he was about, was that we might have life, and have it abundantly!   And he was a man of his word.  Scripture even portrays him as a man who could defeat death itself to keep his word.  But don’t be amazed.  That’s just the way things are.  Jesus is gone from the tomb as naturally as a bird on the wing.  He is not there as a matter of course.  He is risen, as he said.  No trumpets; no choirs.  Life always comes out of death for the children of the Light because we are people of life, not death.  It’s the way things are.


You may not see the skies open up, or hear fanfares, or the flutter of angel wings.  But you are likely, on some quiet morning, to be walking through a garden (or sitting in your kitchen with your coffee cup), and quite unexpectedly stumble upon the empty tomb of that within you which you thought was hopelessly dead, and yet lives, abounding in hope!  Even now, as you sit in this room there is some divine principle of quantum physics that’s working away in you to peel off the layers of cynicism that build up in the course of each day’s disappointments.  Even now, there’s some incomprehensible army of natural properties hammering away at the shackles of defeatism that you take up every time someone you love lets you down.  Even now, there is some ancient and unknowable impulse urging the song of life from deep within your throat, a song that something within you knows already, a song you are able to sing, even in the shadow of death.


Loren Eiseley knew about that.  He saw it all right before his eyes one day.  He had leaned up against a stump at the edge of a small glade and fallen asleep.  He described the scene upon awakening:

“When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glade was lit like some vast cathedral.  I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light, and there on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak.


“The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestling’s parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing.  The sleek black monster was indifferent to them.  He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment and sat still.  Up to that point the little tragedy had followed the usual pattern.  But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise.  Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.


“No one dared to attack the raven.  But they cried there in some instinctive common misery.  The bereaved and the unbereaved.  The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries.  They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer.  There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew.  He was a bird of death.


“And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.


“The sighing died.  It was then that I saw the judgement.  It was the judgement of life against death.  I will never see it again so forcefully presented.  I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged.  For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence.  There, in the clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush.  And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten.  Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing.  They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful.  They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven.  In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.”1


Loren Eiseley’s story is our story.  There is an irrepressible force in the universe.  And it’s not amazing.  It’s the message of the empty tomb, and it’s as common as the birds in the glade.  It’s this:  amidst the jungle of values in conflict, lives in torment, hopes and dreams in pieces, the un-amazing empty tomb is the Divine and tenacious declaration that, no matter what, love wins!


And that’s just the way it works.  So don’t be amazed.

1 Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978, pp. 33-34.

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