Today is the glorious culmination of these days of Holy Week. Today our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised gloriously from the dead. Alleluia!
Today is a day for rejoicing. He is risen! Alleluia!
It has been a wonderful Holy Week this year. But during the week I thought back to one particular Holy Week I once spent as a parish priest in England, when a friend of mine came to stay for the whole week. Richard and I used to teach together, and it was great to have him to stay. But Richard was not a person of faith. It was a very strange experience to be immersed in all the preparations and liturgies of Holy Week, and then to go home to someone who wasn’t really very interested. Perhaps some of you have that experience, with a spouse, a child, or a close friend. I actually used to feel a bit of a failure. He and my other non-believing friends know me so well – so why don’t they believe? I can’t be a very effective Christian – and a priest as well!
But I also remember one afternoon Richard and I took a walk through the churchyard. It was very beautiful. There were lots of very old gravestones. I remember there was a woman carefully tending a grave, tidying up and placing new flowers. It was all so peaceful, and also full of primroses and daffodils. We wandered through, stopping to read worn inscriptions, and make out the dates. We didn’t speak for a long time. After a while, he turned to me and said, “You know, this is a place where I feel I could believe in God!”
I felt within me a sort of electric charge. I felt a trembling, a kind of holy fear. We were on holy ground. We weren’t alone. The Lord God had drawn near. And we spoke of things we had never spoken of before. Important things, things that matter. Perhaps you have had such an experience? I should not perhaps have been surprised. For the graveyard is where our new life in Christ began. The tomb is where we find ourselves now this Easter morning.
Very early in the morning, St. Mark tells us, on the first day of the week, three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, came, carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ body. They weren’t expecting to find anything unusual. In fact, their main concern as they walked slowly and sadly in the half-light, was whether anyone would be there to help them move the stone so that they could get into Jesus’ tomb.
Their walk in the graveyard started out as uneventfully as my walk with my friend Richard. But God was waiting for us, and God’s presence expressed in Richard’s words, “This is a place where I feel I could believe in God,” made me tremble.
And God was waiting for those poor unsuspecting women. They crossed a threshold unawares and came to the place where God had just raised Jesus to life, with great power. The presence, the shekinah, the glory of God was in that place, and as they entered it they saw and felt things that did not just make them tremble, but filled them with holy terror! The stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb itself, the very place where Jesus had been lying, they were overwhelmed by the glory of the Lord, and saw a young man dressed in white. “Don’t be frightened,” he said, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here.”
Those poor women. When Moses saw God’s glory in the burning bush he hid his face, afraid to look. When the prophet Ezekiel saw the glory he fell down on his face in terror. When the shepherds were surrounded by the angels of the Lord, and a multitude of the heavenly host, and the glory of the Lord shone around – they were sore afraid!
And now these three women had entered the very place where God had just enacted the greatest deed of power in our salvation history. They may well have been very familiar with all the stories of how God had acted in power to save his people in the past. The stories of salvation history which we have just been reading: The Great Flood and Noah’s ark, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Valley of the Dry Bones, the Return from Exile.
But nothing had prepared them for this. And all they could do was run away as fast as possible. “They went out,” Mark tells us, “and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid!” And there we have it. Mark ends his Gospel right there – with two Greek words: ephobounto gar – for they were afraid.
I love Mark’s Gospel. I love its raw, unpolished narrative. This is what it was like he says. No carefully phrased theologically elegant conclusions for Mark. Just the raw data. Three terrified women ran from the Presence as fast as they could. Mark, I think, helps us get in touch again with the sheer, mind-blowing wonder of the resurrection.
‘Resurrection’ is so much an ordinary part of our vocabulary now. Easter has been domesticated with eggs and rabbits. We need all the help we can get to keep us awakened to the wonder and significance to us of this momentous event which has changed the world – that “because he lives, we live also.” “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive!” We need all the Sundays of the year. We need all the liturgies of Holy Week. We need to get up at three o’clock in the morning and hear the story again and again, to reawaken us to the wonder, the shock, the holy terror, the joy of the Resurrection.
We, like those women, are standing on holy ground. The Risen Lord is here with us now. The glory of the Lord is all around us. If we had any sense, we should all fall on our faces – or run away as fast as we can!
Or stay here, and allow the Lord to fill us with his life, to allow our hearts to burn within us. For this is the day on which the Lord has acted. This is the day that God with great power raised Jesus to life.
As you come now to receive the body and blood of the Risen Lord, in bread and wine, let your hearts rise with him – and give joyful thanks. Thanks that the same God who raised Jesus to life will also raise us to life. Death, the final enemy, has been conquered.
In the words of St. John Chrysostom proclaimed at the Easter Vigil in every Orthodox Church:
“Let none fear death, for the death of the Savior has set us free.
Christ is risen and the demons have fallen.
Christ is risen and the angels rejoice.”
Alleluia Alleluia Alleluia!
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