holy cross sermon for easter day, year a, april 20, 2014

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

The resurrection of Jesus is a big deal. Whether we realize it or not, it changes everything. I’m going to talk about two levels (for lack of a better term) of its meaning, two levels on which the resurrection of Jesus operates, on which it makes a difference: 1) the personal level, and 2) the political level.

Firstly, the personal level.

Today’s Gospel is a very personal story. It’s the story of one disciple, Mary Magdalene, encountering Jesus, her teacher and friend, whom she had every reason to believe was dead. She had been there at the cross; she had seen what the soldiers did to Jesus; she had seen him buried hastily in a nearby tomb.

And now Mary comes to the tomb “early, while it [is] still dark,” on the first day of the week. St. Gregory the great notes that her coming “while it was still dark” symbolizes the darkness of her unenlightened mind: she was seeking, he says, the Author of all life as though he were himself lifeless. But Mary sees that the stone that had been placed over the mouth of the tomb had been taken away. And the first, barely perceptible rays of enlightenment creep over the horizon of her ignorance, grief, and fear. And the passage reaches a crescendo when Jesus himself appears, like the Sun itself, and pierces Mary’s darkness in the most personal way when he speaks her name: “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’”

John is at pains to note that this happened on “the first day of the week,” the day on which, at the creation of the world, God’s Spirit moved over the watery darkness, and God had said, “Let there be light.” John leaves us to draw the implication that the resurrection of Jesus is the completion and renewal of creation, the utterance of supernal light by the uncreated Word, into the death-darkened world of humanity.

When Jesus spoke Mary’s name, John says that Mary “turned,” like a hinge, as though she had been facing in the wrong direction, and with this turn she is flooded with light; she recognizes Jesus. Its interesting to contemplate what might have gone through her mind. But musing on this, we naturally tend to import into our conjecture all of the theological baggage of twenty centuries of Christian writing and experience with respect to the resurrection. But the Gospel itself, in this particular narrative, resists any kind of abstraction. The narrative is relentlessly personal. Its about the encounter of this disciple, who loved Jesus, with him whom she loved.

But for Mary, and soon for all of Jesus’ disciples, this event was literally a turning point. As I said, the passage conspicuously notes that Mary “turned” toward the Lord when she recognized him. And this is how it should be for each of us too. The new life that Jesus inaugurates with his resurrection is not just for him. It’s a new life that he wants to give to all of us. It is no coincidence that Easter, like the Passover of the Jews to which Easter is intrinsically connected, happens in the Springtime – when, as the great liturgical scholar and monk, Dom Prosper Gueranger notes, “even nature herself seems to rise from the grave,” (The Liturgical Year, Vol. VII, p. 15).

Every effort must be made to resist the idea that Jesus was only, or primarily, a great teacher. He is preeminently the one who knows every one of us better than we know ourselves, the one who creates us at every moment of our existence, who, indeed, sustains our very being in its most fundamental aspect. Jesus knows us and loves us, and on our account he died and rose again.

Throughout the natural world spring is also the time of reproduction. For plant-life it is a time of pollination and flowering; and for animals a time of pairing off and building nests, and for humans too the springtime evokes a multivalent “romance.” As such, it is “meet and right” that Jesus, the “lover of our souls,” should seduce us with the grand gesture of his resurrection – inviting us, as by a spiritual betrothal, to begin a new kind of life with him. On this score, many commentators through the centuries have read the Song of Songs as the voice of the Lord calling to the soul that he loves:

My beloved speaks and says to me:
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away; for lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.

The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away. (Song of Songs 2.10-13)

And as in any romance, there is a proprietary dimension to this one – even more than in “normal” human relationships – which leads the author of the Song of Songs to say, in another evocation of Spring that’s particularly resonant as we sit here among a church festooned with lilies: “My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies,” (Song of Songs 2.16).

“My beloved is mine and I am his.” Jesus gives himself to us, as a Body, and singly, both in his death and in his resurrection, and, let the record show, in the Sacrament of the altar. And when we “turn” toward him in recognition, as Mary Magdalene did on the first Easter Sunday, we turn away from every other sovereign claim on our personhood. We belong to Jesus. He has purchased us with his blood. And the notion that any others of our creditors, including death itself, can cut in line in front of Jesus is an affront to justice. He is the mortgagor of humanity.

Which brings us to the political dimension of Easter. If its true (and it is) that anyone who has a claim on us must get in line behind Jesus, this can cause disruption and offense. The first centuries of the church are replete, for example, with stories of women who had given their sexuality to the Lord, and distributed their dowries to the poor, and who did not, therefore, regard themselves as being at liberty to marry, on account of Jesus. You can see how this might offend their fiancées and their fathers. Saint Agatha and Saint Lucy, memorialized at the end of our Eucharistic prayer, are two such early martyrs.

But if fiancées and families had no supreme claims on the persons of these early martyrs, neither did death – because they had recognized the voice of the risen Jesus, and like Mary Magdalene, they had “turned” and been flooded with light.

The authority of the state over us is likewise subordinate to that of Jesus. And as such the early centuries of the Church are also replete with examples of men and women who refused to participate in the civic religion of the empire, who resolutely refused to worship Caesar, or anyone or anything else, as a god. And we would do well to remember that Christians continue to suffer and die on account of their unequivocal allegiance to Jesus in many parts of the world: in places like Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and China. The origins of the feast of All Saints (Nov. 1) lie in the fact that as early as the third century, the calendar did not have a sufficient number of days to commemorate the Christian heroes who were murdered by the state rather than admit an authority higher than Jesus.

One of the great ironies of history is the four-thousand-year-old obelisk that now stands in St. Peter’s Square, in Rome, was originally brought to Rome from Egypt, where we may assume that it witnessed the slavery and the deliverance of the Hebrews under Moses. In the 1st century it was brought to Rome by the emperor Caligula and set up in the Circus of Nero. Countless Christians, in the early centuries of the Church, including St. Peter himself, were burned, thrown to beasts, crucified, and slaughtered by gladiators in the shadow of that obelisk. And now it stands in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, surmounted by a brazen cross, a testament to the victory of the risen Lord over the world’s Caesars, and of the fact that, because he died and rose again, we belong entirely to Jesus. And where now is Caligula? Where is Nero? Where is Decius or Diocletian? Where is Ramesses or Amenhotep or the other pharaohs? Where now is Hitler or Stalin?

We should note, too, that this point is a remedy against the facile notions of the resurrection of Jesus that are now so prevalent. Notions like that the resurrection means that Jesus died and went to heaven, or that it means that his nebulous “spiritual presence” remains somehow with those who pay attention to his teaching. NT Wright said that “no tyrant is threatened by Jesus going to heaven, leaving his body in a tomb…. [But] [t]he resurrection constitutes Jesus as the world’s true sovereign, the ‘son of god’ who claims absolute allegiance from everyone and everything within creation,” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 731).

The endings of all of our collects take pains to note that Jesus not only lives, but that he also REIGNS with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Let us resolve to live as though it were true, to obey no other sovereign but Jesus, who is risen indeed. Alleluia.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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