While It Was Still Dark
This Easter Gospel reading is about Mary Magdalene's cosmic surprise at what she had expected would be a visit to the body of her Lord Jesus. It begins with the words, "Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark..."
And that got me to thinking. "...while it was still dark." Our lives have times of joy and fun, but they also have times that are dark.
Since we gathered last year for this major celebration, many people have faced the suffering that comes to most lives sooner or later. Some have lost loved ones, others have become ill where before there was wholeness and health. These are sadnesses that have been part of the human condition since the beginning of time. …Sooner or later our hopes come up against times of brutal reality. … Pain and suffering are part of life. But when it is most pronounced in our lives is the most urgent time, when we need Easter most.
I have seen tragedies that have caused regular churchgoers to stop going to church, and tragedies that have caused people to start going to church. And I think which way we go depends on our expectations of God. Some folks are taught to live a life that, in effect, is a bargaining process with God. They try as hard as they can to be whatever "good" means to them, and in return they expect God to prevent harm and hurt from coming into their lives. Those folks will surely meet great disappointment and probably disillusion, sooner or later.
If, on the other hand, we expect God to walk beside us and help us survive times of pain, and to help us grow as a result of it, then we will probably be one of those who start going to church following a loss, or who become more confident in our faith, following a loss. Because God surely will walk with us when nothing else can help our pain, our ache of loss or great sadness. God will hold us up when we are sure we can't help but fall. As Mary Magdalene learned to her great surprise and joy in this Easter Gospel reading, we are each called by Name by a loving Lord.
How do we know God is with us even when we don't get what we want—when the illness is not cured, when we don't like the way our life is going, or when a loved one dies? How is it that countless billions of people have continued to know the peace and power of Christ's presence even when he has answered their prayers with a quiet "no."
I know a man in Memphis who lost his voice. One day, years ago, he just, for no scientifically explainable reason, lost his voice. Today he speaks in that gravelly voice of one who has had perhaps cancer of the voice box. One must listen very carefully, and perhaps ask him to repeat his words in order to understand him. Now this man attends the regular Thursday "Healing Service" at Calvary Church. He attends it faithfully 52 weeks each year. Hands are laid upon him and he always prays for the exact same thing: he asks God to give him what he calls "a new voice."
Perhaps when he started going to that service and saying that prayer, he was literally asking for his vocal chords to be miraculously healed. Perhaps. But over the years he has learned that there are many kinds of healing, and many kinds of voices. He has found peace with his condition. His anguish has been healed. He has deeply dear and close friends that he met at these services. His witness to trust in God has spoken volumes more than his old voice could have spoken about faith.
So how do we know God is with us even when we don't get what we want? Maybe God changes what we want, if we are blessed. Maybe our prayers come to include listening to God. But most of all, we know God is with us because of the great Easter promise. Jesus' resurrection from the dead is not only a promise of raising our mortal bodies and those of our loved ones after physical death, but more to the point for living, it is a promise of the resurrection of our spirit when our spirit is in danger of death in the here-and-now.
Because Jesus lives the Holy Spirit is a real and divine force that keeps us safe, way down deep, when all worldly happenings would seem to defeat us. The Resurrection is the center of all of Christianity. St. Paul says, "If Jesus was raised, then we shall be raised. If he was not raised, we shall not be raised." Without the Resurrection, all Christian hope is just the same as worldly hope. With the Resurrection, it is a sure and certain hope, resting on the foundation of God's action on that first Easter morning.
Think about the disciples on Easter Eve. So far as they knew, Christ had been executed and that was the end of that. They were despondent. They despaired of their great leader. Now, think about those very same people the next day: exuberant, exceedingly joyful. Their Lord has been raised and they not only have him back, they have some promises and portents, which are all so good as to be believable only through faith.
We find that there are still those Christians who fear that all the miracles and resurrections are in the past, way back then in the first century. And there are those who live lives based on a quiet joyful belief that Christ lives now, that we are upheld by his Spirit, and that we shall live forever in the glow of God's love.
Is it for us to choose? Do we elect to have faith or not to have faith? I don't think so; I believe faith is a gift. But we do our part by being open to it—by not allowing the pain of life to close us up to hope. God does not force us to believe. He stands ready to shower on us the gifts of faith, hope and trust.
Early in the fifteenth century, Dame Julian of Norwich survived what had appeared to all to be a terminal illness. In the process of her recovery she experienced visions of Christ, about which she wrote and for which she has been the spiritual anchor for millions over the millennia. For Julian, according to Thomas Merton, the "heart of theology [is] not solving the contradictions and pain that come with living, but remaining in the midst of them, in peace, knowing that they are fully solved, but that the solutions are secret, and will never be guessed until they are revealed". She was told in one vision that whatever God does is done in Love, and therefore "that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
That is the gift of the Resurrection, the deep and quiet conviction that "all manner of things shall be well." Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Copyright ©2002 The Rev. William A. Kolb
This homily was delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, on March 31, 2002, Easter Sunday.