A Sermon for Easter
By the Revd. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan
Saint James Chapel
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. (John 11-14)
In nomine . . .
Last Saturday, I was visiting my mother at her home in Bethesda, and I took advantage of my visit to do some shopping in the old neighborhood, which has now of course become much more "up market" than it was when I was growing up.
My last stop was Whole Foods on River Road, and I suddenly realized as I was checking out, that I had not encountered any visible sign of Easter anywhere that I had been. They had some matzah out for Passover, and there was an exhibitor promoting a honey glazed ham that I assume was for Easter Dinner, but that was about it.
I tested my theory when I came home and stopped by the Shop and Save a few days later. Easter seemed to be getting about the same display attention as Halloween, maybe a little less – just some Easter candy for the Easter Bunny at the front of the store by the windows.
Now, to be honest, this may be a good thing, because we are largely spared at Easter the secularizing onslaught we experience at Christmas. But that got me thinking. Why is Easter increasingly ignored by the stores and advertisers, while Christmas is more and more subverted? Advent is obliterated because the Christmas shopping season starts at the end of November, and Santa Claus has replaced the Christ Child. At least Santa was once Saint Nicholas. Who knows where Rudolf and Frosty come from? I suppose we have the magi to thank for this, as they introduced the notion of "gifts", which is pretty much all that Christmas is about these days.
Easter, on the other hand, does not involve gifts: just church and a feast at the end of Lent. Church of course is out now, but many secularized families still do the feast part, which makes Easter like every other American holiday, a time to gather the family and have a big meal.
The marketers cleverly overcame this obstacle by focusing on the Easter Bunny, egg hunts, and the giving of baskets full of candy to little children, but this strategy is in trouble now, as many parents do not want to give lots of candy to their children, let alone set up an Easter egg hunt (one mother told me she stopped it because the dog kept finding the eggs and eating the chocolate), so Easter candy is no longer visible in upper class grocery stores like Whole Foods, just lower class ones like Shop and Save. It is still big in CVS, by the way, which proves its decline.
Now some are working against the marketers on this, like Erin Ruff and Ann Fulton who hosted a hugely successful Easter egg hunt on campus yesterday. Gathering an eager company of parent and student volunteers and even outside sponsors, they put together a fun event which still helps the little children feel the excitement of Easter, but without the greed part; it is more about the activities than the candy. As a result, the children have a wonderful time, and the volunteers have just as much fun as they do, and we raise a substantial sum of money for a very worthy cause: the education of children in a village in Ghana.
Still, if you want an example of how secularization works, the Easter egg provides the perfect example. The egg was used as a symbol of the tomb of Christ, hard and closed on the outside but with the promise of new life within it, the chick bursting through the shell like Christ out of his tomb. The idea of the Easter Bunny comes from the fact that Easter is in the spring when the bunnies come out and start breeding again. Thus, it appeared to little children that the bunnies in the back yard had laid or hidden the eggs for them. Now the eggs and the bunnies are all chocolate, wrapped in tin foil, and delivered in a basket, which costs about twenty bucks at CVS, but appears to be banned from Whole Foods. Here of course we have beautiful hand-made Ghanaian baskets, which the children fill themselves.
But still, in our part of America, secular Easter appears to be dying because it is focused on giving candy to little children, which parents rightly think is unhealthy, and there is no consumerist opportunity for adults, just a nice family gathering of some kind, but again without the church part.
But I wonder if there is not another reason why secular Easter is in trouble. I wonder if it is because the miracle that Easter celebrates, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is just too miraculous or too religious to secularize.
For let's be honest, the miracle of Christmas is easier: the birth of the baby Jesus reminds parents of an event which even unbelievers still recognize as miraculous in their lives: the birth of their child.
As I am sure that you have experienced, even the most convinced atheist or agnostic is willing to admit that the birth of their child was "spiritual" and humbling, and filled them with a deeper sense of gratitude. So the miracle of Jesus' birth ties in nicely with the "miracle" of their child's birth. They can identify with the humble joy of the Virgin Mary and the protective pride of Joseph. They might even like the image of the poor child born in a manger, as it appeals to their social conscience. They just get rid of the angels, the shepherds, and the magi. They also lose that part about the child being "a savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2.11)
Easter, however, is harder to secularize. A religious teacher, who was crucified and killed, is discovered by one of his closest followers, Mary Magdalene, to be alive, and many of his followers who were hiding in fear also come to believe that they have seen him, and that he has commissioned them to perform his miracles and to continue his teaching in the world. This they do bravely, even recklessly, just weeks after his crucifixion: kind of an amazing story, but clearly a story for fools and fanatics like me.
So, there are problems with Easter, which explains why Easter is increasingly marginalized.
First of all, where are the gifts? How can we make a profit out of this narrative, let alone an office party? Second, who has ever seen a dead person risen from the dead? Third, why are we talking about death? We don't talk about death in our always youthful, always beautiful, and always happy lives. Death is just too grim and depressing to be tolerated.
But I would put to you that those who would reject the story and the celebration of Easter as ridiculous and irrelevant are entirely missing the point.
First of all, the greatest gifts are not material (a new car, nice jewelry, new clothes, etc.), but spiritual: courage, hope, humility, and love. And these are the gifts that the faithful celebration of Easter still brings to us: the courage to live without the fear of death, the hope to believe that our lives have real and enduring meaning, the humility to see our life as a gift, and the love to make ourselves a gift from God to others.
Secondly, even though we really do not know what Mary Magdalene saw in that tomb, and indeed would probably describe what she saw quite differently in our day than she described it in hers, we do know what she believed and what many of Jesus' disciples also believed because of what they saw, and we know that this belief in his resurrection transformed and inspired their lives.
And let me just point out that being resurrected is not as unbelievable as many think it is. Actually, we got a glimpse of resurrection these past two weeks with Maddie and Jackson's remarkable and very fortunate recoveries from their terrifying injuries on the lacrosse field, and earlier this year with Joe George's heart surgery. And sure, they are young and strong and they received excellent care, but all of us can only be very grateful that the outcome was not what we very reasonably feared.
There are in fact many in this chapel, including me, who should be dead because of some past medical challenge, but are now very much alive, so we are in fact physically resurrected. And certainly, we should credit our doctors and nurses for this, but also God, if we are to fully appreciate the gift of a second chance in life that God through them has given us.
After all, nurses, doctors, and midwives deliver babies, and their skilled care and help with the birth makes it no less "miraculous" for the relieved and excited new parents.
Just remember the words of the surgeon's prayer: "not my hands, Oh God, but thine."
There are also many of us in this chapel today who can now also appreciate a deeper purpose in life which was revealed to us when we lost someone we loved and who loved us, maybe as closely as a husband or wife, a parent or child. And we have gained in that experience, as difficult as it was, a glimpse of our life with God to come. Maybe it was the light in the room or the angel in the corner that the one who was dying could describe for us, or just a final sense of acceptance and peace, but we could tell, could we not, that Christ was with us in that tomb?
Or maybe it was those continuing conversations in our mind or in our sleep with the one who had died, which reminded us of his or her continuing presence with us, or those wonderful "coincidences" which show that Christ was there for us, even though we, like Mary, did not recognize him at the time.
I often tell the students that the phrase "what an amazing coincidence" is something that unbelievers say much more often than they realize; we just say thank you, as we will this morning in this Eucharist. Life is full of miracles; we just have to be grateful and open enough to see them.
But still, we are stuck with that theme of death, which so many modern Americans are now afraid of: the cross that most now skip on Good Friday, and the tomb that is now just a chocolate egg.
Most Americans just avoid death. They pretend that it does not exist and reject its role in life. Those who are dying are packed away in nursing homes and "rehab" centers, and those who are experiencing the death of someone they love are often avoided as well. It is just "too awkward" to be with them.
Older people, nearer death, now "retire" away from home, so that they miss their friends' funerals. They send a check instead, but never a big one. We had an alumnus die in South Carolina recently, and he asked that all memorials be sent to Saint James because he loved the school. We received about twenty checks in the mail, all for $50. It's as if they agreed on the "polite" amount ahead of time.
And death is now a private or a "family" affair. The body is cremated, put in an urn or a box, and kept on a shelf until the family can find the time to gather, and Christian burial is now replaced by a "few words" from "friends and family" and a "favorite poem" that rarely speaks to the occasion. My brothers always threaten to do that to me if I die before them, which is why I put my sister in charge.
I remember the first burial I did when I was a new priest in California. I was a school chaplain, and the headmaster ordered me to drive to Newport Beach to preside at the "funeral" of a generous alumnus. We scattered his ashes off the back of his yacht. I had to tell everybody to put their drinks down and turn the stereo off while I read the burial office. It was pure evangelism: a Christian priest at a pagan "celebration."
Christians, you see, do not avoid death, either our own or the death of others. The earliest Christians actually embraced death at the hands of the Romans, like those Christian martyrs today in Africa and the Middle East who die rather than deny their faith in Jesus. I wonder sometimes if we would.
And this is all because of Easter, because of the miracle of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like Peter who denied Our Lord three times, but then found the courage to proclaim his resurrection publicly first in Jerusalem and then throughout the Roman Empire, so we in our time and in our culture are called to believe: "They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead," just as we will eat and drink with him today at this, his great feast. (Acts 10:39-41)
For death to us is no less a miracle than birth, but rather an opportunity to perceive the real and redeeming presence of Christ, to be that much more grateful, generous, and courageous with our lives, to follow him more faithfully.
And death when it comes to us just takes us home to God, as Christ himself reveals to us.
So for us, there is no Christmas without angels and miracles, and there is no Easter either. And there is no life without death, and death is not the end of us.