Easter Sunday – John Conway – 21/04/19

(John 20.1-18)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Yeats’ famous lines from his poem The Second Coming, have apparently enjoyed a second wind themselves in recent years – often quoted as people have tried to describe and understand the times we live. They sprang to mind, as I thought about how to describe this moment, this Easter moment in which resurrection is encountered, and proclaimed.

It is perhaps no surprise that it is these words that resonate in our present, words written a century ago in 1919, in the exhausted, disillusioned and fearful aftermath of the 1stWorld War, when that awful clash of nations had burst the bubble of optimism felt in the early years of the century, and people feared that there was more violence to come, that a vacuum had been created into which the populist demagogues would step and whip up passion: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Words for our times indeed. Particularly as we hear today of acts of unspeakable violence and cruelty in churches and hotels across Sri Lanka. Whatever our sense of the particular reasons for the times we live in, we are familiar with the fear and dread that Yeats evokes – a sense that the old ways of ordering the world are coming apart, and we don’t know what is next. We lack conviction, and we fear and suspect that those full of passionate but shallow intensity are even now sweeping up and making the future.

And it is in that context that we also hear the question, twice addressed to Mary Magdalene in our Easter Gospel this morning: Woman, why are you weeping? Why are you weeping?

For Mary’s world has of course fallen apart, violence has been loosed on the ceremony of innocence that Jesus enacted. And like women throughout the ages, she is left trying to pick up the pieces, and hold it together. She has come to tend the body of her friend, anoint and care for it, offer the rituals of comfort to ease her grief and pain.

And we too are tempted to respond to anxious times with the comforting rituals of the familiar, with expressions of tenderness towards those we know. We lament the state of the world, but we often respond by doing what we can do, faithfully, tenderly even, like Mary coming to anoint the dead.

But that is not what resurrection is. In our Gospel Mary meets an absence – what she seeks is not there, the comfort she seeks to bring and to find, is denied her. Instead angels, strange figures mark the place of absence – one at the head, the other at the feet. In John’s account what greets Mary when she looks in the tomb is the space between two angels: one sitting where the head of Jesus should have been, one where his feet should have been. In Old Testament depictions of the throne of God, angels sit on either side of the presence of God. Here they sit on either side of a surprising absence, which overthrows Mary. Woman why are you weeping? The angels ask. She is weeping because her confusion is deepened, and the one thing she thought she could do in this situation is not possible – he is not there, his body is gone.

And then, as she stumbles out into the garden, Jesus himself, no corpse to tend, but a living person, stands unrecognised before her, and he too asks her, Woman, why are you weeping?

Why are you weeping? Because the times are fearful and we are troubled. Even the familiar, the expected is not as it should be, is strange.

The gospels are full of markers of the way Jesus fulfils the Old Testament scriptures. His birth and ministry, his teaching and even his dying, are understood in patterns drawn from the scriptures – they are graspable through terms that are familiar. But in all the resurrection narratives that phrase, ‘to fulfill the scriptures’ is never used. The resurrection is surprising, initially ungraspable, radically new.

And we stand, on this Easter Day, in that tradition: the tradition of disciples who, like Mary, receive the gift of the radical, surprising, new thing God is doing in our midst. That is why, when Christians claim that tradition demands that you keep doing the same thing over and over, they are betraying their own tradition. The tradition we inhabit tells us that here is God’s presence known: in the surprising absence of what we thought would bring us comfort; in the surprising presence of a forgiving, wounded Saviour.

It cannot be said often enough that the resurrection does not right the wrong, undo the crucifixion. Rather it is the gift of surprising hope, the refusal of closure at the scene of crucifixion, at the scene of betrayal and dashed hopes.

For our Good News, our gospel, is not about neat endings, about tying up the loose ends of the story, about happily ever after and all that – no matter how much we long for that. The Gospel is not interested in closure, but in keeping the story going. The resurrection is the invitation to Mary and to you and to me, to us together, to take the story in new and surprising directions by seeing, and then being, that forgiving presence we meet in Jesus. Our gospels end not with closure, for the disciples or for us, but with invitation.

So, why are you weeping? As this stranger names her, “Mary”, so she recognises and is given the gift of resurrection. It is as if she hears her name for the first time, and yet knows it is absolutely her, and that there is only one person who could name her in this way. In knowing herself named, she knows that the man before her is Christ, is the one she came to weep over. Here is the presence of him who Mary had thought gone. Here is a centre to hold onto; where things had threatened to fall apart; here the fragments are knit together into a living presence that re-names her.

Why are you weeping? In this quiet garden, Mary and we receive the gift of resurrection to take away our tears – receive a living presence to ground us, a centre that re-gathers the scattered fragments of our lives together, a conviction to steer us through our times of inequality and need, of looming climate chaos and the challenge of different patterns of living. Here is life beyond death, beyond suffering and the violence and betrayals of our world. The resurrection, the gift of this day, is what lifts us out of our familiar routines, however tenderly we may enact them. “Do not cling to me”, says the Risen Jesus. The resurrection gives us new purpose, new energy – as Mary runs to proclaim to the disciples – I have seen the Lord. So, go, be not fearful, refuse to be simply comforted, for the Lord of love is not dead but alive and he re-names you here. Go and proclaim, in word and deed, that suffering and fear and violence have not won, and shall not win. In His presence, we are re-made and hope is born anew. For Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

 

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