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Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
I am delighted to rouse you up with those words this morning. They are the essential Christian expression of faith and greeting, and they are how we talk to one another today. On another day we say “Good morning, how are you?” But on this Sunday morning we say “Christ is Risen,” and get the response “He is Risen Indeed!” It’s a gladful sound, a happy thing we do, and it means everything.
Will Campbell was until his own death two years ago a profoundly important preacher of civil rights and racial reconciliation in America for six decades, and a spiritual touchstone of mine. He lived with his wife Brenda on a farm at Mount Juliet, just outside Nashville, Tennessee, and some years ago someone who knew him well told me about their annual Easter tradition. Will would walk down to the barn and Brenda would remain up at the house. Then, each would grab the rope of the bells mounted on house and barn and begin vigorously swinging clappers against bells and shouting out to one another: Alleluia! clang! clang! Christ is Risen! clang! clang! clang! And then begin to ring out the names of everyone they knew who had died since the previous Easter. clang! clang! Christ is risen! clang! clang! Clarisse is risen! Charles is risen! clang! clang! Janice is risen! clang! clang! In a simple call and response they would shout out the names to each other, ringing them out with the bells, and thereby declare their conviction that no one of the people God had given them were gone from them for ever, for Christ is Risen! And if Christ is risen we need never again fear anything, for all is raised up and gathered unto God.
On Tuesday of this week we had all the ordained ministers of the diocese here to renew their vows, and in our prayers we read the necrology of all of the priests and deacons and lay leaders who have passed from among us in the last year, and just hearing their names again reminded us of how much they meant to us, and even though few among us knew all of them, everybody knew some, and even if you didn’t, trust me when I say that these people did not leave us without much regret on our part, and many tears. Now it’s Easter Day and today I wish I had a bell that I might ring it now and shout out that Christ is Risen, and because of that singular thing clang! clang! Bishop Don Taylor is also risen! clang! clang! Ray Guyette and Dorothy Jackson who together served this cathedral for over fifty years; clang! clang! Ray and Dorothy are risen! Risen indeed! clang! clang! clang! And John Walsted and Susanna Williams and Keith Johnson and Bob Dresser and all those priests we lost, some months ago and some in these very weeks; clang! clang! clang! All are risen; all are risen indeed! You too ring out the bell that hangs in your heart clang! clang! and name those you have loved and lost and say the thing we could only know from God, and that is that they are none of them lost to God, but raised up like Jesus to share in the very life of God himself.
This is what we have been taught and it is always at the center of our faith, but on Easter we have to say it, and we excuse the exuberance in one another, because this is a celebration — that two thousand years ago something utterly remarkable, but wondrous and mysterious and hard to explain, happened in a garden in Jerusalem when a stone was rolled away from an empty tomb and these words were uttered for the first time. Uttered then by godly messengers, angels — clang! clang! Christ is Risen! — and given first to Mary Magdalene and then to the disciples and finally to us as the expression of our most fervent hopes, of human joys and dreams we may barely comprehend or dare imagine, of a new word given by God by which all else may now be measured. A word of love and loss, and a word of life and death and life again, and a word by which we say before God the most important thing, that we have loved and been loved, and learn that everyone is gathered up in God and vested with eternal importance.
So we come. Filled with a sense of celebration, joy on every lip, our wonderful cathedral filled with the beauty and artistry of all these flowers — the brilliant, colorful marks of a Spring we have waited for through an exceptionally hard winter; the best music of which we are capable, the swell of organ and the harmony of voices, the most majestic and sublime compositions; the opening of the great bronze doors, a rare thing that may look easy but isn’t at all. Everything special that we know how to do we will do today. To clang! clang! the bells and proclaim the resurrection! And we go along and go along and then we come to our gospel reading. The story of the first Easter morning, as told by Mark, and the first witness of the women at the empty tomb.
It is eight brief verses. Mary Magdalene and the other women came to the tomb on Sunday morning, bearing oil and spices for burial. They found the grave empty, but for a messenger who seems to have waited for them. He told them that Jesus was not there, for he had been raised. And then gave them one single instruction: to go tell the disciples. But the women fled in terror, and they told no one, because they were very, very frightened, and they did not go to the disciples but went into hiding. They were only asked to do one thing, and they just flat out didn’t do it. There is very little relief in Mark’s story of Easter, and it astonishes us with its rushing tumble of fear and disbelieving, and especially the harsh and unforgiving words with which he ends his gospel: “They were afraid.” It’s a hard story. Do I need to say this? The gospel itself feels something like an intrusion on our celebration. A bracing cup of cold water thrown into the face of our joy. If the Mary Magdalene of Mark’s telling fled from the tomb in terror and ran into this church right now looking for refuge, we would astonish her and she us. We would not understand her fright, and our festivity would be incomprehensible to her.
Each of the evangelists — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — tells the story of Jesus in his own way, and each tells it differently. Not different in the essential proclamation, but different in emphasis and narrative flow and in the details. Mark’s version was the earliest, maybe by a long shot. The original version. The director’s cut. Matthew and Luke clearly had copies of Mark’s gospel on their desks when they wrote their own accounts, because they both quote him extensively, but then add a whole lot to it. And what they add, the details that enrich their telling, provide the brilliance of the story they have to tell. In contrast, the beauty of Mark’s telling is in its starkness, and in what he does not say.
When Jesus hung on the cross, Luke tells us that Jesus forgave his persecutors right through his suffering. He also describes Jesus’ disputation with the good thief and the bad thief. John records Jesus’ tender goodbye to his mother and his best friend. I love all of that. But the only words that Mark puts in Jesus’ lips are his terrible cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” and then a loud cry of despair or heartbreak or rage as he passed over into death.
In the same way, in the Easter morning telling, Matthew tells of the terror of the women just as Mark does, but mingles that fear with joy. Luke records that mind-bending riddle posed by the angels, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” And in John we find that most wonderful and beautiful of stories of love and grief, in the meeting of Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the garden. These were brilliant storytellers, and the stories they tell are stories we love and must have. But for Mark, it is all only about terror and astonishment, running and hiding.
I remember years ago reading the New York Times coverage of the hostage taking at the school in Beslan in Chechnya, and there were various accounts of those events by different reporters all over the front page. But one of them to my eyes was different. All journalistic detachment was stripped out of it, all objectivity. It was a long narrative torrent of words and images, rushing pell mell and tripping over itself, pouring out in the most passionate and horrified language the terrible things the reporter had seen and could not forget, ending even with a description of the soles the feet on a person being carried on a stretcher, as of, he said, “someone who had been running and running and running.” I thought, this is the most astonishing piece of journalism I have ever read. I have never forgotten it. I can’t forget it. I felt that I was reading an immediate, first person account, less of the events themselves, than of what witnessing those events meant to the reporter himself, and what seeing those things cost him. That is how I read Mark’s telling of crucifixion and Easter morning. There is no relief. No place to rest your eyes. He forces us to look first at suffering and death and then at terror, and in between the simple unadorned statement of Christ’s resurrection, and he tells it as one who saw these things, who came away with blood on his hands, who lived through the violence, the horror, and all of the fear and astonishment at an incomprehensible message. He has the urgency of one who wrote his gospel at Golgotha, and finished it in the garden, and tells us what he saw, and the terrible and wonderful things he cannot forget.
Only Mark wasn’t there. He wasn’t born until after all of these events had passed. Mark was a convert to an already established Christian community, and everything he knew or ever learned about Jesus he learned from others. And this is what fascinates me in reading him. When Mark sat with pen in hand to tell this story he was already a man filled with the same Easter joy that we readily understand. He was a churchman, and already a person of resurrection faith. He never had to hear the messenger’s words in the hour of his greatest fear, but was one who had come to these things already with understanding and explanation and reflection. Mark would have had to go to the witnesses and ask them, “What exactly did you see? What were you thinking? How did it hit you when you first saw it?” To get the raw experience.
Yet this is his story to tell and how he tells it, and I think that Mark gives no quarter, and won’t, because he will not, and will not allow us, to hear resurrection as any kind of conventional happy ending and never take for granted anything in this story except the love of God which is not a sentimental love, but one which endures not above and behind and around the horrors of human cruelty but right through the thick of it.
Which is why Mark’s story of the women at the tomb, and of doubt and sorrow and unbelieving as the first Easter response, is for me most helpful. Because the leaps of faith that get us from the empty tomb to a fully formed religion, and from the first stirrings of understanding or at least wondering to a full blown theology of Christian salvation, and from the sorrows which beat us down at graveside to the clang! clang! clanging! of the bell of Easter joy are many and they ask much of us, so that even as we come to this day ready to make our Easter acclamation and greet one another with the assurance of that Rising, I am just as certain that we every one of us still bring along our doubts and fears and questions and wondering, and all the thoughts of loved ones gone before us, and we still wonder where they are now, and we still ask if we will see them again, and we bring the certainty of our own dying and all that that knowledge means for us, so that behind our joy remain nagging questions of sin and dying and cruelty and mortality which actually I think Mary Magdalene would understand. That if she could apprehend our doubts and losses and fears she might say: “Yes, exactly, that is what I meant all the time. That was why we ran.”
The claims of Easter are extraordinary, against which the lived experience of love and loss is a powerful teacher. So along with our expressions of joy today, and our words of assurance, we also haul right into the church all of that other as well, and I am convinced that Mark is telling us to hang on to all that, and to learn how to hold two conflicting or opposing thoughts in our mind at the same time: our absolute conviction in what God has done, and all the joy of it, and the stark reality of human living and dying. The high stakes. That we might, through eyes that look upon God with every hope, but through eyes that like the women at the tomb have seen too much and hearts that have felt too deeply, still rise above ourselves and confess: even so, I believe. Not despite the impossibility of it, but because of it. And make the even greater alleluia.
So: clang! clang! clang! Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.