By Rev. Joan Kessler
I have had the privilege of writing Easter Day reflections for more than a decade. Every year as I sit down to write this formidable message, I ask myself “What do I have to say about this story, this event that we celebrate today?”. How do we look at the events of this day that are foundational to our life as Christians with fresh eyes and challenge our understanding of something that defies an explanation? I am speaking of course of an empty tomb.
Four gospels confirm that Jesus died by crucifixion on a Friday during Passover. Jesus was arrested and was found guilty of what crimes we do not know but the Roman authorities saw him as subversive and a threat to their power and institutions. But all four gospels depict differing accounts of the resurrection. In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene went early on Sunday morning, three days after his death. Mary Magdalene went alone to anoint Jesus’ body. She found the tomb open and empty. She called on Peter and John to come and see. And then there’s this interesting detail that the two men made a race out of who would get to the tomb first. For whatever reason, this was an important detail to the writer – everybody is running to see this sight for themselves. John’s gospel tells us that they saw the linen wrappings lying where they expected to find the body of Jesus. What they believed in that moment is not spoken of, other than the gospel writer believed they knew something about what they saw or didn’t see.
How do we approach the mystery of resurrection when we live in a wireless, Google-powered world where all our questions find answers; a world where we keep searching until we find the answers we most want? Resurrection is a fascinating conundrum for me, and it never ceases to shape my faith and what I believe and don’t believe. This year, I am running to that tomb also, out of breath, dizzy with excitement and anticipation. I love the Easter story, not because I know it happened but because I hope it happened. They are not the same. I hold the tension this day between the probability and the possibility of it happening as the gospel writers claim it happened, disregarding minor details of who was there. There is one thing I can share with all certainty and that is there was no witness to the resurrection event itself. But if I were to go looking for more proof to shore up my convictions, science might be of some assistance.
Astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, once said that “absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence”. By this he meant that if there is a lack of evidence of presence of a certain thing, it does not always conclude to the absence of that thing. It is inconclusive. When considering resurrection, I found some sage advice he offered to tother scientists, but I think it also applies to theologians. He said and I quote:
It is the responsibility of scientists never to suppress knowledge, no matter how awkward that knowledge is, no matter how it might bother those in power, we are smart enough to decide which pieces of knowledge are permissible and which are not.
I discovered this Holy Week that Pope Benedict was rather progressive in his theology and very much was a man of his times. He asked the question of whether or not resurrection contradicts science. In a quote I am about to share with you, he weaves together faith and reason and he invites us to consider the possibility of something that is beyond our experience:
Naturally, there can be no contradiction of clear scientific data. The Resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside the world of our experience. They speak of something new, something unprecedented—a new dimension of reality that is revealed. What already exists is not called into question. Rather we are told that there is a further dimension, beyond what was previously known. Does that contradict science? Can there really only ever be what there has always been? Can there not be something unexpected, something unimaginable, something new? If there really is a God, is (God) not able to create a new dimension of human existence, a new dimension of reality altogether? Is not creation actually waiting for this last and highest evolutionary leap, for the union of the finite with the infinite, for the union of (humanity) and God, for the conquest of death? (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 246–247)
A very interesting perspective from Pope Benedict that has me thinking about the much larger, cosmic picture. My hope this Easter is a YES to all his good questions, that the resurrection of Jesus we commemorate this day is not a once and for all kind of event relegated to historical accounts but rather an event that is forever shaping us, our understanding about the nature of God and how theology works. We put resurrection to the test this past month in our book study exploring the gospel accounts of the Easter story. We all spoke our truth about this story, this phenomenon, the encounter some women followers of Jesus had with otherworldly entities… angels….
And in John’s gospel, there is a conversation between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ who she mistakes for the gardener. Something was different in that moment. Her heart and mind full of grief over Jesus’ death and that separation. Is it an experience that we ourselves are maybe familiar with? The death of a spouse or a loved one and whose presence you feel most acutely in the hours, days and weeks following? Are these too not resurrection moments? How do we speak of these occurrences? How do we share our good news? Do I have to prove it to anybody else that love is stronger than death?
I return to Pope Benedict’s questions: Can there really only ever be what there has always been? Can we open ourselves to those things that are unexpected, unimaginable, something new? I think we have gathered this morning because we hope the answer is Yes! It might not make sense, there is no proof, no eyewitness account to substantiate claims that Jesus rose to new life. We are a curious people; we want firsthand experience in order to believe it. But dare I say that we embrace resurrection every moment in our life together.
The proof we need is right at the end of our noses. Look around you this morning. Go on, who is around you? New life finds us! I believe this with my whole heart and know the experience to be true. God, Spirit, Unknowable Presence, however we image the divine source that is within us and beyond us, raises things to new life, to new purposes. This is most clearly evidenced in our life together. We can’t make Jesus real any more than we can make the rain fall, or the sun shine, or the wind blow. But we have seen him…. That evidence is all around us in our life together, the values we hold, the care we show to one another, the resources we devote to our mission. What we do here is different from empty tomb places. Jesus’ absence this morning is his very presence; living within us and among us. May it be so. A blessed Easter to you all and Amen.