Easter Vigil: Rise up

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. 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. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:1-18)
We begin with a poem:
This is a strange compulsion:
to go to that dark place of death,
to reverence an empty body.
We go in sense of duty,
we go in the garb of tradition,
we go with no expectation.
There is easy access to this place:
no barring stone nor guarding soldier
sentry here.
This is the place of death.
Death is all there is to find here.
We can choose to stay,
to minister to nothingness
with our broken hands and shallow souls,
or we can seek the living
in resurrected power.
We can leave in disappointment or in awe.
Saying, “Good morning,” to the gardener
or, “Good God,” to the Lord.
(Keith Walls, "A Journey through Easter: Easter Sunday")
This, it would seem, is the question before us tonight as we stand with Mary and Peter and the other disciple at the gaping mouth of the tomb: Is it time for disappointment or for awe? Is it time to bend down, dejected, muttering “Good God” under our breath, or is it time to rise with the sun, greeting that familiar gardener with a cheery “Good morning?”

Our gospel tonight is a moving gospel. From the first words of the story, there are bodies in motion. Mary is approaching the tomb, in motion toward the body of her savior. Mary runs to find the disciples, and the disciples run to the tomb. They bend down to look inside and they stand back up to emerge into the garden.

Everything about our gospel is stooping and rising, bending down and standing up. And everything about this moment for us here tonight, keeping vigil before the resurrection dawn, is about stooping and rising, bending down and standing up, descending and ascending, burial beneath and resurrection above.

At the tomb, Peter ducks his head to see inside, Mary hunches down to enter the tomb. They stand all stand stooped over in the cave while they pick up and pass around Jesus’ gravecloths in fear. It is as if they are being physically weighed down by the magnitude of their grief and fear. Bent over inside that tomb, their situation has gone from bad to worse. Jesus has already died, and now he is missing. Grief on top of grief.

Bending over or stooping down: this is a posture of fear, chaos, defeat.

It is the posture of the Spirit of God, stooping to hover over the swirling darkness of chaos, and it is the posture of Noah ducking his head down as the first raindrops start to fall from the dark and chaotic skies.

It is the posture of Abraham bending down to tie Isaac to an unholy altar, and it is Moses, bowing his head over a rushing sea that seems impassable.

It is the posture of Ezekiel, bending his eyes downward to look over a valley of dry bones, and bending his ear to the earth in vain, knowing that there is no breath to be found in these dead bones.

It is Jonah, crouching at the edge of the ship and throwing himself down into the angry waters and hunkering down in the dark belly of a fish.

Stooping, ducking, hunkering down: these are the postures of bowing our heads in prayer, of falling to our knees in despair, of ducking our heads in fear and hanging our heads in shame. These are the postures of weak bodies collapsing under the weight of illness and of spent bodies finally falling into the long sleep of death.

We ourselves huddled our bodies around the fire in the garden tonight, trying to keep warm. We bent our heads down to our bulletins, trying to read in the dark. We sank into the pews to hear the old stories of faith, and, let’s be honest, some of our heads might have even dipped once our twice under the weight of drowsy eyes, because our weeks are exhausting and the weekends are our only time, finally, to find a little rest and quiet.

Every hunched moment in the darkness tonight has been a moment of willing the darkness of Good Friday to lift, hoping again, as if for the first time, that Christ’s death is not the end of the story.

But our bodies were not designed to live all hunched over. Our bodies were designed up to stand up tall. We were created to rise up and to hold our heads high.

Mary leaves the tomb and stands up again, giving rest to her aching shoulders. She lifts her eyes to look around the garden. She stretches her back and greets the sun, blinking in the brightness. Here, on the outside, she sees a man standing nearby, and she has enough faith to ask him where Jesus’ body might be. And of course this gardener is no ordinary gardener. He is a man well-acquainted with the motion of stooping and rising, descending and ascending. This gardener is none other than her resurrected savior.

It takes faith for us to stand up, to leave the comfort of dark tombs, to leave behind the security of grief and pain, to walk forward into the light instead of hiding out in the shadows. But this is how God works.

In the midst of the swirling waters of dark and chaos, God rises up to call the world into being.

After the flood, Noah and his family emerge from the tomb, standing once again on dry and sure ground under the curve of a rainbow.

Abraham lifts his eyes to see a ram, and Isaac climbs off the altar to stand tall next to his father.

Moses and the Israelites walk tall through the walls of water on either side of them, emerging with their lives and their liberation, jumping and dancing as they rejoice in their salvation.

Ezekiel lifts his head to see bones coming together, bone to bone, sinew to sinew, new life rising up from the ground as a symbol of God’s promise to breathe new life into his chosen people.

Jonah lifts his eyes in prayer and is cast onto shore, given a second chance, standing up on the shore as a man redeemed from certain death.

Paul asks, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Our baptism is our entrance to the tomb. We bow our heads beneath the water, stooping down that we might die to sin, die to brokenness, die to fear and condemnation, die to the old brokenness that weighs down our souls. But we rise up from those waters as people cleansed and claimed, people very much alive and full of new life, standing tall in the promise of resurrection. “For,” as Paul says, “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

No longer are we trapped in the world’s dark caves, nor are we stuck inside tombs of our own making. Christ is arisen, and he reaches his hand into our tombs, and leads us out into the sun. He reaches his hand down to pull us up. He lifts up our heads.

Christ is risen – alleluia! No longer can death weigh us down. No longer do our shoulders stoop with our brokenness. No longer do we hang our heads in shame. No longer do we crouch down in fear or dip our heads in grief.

We are risen people, people of light and of dawn, people of newness and life. We are people of God.

We hold our heads high and we leave that garden radiant with awe. No longer do we hang our heads and pray “Good God.” We hold our heads high, and greet the dawn. We lift our eyes toward our risen Christ and raise our voices to say, “Good morning.” And we believe it. For this first very good morning makes all the rest of our mornings very very good. As surely as the sun rises, we are people of the resurrection. We are the risen. Rise up, people of God. Rise up.

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