Alleluia! The Lord is risen! Prepare the way of the Lord! Let’s say it again together with Easter joy! Alleluia! The Lord is risen! Prepare the way of the Lord!
I’m sure it feels strange to you, to say out loud when you’re alone or in a very small group the celebratory words that we are so accustomed to bellowing loudly in a community of hundreds of other worshippers. It feels strange to me to shout with joy into an almost empty sanctuary – and not to be able to harass you into saying it louder. But that is the way it is this Easter – the Easter we will all probably remember as “The one that happened during the coronavirus.” It is an Easter in which we are separated from one another physically, huddling in our homes, confused and perplexed about what is happening to us, and wondering how we will go on from here.
So maybe it’s not such an atypical Easter after all. In fact, maybe it’s actually the closest we can come to understanding what it was to witness the first resurrection of Christ. We know from the gospels that Jesus’s disciples did not exhibit stellar behavior in the days and hours before his crucifixion. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him – and most of the others simply melted into the crowd, fearing that they would be arrested as well. Following Jesus’s death the disciples did not go about town loudly proclaiming that Jesus would be back. Instead, they went into hiding, cloistering together out of fear of the unknown – just as we are doing now.
But not all of us. Not the people charged with taking care of those of us at home –not the people who do the risky jobs that no one else wants to do. In our time, these are the people who cannot afford to stay home, who are too afraid of losing their jobs to follow the shelter-in-place protocols, like the New Jersey bus driver who complained about passengers not following the social distancing rules on his bus and was dead two weeks later. In Jesus’s time, it was the women who performed the unwanted jobs. It was the women who braved the guards and the threat of the arrest to perform the unpleasant task of caring for Jesus’s body. Like doctors, nurses, child care providers, sanitation workers, and food suppliers today, they did it because it needed to be done. They did it because it was the right thing to do.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t afraid. Matthew’s gospel tells us that as the women approached Jesus’s tomb there was a great earthquake, an angel appeared and “for fear of him the guards shook” and quite literally passed out. But the messenger from God told the women not to be afraid; in fact – he said that they should rejoice, because Jesus was no longer in the tomb, having been raised from the dead. This was amazing and unbelievable news – that their beloved rabbi and friend had somehow returned to them! And they did go with joy – but not without fear as well– fear of the unknown, fear that the good news might not be true, fear that without Jesus to guide them they would do the wrong thing.
This should sound familiar, because right now we are scared too. We are afraid because we aren’t sure what is ahead of us. We are frightened because we currently have so little control over our lives. Most of all, we are afraid that everything we believed to be true will turn out to be a lie.
Welcome to the human race. Throughout the season of Lent we have heard stories from the beginning of time and throughout the ages about people of God who lost their faith. Like us, when life got tough these people were vulnerable to the idea that they were on their own and that they needed to put themselves first, even if it meant ignoring or actively harming other human beings. That’s the way empires are built, after all – but it’s also the way they fall. The people of the 7th century before the Common Era to whom the prophet Jeremiah spoke fell into that trap. Over and over they failed to listen to the word of God, demanding control of the world around them to the detriment of themselves and others. They were selfish, unkind, and exclusionary. They were hateful, violent and greedy. They were unfaithful to the God who had created them – and yet, God continued to love them –not because they deserved it, but because God’s love is not predicated on conditions or transactions. God’s love is unconditional and everlasting.
That doesn’t mean that God’s love is not sometimes painful. It also doesn’t mean that we are excused from the suffering, cruelty and death that are part of the human condition. As Flannery O’Connor said, “Before grace heals it cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring.” But grace does come. It comes in the form of a God who is willing –again and again- to bear the pain of rejection and the terror of death so that we can always have the opportunity to open our hearts to her, and to finally accept the salvation that has been given to us.
The question is whether we are ready to do that. Right now, it may be hard to imagine turning our lives over to anyone – even one who loves us above everything else. It also seems impossible to believe that the people of this world can accept Jesus’s assurance that we don’t need to be afraid – that we can be people that focus not on the cares and concerns of our earthly bodies, but rather on the things that are above. But it can be done. I know that it can – because for every bus driver who has died because some people cared more for their own comfort than for his life, there are hundreds of people who area alive because of individuals who are putting the needs of strangers before their own –in this city, in this diocese and in this parish.
These are the things that Jesus asked his disciples to do. These are the things that make us Christian – and this stressful, fearful time gives us the opportunity to do them. In this unprecedented year it may seem to us that Lent has not ended – that we are still waiting for Easter – still waiting to be saved. But that is not what Christians believe. The message of Easter is that we do not have to wait for anything because we have already been saved. It is God who waits. It is God who waits for us to accept his proffered salvation –to prepare the way of the Lord by overcoming the confusion and fears of this world so that we can enter God’s world with thanksgiving and joy.
Every year during Holy Week, I listen to the soundtrack of the musical “Godspell.” One of its songs, “A Beautiful City,” serves to remind us that not only can we get through this crisis, but that, more importantly, we can and will find a way to live into the glorious, victorious, and marvelous salvation given to us through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – online and in person. Listen and rejoice:
“Out of the ruins and rubble, out of the smoke Out of our night of struggle can we see a ray of hope? One pale thin ray reaching for the day… We may not reach the ending but we can start; slowly but surely mending – brick by brick and heart by heart Now, maybe now we start learning how We can build a beautiful city Yes, we can. (Yes, we can) We can build a beautiful city Not a city of angels – but we can build a city of man. When your trust is all but shattered When your faith is all but killed You can give up bitter and battered Or you can slowly start to build! A Beautiful City Yes, we can. (Yes, we can) We can build a beautiful city Not a city of angels – but finally a city of man!”
Quoted in Reginald D. Bradnax, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 354.
Stephen Schwartz & John-Michael Tebelak (1971), “A Beautiful City,” from Godspell.