Easter Sunday Year C
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12
Worship resources for Easter Sunday Year C are at Worship Ways
Sermon reflection on John 20:1-18
Additional reflection on Luke 24:1-12
Additional reflection on Creation Care for Easter Sunday Year C by Professor Carole Fontaine
(originally contributed for Mission 4/1 Earth in 2013)
Reflection on John 20:1-18:
by Kathryn M. Matthews
Poor Mary Magdalene. One might think that she has it worst on this first day of the week, her hopes once high, now crushed. In John's Gospel, she comes to the grave alone (we also note that she was here in all four Gospel accounts); she hasn't come to tend the body but simply to grieve her loss, perhaps to feel closer to Jesus by keeping vigil at his tomb.
Since "it was still dark," maybe she had spent the night tossing and turning, sleepless from sorrow and grief. We wonder what she's thinking, and what she expects to find. It seems certain that she does not expect, of all things, an empty tomb.
Struggling with the finality of death
In Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text, she describes the finality of death ("the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them") and likens Mary to the "abandoned pup" who still waits for her master to return (Home by Another Way).
Still, Mary Magdalene's thoughts and feelings seem less mysterious than those of the two disciples, Peter and "the one Jesus loved" (we traditionally think of him as John). As Philip Culbertson notes, when Mary runs to tell the disciples that "they" have taken Jesus' body (and we don't know where they took it, or even who "they" are), she's "fearful," but the male disciples are "excited" – a not insignificant difference (New Proclamation Year C 2010).
Why bother to run if there's no hope?
Perhaps, when they rush to the grave, Peter and the other disciple are trying to make up for their earlier failures. The worst has now happened, and maybe they hope to prove themselves in the aftermath of the Teacher's death. When they arrive at the grave, racing, it seems, against each other (John mentions three times that the other disciple got there before Peter), they see the grave cloths left behind by Jesus, who, unlike Lazarus, did not need to be unbound by others.
This detailed description matters, for thieves would certainly not have taken the time or care to wrap up the head cloth and set it neatly aside. Whether they considered such details or not, "the disciple whom Jesus loved," the texts says, "saw and believed" (what Mary had told them, having seen with his own eyes?).
Then the two men went back home, a very different response from that of Mary, who felt compelled to share the news, and then to return to the tomb, and remain there (I often wonder why). At this point, the text tells us, Peter and John didn't make the connection between what their eyes were seeing and what their ears had heard from Jesus on more than one occasion, about his suffering, dying, and rising again.
Who's the real witness?
This seeing-and-believing theme, like that of resurrection, runs throughout John's Gospel, but it isn't clear what the two disciples believed when they returned to their houses. We know, from the end of today's passage, that Jesus still felt it necessary to commission Mary Magdalene to tell his disciples (and that means the community, really, not just the small band of "apostles") the good news. One wonders about the confidence he has in the disciples' ability to carry through even after seeing the empty grave.
This is a good moment to consider the fact that, in all four Gospels, Jesus entrusted such marvelous news and responsibility to a woman, of all people. This charge is both remarkable and ironic, given the lamentable status of women in communities of faith then and ever since, despite Mary’s faithful abiding, and her witness to the rest. (One meme says, "In the interests of biblical literacy, all the preaching about the resurrection this Easter Sunday will be done by women." Needless, to say, this will not happen.)
And that's not the only marvel, for Jesus talks with Mary "in the garden," alone, one single man, and one single woman, a quietly intimate, heartfelt conversation. If we stop to think about it for a minute, not as 21st-century readers who have experienced a least a measure of progress for women, we realize that this intimate conversation, in a very secluded place, must have shocked John's earliest audience.
Telling the least of them the good news
At this crucial moment in the Gospel story, in salvation history, a woman, Mary Magdalene, represents that thread of hope that runs through the Scriptures like indestructible gold: God's trust of the small ones, the ones on the margins, the ones without voice, the ones whom God trusts and lifts up to shine like the sun (remember the Magnificat, for example?).
How ironic, and how wonderful, that Jesus entrusts the primary proclamation of our faith to one of the "least," one of the "small ones"...and yet, how very biblical!
Many scholars note that Mary Madgdalene meets the two Pauline criteria for being an apostle, having experienced the Resurrection and received the charge to preach the gospel. Mary Magdalene was a woman apostle, overlooked for centuries, and a "silent" but powerful witness against the marginalization of women in the church. Not that that has kept church leaders from distorting this text in order to accommodate patriarchal practice: I have read more than one church document claiming that Mary was simply a messenger to the "real" witnesses, the (male) apostles.
"Whom or what are you looking for?"
The way John tells the story, there's no conversation between the two male disciples and God's messengers (the angels), or with Jesus himself. That kind of encounter waits for Mary to return to the grave, still faithful, still present, still waiting. Still weeping, too.
Why does she look in the tomb again? What does she expect to see – the body returned? Evidence of where it was taken, or who took it? We don't know, nor do we know whether she perceives the angels to be more than ordinary people, for her grief has focused on where Jesus' body has been taken.
Even when Mary turns and faces Jesus himself, she doesn't recognize him. It's surely no accident that the question he asks of her is the same one asked twice before in John's Gospel: first, of the inquisitive disciples-to-be ("What are you looking for?" 1:38), and later, of the mob who came to arrest Jesus ("Whom are you looking for?" 18:4; see Mary Margaret Pazdan, The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
Nothing will ever be the same
John doesn't concern himself with the technical details of "how" Jesus was raised. Instead, he emphasizes the profound change in the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and all of the disciples of Jesus right down to us, today. From now on, Mary Margaret Pazdan writes, the disciples of Jesus are even more than they were before: "Jesus' hour of glorification enables the disciples to be children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus, ...[not] persons who are under parental care as dependents...[but] adult believers who belong to the household of God" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
The story in the garden, so lovely that it inspired a hymn by that name, is a deeply personal experience of the resurrection. Maybe that's why some folks are uncomfortable with that hymn, dismissing it as "sentimental" and too "personal," that is, if they miss the third verse that tells Mary, and us, not to linger there, waiting for Jesus, but to go back into the world that is suffering. We have been assured that we will find him there, in that suffering and need.
Bringing the personal and the communal together
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan's book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus' Last Days in Jerusalem, culminates in the Easter experience and its two-fold significance, both personal and communal. Crossan and Borg say that our joyful proclamation, along with Mary Magdalene, that "Jesus lives" is a claim about Jesus today, in our own life and time.
Like the earliest Christians, we follow "The Way," a way, according to Borg and Crossan, that leads to our transformation. Mary Magdalene's garden encounter with the risen Christ is familiar to us in different forms today, when we experience resurrection and new life, when we encounter the risen Christ in our own lives.
God defeats the powers that be
But there is the other side, too, for the resurrection is God's way of defeating and denying the powers that be that were responsible for his death, including empires both ancient and contemporary. We are reminded that Jesus is really in charge, not the petty powers that seem to rule the world in every age.
And that, Borg and Crossan write, tells us something about God and what God is about, for God is about repairing the damage that has been done, and is calling us to join in the work (The Last Week).
Dare to distribute justice
We may feel very close to Jesus when we imagine ourselves in the garden, walking and talking with our risen Lord. But following Jesus after that encounter means caring about Jesus' great passion, which is also the great passion of God: Borg and Crossan call it "the Dream of God," the well-known "Kingdom of God," when all of God's children will live in shalom, with enough for all, and healing, peace, justice, and mercy will reign (The Last Week).
Borg and Crossan even dare to use the word "distributive" – a word that sounds a lot like the controversial "redistribution" that has become a hot button in our political discourse, particularly in this divisive, endless election season.
The reality of God
This beautiful world of God's Dream, Borg and Crossan write, calls us to be "grounded ever more deeply in the reality of God, whose heart is justice," which is, they claim, "the political meaning of Good Friday and Easter" (The Last Week). That sounds as if there is more for us to do than merely take good news back to the others: it's a call for our whole lives, a way to live them.
The world should be able to see in our lives our own passion for the truth that Jesus is risen and that God has indeed begun the "Great Clean-up," the work that requires our participation. If we go back to our lives tomorrow as if nothing has changed, what then have we really experienced? Do you think the world is ready to hear a "political" meaning in Easter?
How do we respond to the resurrection?
John K. Stendahl's insightful commentary on this text contrasts the boyish racing between Peter and the other disciple with the depth of feeling in Mary Magdalene's response to the resurrection. The difference between the two notes struck by this account – almost comical, and deeply tragic – is a font for preaching: not just one or the other meaning is worth our attention, Stendahl claims, but both, because different people respond differently to the resurrection (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).
I remember what that was like in Bible study in the local church, with one church member who had a doctorate in science viewing the resurrection story through a different lens than another person, who simply took the story at face value. Both of them, in some mysterious way, grasped the truth of the resurrection and proclaimed together in worship, "Jesus is risen!"
There is a delicate and deep interplay between faith and life experience, even life stages and cultural conditioning. The people in our pews, members and visitors alike on this Easter Sunday, are each in a place and time in their lives when they need to hear a word of hope and new life, even if each one hears it differently.
Could this news be too good to be true?
What do you expect from life? In your relationships and ministry, in your family, your neighborhood, your community, the nation, and the world, in your own congregation and in the United Church of Christ, what do you dare to hope for? When you come to church on Sunday morning and prepare for worship, what do you expect to happen that day?
When you go to meetings, write sermons, keep appointments, visit the sick, make plans, dream dreams, what do you expect to see? Have you ever done the things you planned to do, and then witnessed something, or even experienced something, that you never thought would happen? When have you been surprised, caught off guard by good news and unforeseen joy?
Seeing and telling
Has anything ever happened in your life, or the life of your church, that seemed too good to be true? Have you ever received news so good that it required a re-appraisal of your worldview? What evidence did you need in order to trust in the good news? What did you need to "see" in order to "go tell"?
This was the moment that changed the world, and, hopefully, our expectations, even today, two thousand years later. Where do you stand in a world made new by the events of Easter Sunday so long ago? Where does your church stand in such a world? What, then, will you do?
"At the Heart of Easter Sunday is a Woman." Wait. What? At the heart of Easter Sunday is a woman? It was right there on Facebook, and we all know it must be true if it's on Facebook, right? The Ursuline nuns (who were my grade-school teachers so I totally trust them) had posted a short reflection written by a playwright named Norman Allen, who's not technically a theologian but sometimes playwrights and poets are better theologians than, well, the official theologians are.
Mr. Allen focuses on Mary Magdalene in today's story from the Gospel of John – although, I have to mention, Mary Magdalene is actually at the tomb in all four of the Gospels. Anyway, he says something so surprising that even this ardent feminist was taken aback: "Easter," he writes, "isn't about the resurrection of Jesus. It's about the enormous achievement of his star pupil, who has the courage to open her eyes to new possibility."
What about Mary Magdalene?
My goodness. How far we've come in a few short years, since I was taught that women could not be ordained because there weren't any women apostles, and they couldn't be apostles because they were not witnesses to the resurrection, and when someone asked the bright question, "What about Mary Magdalene?" - the official church teachers wrote, in an official church document, and I am not making this up, "The women at the tomb were sent to inform the 'real' witnesses to the resurrection, who were the male disciples."
In my head, I would silently add, "who were hiding out, scared, behind closed doors." Which is how I used to survive reading things like that, and I have to wonder if the Ursulines were maybe having a little fun by posting Mr. Allen's reflection.
Let's be clear about what we're saying
Still, I don't agree with him that Easter is not about the resurrection of Jesus. Of course it's about the resurrection of Jesus. But, if you stay with Facebook, you find lots of fascinating conversations about what that means. For example, when a pastor dismisses the movie, "Heaven is For Real," one of his friends laments what he sees as the loss of the doctrine of the resurrection; here's what he says: "It's the impetus for the dispensationalist lens which so badly distorts our anthropology, ecclesiology, eschatology, and eco-theology, to name a few." Wow.
I confess that, no matter how many theology classes I've sat in, or how many books I have on my bookshelves, my eyes glaze over when we church folks over-intellectualize and can't get to the heart of the matter on the teachings that are most important to our faith. And Easter is at the heart of what we Christians proclaim as the good news: Jesus Christ is risen! Jesus Christ is alive.
Looking for a different lens
I'm not saying that we could ever fully explain the resurrection, but I do think we can look for different lenses through which we can view it. Stories are really good ways to do that, like the story of Mary Magdalene, who comes to the tomb feeling so blue, so bereft, and wanting to feel a little closer to Jesus; maybe it's easier for her to grieve there, or, maybe she no longer has any place else to go. I'm guessing, in any case, she isn't there because she expects the tomb to be empty.
After Mary goes to tell those "real" witnesses to the resurrection, and Peter and John come running to see the empty tomb for themselves, the Gospel says, "they saw and believed" – they do something odd: they go home! I'm not sure what I would have done in their situation, but I can't imagine simply going back home.
Apparently, neither can Mary. She hangs around, weeping, checking the tomb again, like we do when we've lost something and keep looking for it in the same place, again and again. Suddenly, she's talking with angels, and then, with the risen Jesus himself.
Too tender, too personal?
Way back in 1975, I remembering watching the Robert Altman film, "Nashville." One of the characters, a country-western singer, was in the hospital and quite frail, emotionally and mentally as well as physically. In one scene, she sat in a wheelchair in the chapel and softly sang a hymn I'd never heard before: ...."and he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own...."
As she sang about the risen Jesus meeting Mary Magdalene in the garden, it felt to me like she was also telling her own story of feeling close to Jesus, like a lost lamb being gathered up by her Good Shepherd and taken back to the flock. It touched my heart in ways that I couldn't explain, because, to be honest, belief for me at that point in my life was up here, in my head, not here, in my heart.
So when I went to seminary twenty years later, I was disappointed to hear my teachers dismiss that hymn, "In the Garden"; what felt tender to me, they saw as sentimental, too focused on a private relationship with God, a kind of "me-and-Jesus" faith. But I still found it moving.
Joy and hope
Some folks say the resurrection is about joy, others say hope; I appreciate the way Marcus Borg calls it "God's yes to Jesus and God's no to the powers that be" – the empires of violence, injustice and greed that try to rule our lives today just as they killed Jesus long ago.
But God, Borg reminds us, said no to all that and yes to Jesus. Jesus, who told us that everyone would know that we are his followers if we love each other. So I think we can also say that the resurrection is about love.
Tell them that God loves them
Years ago, at the church where I served, we had a lively little Thursday-night Bible study group that often discussed that week's sermon. One Easter Sunday, someone, not our pastor, had done the children's message and had valiantly attempted to explain the resurrection to a group of very young children. I don't remember what that person said, but clearly it went right over, or around, their heads.
A member of our group, Beth, long-retired after many years as a church educator, was a font of wisdom: I'll never forget how frustrated, almost incensed, she was by that sermon. I can still hear her New England-accented voice: "The one lesson we need to teach children at that age," she said emphatically, "is that God loves them. They don't need to understand all the technicalities when they're little; they just need to hear, in many different ways, that God loves them so much." Isn't that what we need to hear at every age, not just when we're young?
Moving out into the world
By the way, years later, I noticed that the third verse of "In the Garden" actually moves outward, into the world, not just inward. While Mary wants to linger with Jesus, to "hold onto" him in that beautiful, peaceful place after the nightmare of the previous week, Jesus tells her to go, to answer "the voice of woe" that springs from the suffering of the world every day, not just on Good Friday.
Each time we hear Jesus in that voice of woe, and see him in every suffering sister or brother and in the suffering of creation itself, every time we respond in love, we meet him again and again in a different, but very real, face-to-face experience of the Resurrection. Just in case you don't believe me, I read it there on Facebook. The post said: "It's about love. All of it. Always." That opens our eyes to all sorts of new possibilities, doesn't it?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Carolyn Heilbrun, 20th century
"Power consists in deciding which story shall be told."
Pope John Paul II, quoting Augustine, 4th century
"Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song."
Arundhati Roy, 21st century
"Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, 21st century
"To say that there is not enough money is just a lie. There's plenty of money in the world; it's just not going to health care for poor people."
Emily Dickinson. 19th century
"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else."
George Eliot, 19th century
"It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them. "
Martin Luther, 16th century
"Be thou comforted, little dog, Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail."
So, first they rest, these women disciples, as they should on the Sabbath. But then they get themselves up, pull themselves together, gather the spices and go to work - to serve, to anoint the body of Jesus. Jesus, their beloved teacher, the reason they had had hope, if only for a little while, a hope that appears to be dashed after his crucifixion.
Then something amazing happens: they find the stone rolled away, the tomb empty except for two men in dazzling white clothes.
Reminding them of Jesus' words
The women are terrified, of course, but then the angels proceed to do a reassuring little Sunday school lesson with them, reminding them in a "He told you so, didn't he?" way that this empty tomb should really come as no surprise. It actually makes a lot of sense if they think back on all that Jesus said and did in their presence. "Ohhhh, that's right, we remember now..." - and they run back to the apostles, the eleven, the men who are hiding behind locked doors, shaking with fear (not that we blame them, after what they've seen and experienced in the past few days).
Mary Magdalene and the other women tell the apostles about the empty tomb and the dazzling men but the apostles, who are already very important, "know better" than these silly women and don't believe what they say. Who would ever put stock in the words of women, aside from Jesus, that is? But then, Jesus is dead and gone now, isn't he? Peter gets up anyway, just to see with his own eyes that the tomb is indeed empty. And he goes home "amazed."
A simple little word says it all
Sometimes it's the simple little things that make us stop and think, and help us to understand. For example, Theodore Wardlaw has noticed the many times Luke uses the word "but" in his telling of the Easter story: such a simple little word, but such a powerful one. Theologians and commentators write voluminously about the meaning of the resurrection, but much of what they say might be summarized in the "but" that keeps bringing us up short, "grabbing us by the lapels," Wardlaw writes, "stopping us in our tracks and forcing us to understand that no matter what we've heard, we haven't heard the whole story yet" (The Christian Century, March 20, 2007).
Wardlaw calls the word "but" a "defiant conjunction" that gets in the face of every cynical, hopeless, harsh evaluation of the state of the things – in the state of the world, and in the state of our lives, every doomsday prediction and pessimistic riff on the meaning of our lives, the value of our actions and the validity of our hope.
This little word continues the conversation but changes the direction of things, dramatically, saying that God hasn't spoken the last word, not yet, not in the situation we find ourselves in any more than God had spoken the last word on Good Friday long ago.
Facing the tombs of our "Friday" lives
This has to mean something to each one of us, then, when we face the "tombs" of our lives: the losses and disappointments, heartbreaks and failures, tragic deaths and prolonged illnesses, loneliness and despair. Those tombs are our "Friday" lives, and Jesus shares them with us.
But (there's that word again, and again) Jesus also shares Sunday, and resurrection, new life and new hope, with us. It wasn't a one-time thing, the resurrection of Jesus. It was, instead, the dawning of a new day, and new life as well.
In the Isaiah reading for this Easter Sunday, God promises to do something new and really big: to "create a new heavens and a new earth" (65:17). No matter what things look like now, this Easter morning says, Wait. Stop. But. We are part of something greater than ourselves, and our lives are lived in a new age of hope.
Remembering what Jesus said and what he did
The women at the tomb in this Easter Sunday account are faithful disciples who set out to serve and, in the process, learn a lesson that begins with remembering: this amazing moment actually makes sense if they remember all that Jesus said and did, and connect that with what they see before them, their personal experience.
In The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels, Paul Scott Wilson claims that the raising of Jesus authenticated his teachings and his deeds, and that our study and remembering of them, in the light of our own experience and that of the community, leads us to deeper faith. If we can't experience our faith, personally, no amount of abstract knowledge will have the power to change our lives. (This has been a difficult lesson for the institutional church.)
God's promises fulfilled
This empty tomb, then, is about the fulfillment of God's purposes, the same God who long before spoke of "new heavens and a new earth." N.T. Wright says that Easter Sunday began this new creation and grounded it in hope (The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, with Marcus Borg).
This isn't only about "my own personal life after I die," then, but about God's whole new creation, God's new age, an age and a way of being that continually calls us to the table, to reconciliation and healing, to compassion and justice, to participation in the wonders of God's new age, God's new earth. There is a commissioning for each one of us and for our communities of faith to join in what God is doing.
Stepping into the pulpit this Sunday and facing the questions
Preachers will step into pulpits on Easter Sunday in churches all around the world and try to say a new word about the ever ancient, ever new word of God, about God's "yes" to Jesus and God's "no" to the powers that killed Jesus but failed in the end – a failed plot, one might call it. One might ask the preacher, "How does something that happened so long ago matter to me today, especially with everything I'm going through right here and right now? What does this all have to do with me and my life, and my problems? Where do I fit into this picture?"
N.T. Wright urges us to see our lives in a new light: "Acts of justice and mercy, the creation of beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness – these all matter, and they matter forever" (The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions).
Beginning of a new age
And so, instead of being the end of the story, Easter is the beginning of a new age in which we live, an age that has begun but has not come in its fullness. Still, the people suffer. Still, the people war. Still, our hearts are torn and our health worries us, our loved ones die and our doubts trouble us within.
But God is still in charge, and that makes all the difference in the world for us, in the meantime, as we work and hope and trust.
"If the threats come to be fulfilled..."
In our story, in the story of faith, there is always that "but," and it carries us through every suffering, every loss, every Friday experience, knowing that the God of life will have the last word. I recall the exquisite words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, before his assassination by the powers that be over thirty years ago: "I have often been threatened with death. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality."
Jesus knew that his death would not be the end of the story; he knew that his blood would be "a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be a reality."
Loving the world anyway
However, I like to think that Easter isn't just a defiant conjunction like "but" – I like to think Easter is an adverb, too, specifically the adverb "anyway." I read somewhere that Mother Teresa had a little poem by Kent Keith, "Anyway," framed on her wall. She certainly was someone who knew something about suffering and faithfulness (and doubt, we have later come to understand) and, I suspect, resurrection and new life, too.
Like Mother Teresa, I had this poem framed on my office wall, and I really should get up out of my chair and read it more often. It reminds us of all the things we know about "people" – how "unreasonable, illogical and self-centered" they are, and tells us to "love them anyway." It tells us to "do good anyway," no matter what.
Anyway, nevertheless, regardless
I looked up this little adverb, "anyway," in the dictionary and there it is: "nevertheless," "regardless," it says. The powers that be killed Jesus, the sin of the world cut him down; nevertheless, God raised Jesus up.
God raised Jesus up anyway. Hatred and fear and violence thundered on Friday, but God had the last word, anyway, on Sunday, because God loved the world too much to bring to an end the beautiful new creation that God had promised through the prophet Isaiah long ago.
Happening before our eyes, too
But the Bible isn't just about things that happened a long time ago and far away to people we'll never know and can't relate to, like Isaiah and Mary Magdalene and Peter. This "anyway" happens all the time in our lives, too, right here and now. We know we sin, we all fall short of the glory of God, we fail – a lot – and God loves us anyway. We face loss and death and the ever-so-brief glory of our living, of all our accomplishments and plans, and God promises us new life, healing and wholeness anyway.
Our relationships crash and burn, our kids worry us, there's never enough money, and God reassures us anyway, God offers us peace and wholeness and reconciliation. We turn away from God, and God offers us grace, anyway.
Which story do we tell?
If it's true, as Carolyn Heilbrun once said, that "power consists in deciding which story shall be told," then there is great power in our deciding to tell the story of the resurrection over and over again, in every situation, good or bad. It reminds us of who we are as people of faith, but more importantly, of who God is.
Justo L. González describes this important moment in the gospel story, after the death of Jesus: "The resurrection is not the continuation of the story. Nor is it just its happy ending. It is the beginning of a new story, of a new age in history….What now remain are no more than skirmishes in a battle that has already been won" (Luke, Belief Series).
Why come to church?
Isn't this why folks come to church on Sunday morning? Don't we come from our problems and struggles in the hope of hearing a Word from the Lord? Doesn't that Word of God sustain us in hospital beds and waiting rooms alike, at gravesites and in the longest night of deep agony, doesn't this Word comfort us and challenge us, guide us and surprise and delight us?
Aren't we then experiencing the new life of resurrection in the new age, the new creation begun on the first Easter Sunday morning? Every time we come to the table where all are welcome, we break bread together as a sign of our hope for that new creation in all its fullness, not just in glimpses and promises.
Challenge and joy and perhaps threat as well
Every Easter, we're reminded that we are not lost, and that we are part of the new story that has begun. But being part of that story means not returning to our homes and our lives unchanged. Justo L. González notes that those women and Peter himself and all the disciples coming out of their hiding place could have just gone back home to their work and their lives, disappointed but resigned.
But the "joyous event" of the resurrection calls us to pick up our cross and carry it on the path of "faithful discipleship," a "risky enterprise," for "things would be much simpler and safer if one were not impelled by the resurrection to oppose injustice, oppression, and all forms of evil. The full message of Easter is both of joy and of challenge" (Luke, Belief Series).
Has nothing really changed?
Just as the Gospels were shaped by the context in which they were written, so the context in which we hear this message of joy and challenge may inform the way we receive it. Pendleton B. Peery writes: "In our comfortable, Western, first-world context, we tend to see the resurrection as the epilogue to the story of Jesus' life and death. Through our ordered worship and well-rehearsed liturgical routines, we work our way right up to the empty tomb of Easter morning, only to walk away from the experience as if nothing has changed" ("Theological Perspective Luke 24:1-12," Feasting on the Gospels: Luke).
Peery and González both recall the title of a poem by the Guatemalan Presbyterian, Julia Esquivel, who sensed that there are those who will be "Threatened by Resurrection."
Overhearing the good news
So we might imagine ourselves sitting in a corner in a room where we listen as this story is read by those who live in poverty, who bear the consequences of the unjust use of natural resources, the degradation of our climate, and the appropriating of an unfair share of the world's wealth. There are countless children of God who live lives of hunger, poverty, violence and oppression, and at least some of the time, our own lifestyle may contribute to their suffering.
For them, Peery says, the empty tomb means "that Christ has claimed victory over the powers that perpetrate violence, injustice, a world full of proscribed, dead-end possibilities, many of which keep our first-world lifestyle secure while the two-thirds world suffers under the weight of oppression. For those who are less wed to the world the way it is, the good news of resurrection takes center stage. It is no epilogue. It is a game changer" ("Theological Perspective Luke 24:1-12," Feasting on the Gospels: Luke).
This is certainly an uncomfortable lens to use as we read this story: good news that "threatens" to change our lives in painful ways.
"I love you, and I am not dead"
One of my favorite books of all time is The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. (Spoiler alert: I'm going to give away the end of the story. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, you may not want to read this section of the reflection.) The main character, the narrator who tells us her story through her letters addressed to God, is Celie, a poor black woman who has been abused all her life.
But Celie has somebody in her life who loves her, her sister Nettie, who gets chased away by Celie’s violent husband, Albert. Albert doesn't let Celie ever see the mail, so Celie never hears from Nettie and starts to believe that her sister is dead.
But Nettie isn't dead. She has gone to Africa as a missionary and writes to Celie many letters over the years; she never gets a reply, but she keeps writing letters to Celie anyway. Then, one day, Celie finds the packet of letter from Nettie that Albert has stashed away under the floorboards. "Dear Celie," Nettie writes, "I know you think I am dead. But I am not." Nettie explains that she has been faithfully writing to Celie all along, and she continues to try to reach her, to tell her, "one thing I want you to know, I love you, and I am not dead." These are some of my favorite words in all of literature.
"You may think..."
"I love you, and I am not dead." You may think I am dead and you are unloved, but I am not dead, and you are loved. Celie suffers terrible childhood abuse from her father, and further abuse through her forced marriage to a violent man, has her babies taken away from her and her sister driven from her, but God loves Celie and her life, so full of hardship because of the hard-heartedness of others, is transformed anyway.
When Celie and Nettie are both old and gray, they are finally reunited, and they fall down on the ground with joy. Everyone, she says, must be thinking about how old they look. "But I don't think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt." Old, but young and new, anyway.
Easter is God's Yes to Jesus and to new life and new creation and to us. When the world said or says no to Jesus and to new life and new creation, to reconciliation and peace, justice and healing and mercy, God says yes anyway and raises up our hope. Jesus says, I love you, and I am not dead. Of all the sweet sounds that we may hear, are any words sweeter to our ear than those?
For further reflection:
N.T. Wright, 21st century
"Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord's Prayer is about."
"The message of Easter is that God's new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you're now invited to belong to it."
Eugene H. Peterson, 21st century
"It is not easy to convey a sense of wonder, let alone resurrection wonder, to another. It's the very nature of wonder to catch us off guard, to circumvent expectations and assumptions. Wonder can't be packaged, and it can't be worked up. It requires some sense of being there and some sense of engagement."
Brennan Manning, 21st century
"For me the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ."
Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, 20th century
"Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God."
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of Christ risen."
It is quite literally an "inspired" act to celebrate this year's entry into Eastertide--50 great days of renewal--with a dedication of our church's commitment to make manifest to all what we Christians have experienced and continue to experience in the culmination of the year's liturgical seasons. Now, at the time of new growth, we reflect on how God has grown us into full beings in Christ--taking us from trembling shepherds learning of a special birth but not knowing how it will impact their lives in any particular way, to members of a yearning crowd, following Jesus through Galilee as he heals, preaches, teaches, and casts out what is unclean and life-destroying from our midst.
Now, the pain of the cruel Passover in Jerusalem is behind us; the struggle to understand how our beloved leader could have been murdered so horribly as a political criminal, how his followers could have scattered so quickly, and been so deeply bereft that they forgot all else...all this is over, and we begin to see the light. Finally. Firstly. The people of the Jesus Movement begin to understand that what was proclaimed in Third Isaiah, as the Jewish people awaited restoration to their land after a long Exile, is happening right in front of them NOW: God is really making a "new heaven and new earth," and we, all of us, then and now, are the lucky ones who get to see it, live it, and make it manifest.
It is clear that planet Earth requires a new reading of biblical theology in order to assist in the creation of God's new heaven and new earth. Our problems go too deep to simply rehearse again stories of a flood or theories of predestination which rob us of our sense of urgency and make us feel that nothing can be done to heal our world. Fortunately, theologians from around the world have given us a set of principles by which to investigate the biblical witness about Creation. These "ecojustice" principles are:
1. Intrinsic worth: the universe, Earth and all its components have intrinsic worth/value.
2. Interconnectedness: Earth is a community of interconnected living things that are mutually dependent on each other for life and survival.
3. Voice: Earth is a subject capable of raising its voice in celebration and against injustice.
4. Purpose: the Universe, Earth and all its components, are part of a dynamic cosmic design within which each piece has a place in the overall goal of that design.
5. Mutual custodianship: Earth is a balanced and diverse domain where responsible custodians can function as partners, rather than rulers, to sustain a balanced and diverse Earth community.
6. Resistance: Earth and its components not only suffer from injustices at the hands of humans, but actively resist them in the struggle for justice. (1)
Throughout the Gospels, we have seen Jesus of Nazareth as a Shepherd, not just of people or flocks, but of Planet Earth. He is the Mortal One ("Son of Man," which originally meant a typical human who could die, before it ever became a special title for a chosen Messiah), living lightly from the land and rejecting the notion that Roman wealth and power were the source of meaning for people.
When we fretted for worry over what might come next, he directed us to consider flowers and how they grew--naturally, beautifully, brilliantly, as God made them to do. When we wondered what to pack in order to follow him on his mission, he gently taught us that we need much less by way of material comfort than our acquisitive natures would have us believe. When it was time to eat, he told us all to share what we had, because there is always enough to go around--such is the abundance of the Good Land when we give up ideals of personal profit. When it was time to pray, he directed us to the wilderness, or to remove ourselves from the show that requires man-made temples in which to flaunt our faith in fine robes; instead, he taught us to sigh deeply, to move off into the silence of a garden or a mountain, and find God, as always, everywhere we turn.
It is a matter of amazement, generally, that such a humble and approachable Teacher could have been perceived as such a threat to the establishment of Roman exploitation of occupied countries. Jesus was likewise a goad to the local leaders of his own people in Judea who collaborated, hand in glove, with the Roman authorities. Together, these two groups conspired to denude the Promised Land of all its natural products on which the people lived, turning them instead into commodities from which Rome could profit--an easy harvest with no planting, a windfall with no bother--and if the people of Judea and Idumea starved, well--they weren't the chosen ones for whose benefit the Empire flourished and consumed land after land.
It is no wonder that Jesus' first ministry was in Galilee, a formerly neglected area under Roman Occupation, but one which had recently come under harsh policies of Romanization under the cagey Herod Antipas, described as a fox (no doubt meant to remind the listeners of the "little foxes" who steal and spoil the harvest of grapes in the Song of Songs). Fishermen were starving and growing poorer by the day, while their daily catch was appropriated, processed and salted to be sent on to Rome for consumption by the wealthy.
What must that have been like, to watch the result of your work, the livelihood you needed to feed your children and elders, wrenched away by overlords, as you were sent away to catch more, only to turn it over to the occupiers once again? Is it any wonder that when Jesus proclaimed "blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven," there was as much consternation and confusion as there were cheers? What COULD he have meant by that?? Was it a joke? Was it true? What did it mean? and How could one come to be part of that kingdom, especially if you found yourself at the very bottom of society's heap?
The Kingdom, of course, was already much nearer than the people could imagine, requiring only a deep listening to the yearning of the human heart, and a reassessment of what mattered and what did not. Jesus was not speaking of a "place," especially not one in some distant sky, where all would be trouble-free; he was gesturing toward a "dimension" in which God's Presence is felt fully and continually in the moment, every moment.
In such a frame of reference, it truly does NOT matter if one is rich or poor, as material goods come to mean less and less. In the dimension of God, the pain of one is shared by the other; the hunger of a child is experienced as one's own hunger, and through that new relatedness, hungers are fed, and goods are shared. The poor have always lived in such an existential kingdom, though usually it is bound up with want, care, and hopelessness: they have no plans for a better future; they are simply hoping to survive the day at hand.(2)
So, asking for their daily bread on the day they need it is eminently sensible, and having the trust that on the next day, God will make those needs manageable, too, through Christian generosity and shared responsibility--well, just imagine what it would be like to live with so little stress of future worries, based on the trust in God and community we have experienced in our Now! It would be, on many levels, like having been resurrected from the horror of need, and the grind of acquisition. One would be free to simply be, existing in the moment of fellowship with God and humanity...and Earth.
This new "Christ-consciousness" which winds up changing everything has been well explored by poets of every faith during every age and epoch. D.H. Lawrence writes:
When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,
and when we escape like squirrels turning in the cages of our personality
and get into the forests again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don't know ourselves.
Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like burnt paper. (3)
This new Heaven and new Earth is the creation which the ancient prophet longed for, and which the Easter Event creates in the new believing community. All is to exist in a harmonious whole, each according to its nature: there will be no hunger, no barrenness, no war, no illness, but rather a shared reality where each contributes and each is sustained. This balance of human and natural ecology is the exact antithesis of the consumer mentality that has invaded the modern world, teaching us to rape and trample Creation rather than celebrate it for the miracle it is.
We look for unending expansion, endless goods to use up and toss aside when finished, as we stomp through a landscape already made pathetic and lifeless by our careless treatment of natural living systems. We have interpreted our Scriptures to focus on only ourselves as the "crown" of Creation: made in God's own image, we have taken that affirmation to mean NOT that we must be thoughtful caregivers of Creation, but that we are owners and users of lifeless matter whose only meaning is in our consumption of it.
But God has other ideas, and Creation itself witnesses against our careless use of it. We are part of Creation, subject to its same laws of increase and decrease, of intertwined dependency. As one generation yields to another, like one crop coming to harvest after another, we must use our Easter Dimension consciousness to return ourselves to proper relationship to all else. If the seas rise because we have heated the planet to boiling and launched a feedback loop which has changed our planet's living conditions, will we call it an "Act of God" when the coral reefs die, the crops fail, and the land is plagued by drought?
When whole peoples are displaced because of flooding and climate degradation, when wars break out over scarce resources, when culture declines when the carbon fuels are all gone, will we wonder why God has "done" this to us as punishment, or will we finally realize then that in the web of connection, our bad acts against creation are all just waiting to catch up with us? Will we try to hop off to another planet to exploit, having spoiled this paradise for future generations? Or will we turn and repent, and discover that Easter is waiting for us with hope?
Peter says in Acts 10 that Jesus' death comes "by hanging him on a tree," the common way in which the Romans publically displayed the results of contradicting Rome's narrative of power. Just as we cut down trees for quick and cheap energy, and at the same time remove some of the powerful intertwining benefits provided to oxygen-breathing creatures by the primal rain forests, so Rome thought it could cut down trees of hope, and turn them into instruments of murder and torture.
Yet, trees, all through the stories of our sacred texts, have carried a powerful symbolic meaning for the community. The first trees supply the human diet (Gen. 1:29), without benefit of sowing and reaping; the special trees in Eden are the source of infinite knowledge and endless life--unless appropriated by greedy and blind human hands that eat at the wrong time or for the wrong reason (Gen. 2:9, 17). Abraham meets angels beneath a great Oak tree (Gen. 18:1), and Moses learns that God is indeed a savior to the slave when he encounters a tree-like bush that burns with divine flame without dying of it! (Ex. 3:2)
Prophetesses sit beneath their trees (Jdg. 5), giving counsel and leading the people; trees in Psalms are the very image of the Good Life, flourishing by streams of pure water (Ps. 1:3). Divine Wisdom, who scolds like a Mother or beckons like a Lover (Prov. 1:20-33, 3:13-17), is said to be a "tree of life" (Prov. 3:18) to all those who find her and hold fast to her sage teachings.
Even Job, as he hungers for a death which can end his pain of living, believes that "there is hope for a tree" (Job 14:7-12), even if it is cut down: when the scent of water reaches it, it will revive and live again. And out of the burnt stump of the Tree of Jesse, the line of David of which Jesus is said to be the latest manifestation, comes finally a Messiah, someone anointed to open our eyes, and spare us from the fate of our silly, narrow goals and visions (Isa. 4:2, 11:1-2; Zech. 3:8, 6:12).
In the final book of the Bible, Revelation, the pure River of Life flows from God's throne and beside it is the Tree of Life, once again producing every kind of fruit for healing and sustenance of the life of the world (Rev. 22:2-3). What the world meant for the death of hope, that Tree of the Cross, God instead transforms into the First Fruits of Life in Jesus. We need not fear death, or want: our future is secure as blessed creatures living in harmony with all that God has made and given us as gift, and on Easter, we finally come to realize this.
The Gospel is quietly directing us to this happy ending, even in so dreadful a moment as when the women disciples find that Jesus' battered body is nowhere to be found: instead, Mary is questioned by a Gardener about her concerns, only to realize that it is indeed Jesus, her beloved Teacher, who addresses her. Death cannot conquer Love, however it tries: whatever the questions our lives may pose, Love is always the Answer, and the death of Jesus as the Innocent who in no way deserved it is our Emblem of Hope.
Is it too late for Planet Earth, then? Are the seas too hot, the glaciers too fragile, the drought too great? NO! It is not too late; it is never too late, says the God who Resurrects Life. Yes, even if we act now, as we surely must, there will be great change to the climate and planet into which we were born. This is the clear result of our arrogance, greed and sin, and much of it cannot be averted--but we must never name it as God's Will, or the Final Chapter of the Earth.
If we begin now, and act with clear vision and relentless purpose, we may yet conserve much of this beautiful world we have inherited, and keep it verdant and fit for life. But our dedication must be complete and absolute, equal to the depth of the risks we face. We must be like the early Christians who took their message into every village, every country, and every place of power. Only a sustained commitment can turn back the disasters that we have unthinkingly unleashed upon the worlds we know, and there is no better group to take up this challenge than the people who know about Life.
The Tree that symbolized death, in our eyes of faith, has been transformed into a vision of the Tree of Life, nourished by the healing, pure waters that feed all life on this planet. We have seen the First Fruits already; we share it amongst ourselves every time we come together to worship in the name of Jesus. Now, we must turn outward, and share it with the whole Planet in one, whole affirmation of God's New Heaven and New Earth. We can do this; God has promised us so. Good trees bear good fruit, says our Beloved Messiah; by our fruits, then, let the World come to know us as His.
1. "Guiding Ecojustice Principles," pp. 38-53 in Readings from the Perspective of Earth, ed. Norman C. Habel (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).
2. God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, J. Dominic Crossan (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 97-123.
3. Earth Prayers from Around the World, ed. E. Roberts and E. Amidon (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), p. 101.
Dr. Carole R. Fontaine is the Taylor Professor of Biblical Theology and History at Andover Newton Theological School and an internationally recognized feminist scholar in Hebrew Bible.
Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant
that lives but a few days,
or an old person
who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years
will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree
shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord —
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
O give thanks to God,
for God is good;
God's steadfast love
Let Israel say,
"God's steadfast love endures forever."
God is my strength and my might;
God has become my salvation.
There are glad songs of victory
in the tents of the righteous:
"The right hand of God does valiantly;
the mighty hand of God is exalted;
the strong hand of God does valiantly."
I shall not die,
but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of God.
God has punished me severely,
but God did not give me over to death.
Open to me the gates
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to God.
This is the gate of God;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you
that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is God's doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day
that God has made;
let us rejoice
and be glad in it.
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ — he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
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.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."