In the early hours this morning a group of us gathered on the paving stones of our
labyrinth for a second year to observe a very ancient rite in the Christian faith – the
lighting of the new fire. The rubrics, the stage directions as it were in the Prayer Book,
simply say, “In the darkness, fire is kindled.”
What a simple, throw-away line. Go, kindle some fire. We have numerous ways to
accomplish such a feat – from old-fashioned flint and tinder, to strike-anywhere Ohio Blue Tip matches, to clickable fire-sticks. No doubt there will soon be an iPhone app that will render the rest obsolete. No one gathered on the labyrinth this morning was particularly worried that we might not be able to accomplish our task. Fire was kindled. At a similar gathering in more ancient times, however, the kindling of fire was no small thing. Those gathered in the darkness knew more keenly how symbolic such a moment was – would there be fire? How long would it take? Was the wood too green or too wet? Would there be light in the darkness, warmth on a cold, spring morning?
This morning new fire was kindled and from it we lit the Paschal Candle. The fire spread, and the light grew until our eyes grew accustomed to this new light and with twilight softening the windows, we beheld the miraculous sight that greeted us. The altar that was stripped bare on Thursday night is now bedecked with life and color. The tomb that was sealed on Friday afternoon stands empty for all of us to see.
Something unexpected has happened. We have found life where just mere hours ago we could find only death.
“Alleluia, Christ is Risen” are the words on the lips of millions of Christians all over the world this morning. And the response is, “The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!”
Over the past week, the Church universal has gone through the darkest days of our entire year. Just last Sunday we heard the stories about those who shouted “Hosanna!” and hailed Jesus as the coming king as he entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. But in just a few days’ time voices were raised crying, “Crucify him!”
On Thursday we shared a meal, gathered as Jesus and his disciples were for that Last Supper. We heard the ominous words that Jesus spoke of his coming betrayal and death. We then witnessed the church stripped of its finery and we scattered into the darkness in silence.
On Friday we recounted Jesus’ last hours of life as he was tried and tortured and finally executed. The sky became dark. The earth shook. And the church became silent, silent as a tomb.
It was in the dark hours of that first Easter morning as we heard in today’s gospel lesson from John that Mary Magdalene made her way to the tomb. She knew nothing of what awaited her. Her grief over the death of Jesus was made even worse when she discovered that someone had taken his body. In her fear and confusion, she ran to get Simon Peter, and the disciple whom Jesus loved, John. In the growing light of dawn, would their faith be kindled?
Peter and John go racing to the tomb, with the younger John outpacing the older Peter. John merely looks in but Peter brushes past him and enters the darkened cave. They saw the burial clothes that had held the lifeless body of their teacher, but it was not there. He was not there, that was all they could believe. Jesus’ body was gone. John’s account
tells us that they did not yet understand that he must rise, and they returned to their homes.
We are left with a very different scene. Mary Magdalene remained alone outside the tomb weeping. What faith this woman had! All four gospels place her at the foot of the
cross and also here at the empty tomb. She had witnessed the death of her rabbi and she is left alone in her grief.
Unlike Peter and John when she looks into the tomb she sees angels where Jesus’ body once was. These angels challenge her grief, “Why are you weeping?” She is asked this very same question by this man she encounters outside the tomb whom she supposes to be the gardener. Her faith speaks loudly, “Tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
It is then we are privileged to witness a very intimate moment, one that changes Mary’s life and, in turn, our lives – a moment that is captured in one word, her name. Jesus calls her by name and her eyes are opened to see the risen Lord.
“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus tells her – this moment of intimacy cannot last, for you see, Mary has a mission to accomplish. Jesus tells her, “Go to my brothers and say to them…” What familiar language on the lips of the risen Lord. “Tell my brothers I am ascending to my father and your father, to my God and your God.” All is forgiven. Peter, who had denied him three times, would soon hear these sweetest words of absolution. Jesus called him brother.
But this good news for Peter did not come from the lips of Jesus himself, instead it came from the lips of Mary. In ancient Christian tradition Mary Magdalene is often called the apostle to the apostles. It is to her that Jesus entrusts the very first telling of resurrection. This is the ultimate “good news,” a Greek word from which we also derive the word evangelist. Mary Magdalene, then, is the first evangelist.
Christians, we have good news to tell this morning. When Jesus stepped forth from his tomb, it meant the end of the tyranny of sin and death. O grave, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?
In Jesus we are no longer alienated from God. Instead we are friends, yes, even family. As we heard in the reading from Corinthians this morning, though in Adam we have all died, in Christ we are all made alive. Just as sin and death infected the entire human race through the disobedience of one man, Adam; so the obedience of this one man, Jesus, his obedience even unto death, has broken the power of sin and death once and for all. We have been set free. Jesus, the Second Adam, encounters Mary in a garden. The curse that crippled Adam’s race in that first garden has been broken.
This is surely cause for celebration, surely reason for a feast. Some of us shared a huge breakfast earlier this morning, where we celebrated the end of our Lenten fasts. We literally broke the fast. We can have sugar again, and wine, and meat and chocolate. But the real celebration will begin in just a few minutes. We will share another feast, all of us
gathered around the Lord’s Table. This is the feast of the victory of our God. This is celebration to the end of the tyranny of sin and death. The curse is broken. The sin of Adam and Eve is absolved for all time. The words, “Take and eat” will bring life and not death. This is our new beginning. With Mary, let us run to tell those who most need to
hear the good news: