- Written by Kevin Derksen Kevin Derksen
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A Lenten Passion Play, Final Act
Christ is risen!
There's really nothing like Easter Sunday morning. This is the high holy day of Christian celebration. There's a buzz in the air, a choir, favorite joyful hymns that only come out this once in the year. It's like we can finally breathe again as the whole world is made new in the resurrection of Jesus. There is hope in the midst of sorrow, and laughter that breaks through the veil of tears we know so well. On this day it feels like anything is possible - because indeed, our God has done the impossible.
Last Sunday during the worship response time, one of the participants commented that all the dark and sombre music of the service had left him feeling kind of exhausted and depressed. We were focusing on the scene of Jesus’ trial, and so the hymns were indeed a little less than spritely. Songs about darkness, betrayal, anguish and isolation. A lot of slow rhythms and minor keys.
But the force of the effect, I think, was probably cumulative. We’ve sung a lot of those songs over the past six weeks, because we spent the whole of Lent on a slow journey through the events of Passion Week. This is something we haven’t really done in worship here before. And in some ways, it is pretty tough going. The story of Jesus’ death is hard. It’s emotional, it’s raw, it tugs at us and forces a long look in the mirror. It calls for a lot of soul searching and a lot of lament. It reveals things we’d rather keep hidden and invites us to linger in places of pain. It truly is exhausting, and I wonder if we have perhaps made space to enter into the experience of sorrow and death more thoroughly this year than some others.
If so, I think that’s probably just a fine thing, exhausting and depressing though it can certainly be. It is, in fact, the purpose of Lent to help us descend into these depths. And we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what the season can be. There are certainly Christian traditions that make a whole lot more of Lent than we do. In fact, for most Mennonite churches, including our own, observing Lent is relatively new. But the truth of the matter, I think, is that we can't know the joy of this day without walking along the hard road that leads to the cross. You can't get to resurrection without passing through the agonies of the cross.
We have some friends from Hamilton who have been staying with us this weekend. They are pretty devout Greek Orthodox Christians, and the parish they attend is actually here in Waterloo. Their church has services quite literally all weekend around Easter, and they stay with us so that they don't have to drive back and forth to Hamilton in between.
Now, one of the things that Orthodox Christians do very intentionally is fast. There are all kinds of special days throughout the year with particular instructions for what you can and cannot eat. But Lent is the biggest season of fasting for them. During Lent, our friends are basically vegan - no meat, no dairy. And there are a variety of further restrictions at different points during the season as well.
I've talked with these friends quite a lot over the years about the significance of this fasting. Why is it so important what they eat? The biggest part of the answer they give is that we live our faith through our bodies. And so fasting is about helping our bodies to enter the story. It's about feeling the gospel not only in our heads or in our hearts, but in our legs and arms, our muscles and our stomachs. By the time they get to this Easter Weekend, our friends can feel the effects of Lent. The restrictions are significant enough to notice in their energy levels and strength. It's a really concrete way of identifying with the sufferings and deprivations of Jesus in his final days.
But what I find truly fascinating, is the flip side to all this fasting. And that flip side is a serious commitment to feasting when the time comes! There are a number of feast-days throughout the Orthodox calendar where you are absolutely not to fast. And none is more important than Easter Sunday. So on Saturday night, our friends go to church for a late-night vigil service. But at the stroke of midnight, in the first moments of Sunday morning, Lent ends and the celebration of Easter begins. The vigil breaks into a huge community potluck. It is, by all accounts, a remarkable party. People bring elaborate dishes, with outrageous amounts of meat. The party stretches long into the early morning hours. Last year, our friends didn't get back to our place until almost 4am! After the long weeks of fasting, after entering as fully as possible into the death of Christ, it is finally time to celebrate the miracle of resurrection. They can feel the Easter gospel in their bodies as surely as they felt the journey to the cross.
Mennonites don't do a whole lot of fasting. And that's probably our loss. We have a long way to go in figuring out the role of our bodies in our lives of faith. But after that comment during worship response last week, I joked that perhaps we've been on a kind of musical fast. Holding off on the hymns of praise and joy and affirmation, and landing week after week on the songs that enter us into the descent of Jesus' passion. There's a spiritual richness to those songs and to worship that's rooted there, but we will of course find ourselves longing for joy and release and a hope we can feel. We will find ourselves longing for resurrection. Hopefully, we also find ourselves better able to enter the joy of this morning and encounter the good news that comes with the breaking dawn.
As it turns out, this past week has drawn us into the shadow of death in other very real ways as well. There were two funerals held here at the church for long-time and much beloved members of this congregation. Floyd Martin on Thursday, and Reta Martin just yesterday afternoon. We have seen first hand how our bodies can fail, and how suddenly life can end. Families watched and waited, shed tears and said goodbyes. We gathered as a congregation twice to share memories, pray together, and support the families in their time of loss. For many of us, entering this story of Jesus’ death has not been a hypothetical exercise. We’ve had to face the reality of death head on.
One of the things that struck me through both Floyd and Reta’s journeys over the past weeks is that sometimes the point is not so much for us to identify with the sufferings of Christ on his journey to the cross. Sometimes death is already plenty close, and what we need is to know that Christ identifies with our journeys of pain. And that is, after all, the whole point of God becoming a human being in Jesus. That in him, God shares in the fullness of our human experience. A human experience that has no shortage of pain, and that for all of us does end in death.
In the midst of this, we do need the reminder that we are not alone on the paths we walk. That God’s companionship is not a hypothetical matter either. God knows our pain. God has felt it in a human body. Jesus has already been here. There’s a lyric by Steve Bell that I often think of, from the song “Here by the water”. It goes:
I know it was stormy I hope it was for me, a learning The blood on the road wasn’t mine, though Someone that I know has walked here before.
This is the first part of the Easter miracle. That God in human flesh meets us in the midst of our wounds and even in the midst of our dying. God with us where we absolutely need God most.
The second part of the Easter miracle is what we’re here to celebrate this morning. That God with us in the place of death is not the end of the story. Death cannot hold Jesus. He is raised to life again by the power of God. The stone rolled away, the tomb empty, and Jesus gone ahead to Galilee. But the good news is not just that Jesus is raised. The good news is that Jesus’ resurrection means new life for us as well. New life for a hurting creation. Hope that all of our wounds and all of our pain, all of our failures and all of our violence, all of the things we can’t even bear to think about in our world, might yet be transformed and redeemed.
Perhaps in the face of death this Easter weekend, we might also find ourselves face to face with the risen Christ. Christ who took on our humanity even unto death, and now lifts our humanity with him into life anew by the grace of God.
If we want an example of what this Easter miracle makes possible, we have no farther to look than the Apostle Paul. We heard his telling of the good news from 1st Corinthians earlier in the service. Paul, who describes himself as unfit to be called an apostle because he persecuted the church of Jesus Christ. Here is a resurrection story. God met Paul in the midst of suffering and death too. But Paul’s wound was a festering violence that he unleashed as a terror upon the followers of Jesus. And the Christ who had himself borne the abuse of human power found Paul right in that place. Suddenly Paul was stopped in his tracks and set upon a new path. A new life. Raised up to serve those he had attacked. To proclaim the good news that he had tried so hard to stamp out.
Of course, the past was not wiped out for Paul. He changed his name, but the truth of his former self remained. No doubt the memory of his violence continued to haunt him for the rest of his life. Resurrection doesn’t mean that all our pain disappears. We still grieve on Easter morning for those we have lost. There is still a place for tears, and God shares them all the more on this side of the story.
It is a wounded Christ who rises from the dead and appears to his disciples. See the holes in his hands and his feet. Touch them, and believe that he who was on a cross now stands before us. Jesus bears the marks of our own suffering, the marks of our pain and our grief, the marks of that journey to death that is both his and ours. He carries even the marks of injustice and oppression, the marks of our own carelessness, the scars of our failure and our sin.
And yet, the risen Christ bears these wounds into a world made new. A world that has been jolted by his very presence as the crucified one now alive forever. His wounds no longer speak of emptiness and futility, but of God’s very heart poured out into the depths of human suffering. Pain is not forgotten, but carried by God in a promise of good news for all.
We bear our own wounds into this new world as well. On Easter morning we discover that the one who reigns over all of creation walked with us into the darkness as far as it goes. And yet even there, in the place of death, God’s love prevails. We do not grieve as those without hope, whether for our own pain or for the pain of the world that cries out from all corners every day. Because Jesus also cried out in shattered humanity, but today we proclaim him alive. Thanks be to God, Christ is risen indeed.