[Basically what I said at the Vigil last night] “Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week”—records Matthew, in the gospel for the first service of Easter. I get stuck on the word “now,” or have all this year. Having, a month or two ago, to have written about that expression—You Only Live Once, hashtag YOLO–only increased the trouble. Besides there being a lot of different ways to sell stuff with that idea—You Only Live Once—the expression is meant to impress upon you the shortness of the hour. Quick, make a decision NOW, because you only live once! Are you going to eat that donut? Or go on a diet? Or save your money? Or travel the world? Or stay home? What are you going to do? Decide NOW, because this could be the last moment you have.
The trouble, of course, is that it might not be your last moment. You might not die sitting there in the pew. You might go home and eat your Easter dinner. You might have years and years ahead of you. You do only have one life, but it might go on for a while. Imagine, for a moment, being one of the people watching Noah build his ark for hundreds of years. Back then, YOLO was not really a pressing consideration because people—like Noah—lived for what felt like forever, whole centuries, though of course, it wasn’t, eventually death did come to everyone.
Noah finally finishes his boat, which, you might remember, is built in a place where water was not abundant. He builds it on dry land. And then he fills it with stuff—food for all the animals who haven’t yet arrived—and the stuff he’ll need to be able to cope with being shut in with his family for all those days. It seems, looking back even from now, even knowing how it all turns out, to be a strange thing to do. There could have been no “common” sense to his activities. He would have appeared to be mad. Nevertheless, he carries on, hammering pieces of wood together, filling up all the rooms inside with provisions.
Now then, said the Lord to Noah, “go into the ark.” So Noah and his family and the animals, in the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, went into the ark and on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens opened.
It rained and rained and rained, and all of the people who had not really contemplated death in any meaningful sense all died. It turned out, on a corporate and grand scale, that you and I do “only live once.” We live and then we die. Though, in a curious foreshadowing, Noah and his family did not die. They lived in the ark for not just forty days, as so many children’s songs and storybooks imply, but for about a year—maybe a little more. It would be like—and just imagine with me because I know you don’t know what this is like—someone saying to you, something bad is sweeping across the earth so go inside and stay away from everyone and in fifteen days, or maybe a few months, well, really more like a year, you can come out and everything will be ok.
I read online yesterday that someone likened being in quarantine to being in a tomb—in a grave. You’re stuck. You can’t go out. You’re basically “safe” inside, but not in any life-giving sense. Everything is beyond your control. You are at the mercy of everything, including your own flood of frustration and despair.
The ark, though the people who died on the outside of it, and the people who were spared on the inside of it would not have appreciated the theological glory of the image, paints a marvelous and exhausting picture of the fact that it is not true that You Only Live Once. Noah went into the ark-like-tomb willingly. Against all sense, against all reasonableness, when the Lord told him, he went in and the Lord shut the door. And all the people to whom he had proclaimed the good, but so impossible that they did not believe it, news that if they would like to come in with him, they could, because a great flood—and who even knows what that is—was coming and they would all die, they all said no, and they did all die.
Now, after our own strange and tumultuous year, after evenfall which signals the first day of the week, sitting here together in this now brightly lit room, soaking in the redemption of the world wrought by God from that first destructive flood, through the deliverance of our ancestors by the Red Sea, past the prophets and psalmists who recorded God’s faithful love for his people. It is dark outside, and darkness, as you know, does go along with death.
Death—I’m not going to recount the number of times this last year I felt stricken by death. Not my own, though, in witnessing the death of others, both strangers and friends, it felt like dozens of small deaths. Each one felt like a slow and painful letting go of the very idea that life can ever be really ok. Though I am living, others are dying all around me. YOLO is a stupid slogan. The choices before us are all terrible. Whether we live or whether we die, what does it matter if we will never be able to have a “normal” life, or have any of the people back who have perished.
The women hurried along to the grave of their friend who, though he had said, “I will die,” they did not think would really die. The trouble, even when there is a warning that it is about to happen, is that we can’t visualize death. Every person—but Jesus especially—before they die is so “full of life.” The life can’t possibly come to a halt. It’s impossible. And so, on the Monday of passion week, none of Jesus’ friends and followers could have imagined having to see his body lifeless, naked, there on a stone slab to be washed and wrapped and laid in the grave. Though he said it, all their minds necessarily shoved it away, pushed it afar off. His life is so fulsome, so wonderful, so necessary.
So it was that Mary Magdalene and the other women went to the tomb. They had finally been made to accept—and had—that one so “full of life” could now lie dead. They had endured a night of piercing grief—the kind that catches your breath and makes you sit down for a minute—coming in waves over them. Then they endured numbing fog of the least restful Sabbath of their lives, and then another night, the fetid, feverish nightmare of the crucifixion waking them again and again.
It is therefore with relief that they go out into the dark morning air on the first day of the week, laboring under the burden of spice, to stand once again to that ruinous place and see if they can’t do something.
On the way there is an earthquake. The second. The first when Jesus drew his last breath and forcibly gave up his spirit, offering himself to death, making the grave his home. All along the way the Marys and Salome and Joanna had been asking each other—both allowed and silently, in the manner of prayer—what they would do about the stone.
There it stood, solid, immovable like, well, like everything. All the helplessness of life as it faces death can be written on that stone. The helplessness of watching other people make decisions that are foolish and even wicked. The helplessness of not being able to stop any of the bad things from coming close to the people you love. The helplessness of governments and kings far-flung announcing edicts that affect the most intimate part of your life, your very skin, the very way you breathe. The helplessness of the powerful of the world trying to stop something that can’t be stopped. An illness? The rage of all their people? The helpless and paltry choice of waking up and trying to cope when all the world seems mad. The very ruin of death itself. All of that stood there in that stone.
And so they asked each other—what will we do? Who will roll it away so that we can care for Jesus?
If they felt the second earthquake—we don’t know, they might have been too cast down to notice—they didn’t know that it was not the cataclysm of death, but the ground shaken asunder because of life. The one who no one had imagined could die had what? What had happened?
The Marys come to the place where the stone should be but instead of standing there in its place, it is rolled back. The light of the early morning sun pushes back the darkness so that the opening of the tomb seems black. Are their eyes deceiving them?
Mary Magdalen, seeing the gaping mouth of the tomb, turns away before she understands, and goes running back to tell the disciples that Jesus has been stolen. The other women stoop and go in, and see two angels sitting, like cherubim over the mercy seat, on either side of the slab—serene, composed, joyful. The women stumble out in fear, though they have been told not to be afraid.
“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion,” cries Zephaniah. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgements against you; he has cleared away your enemies”—yea, even that great and terrifying enemy, Death himself.
Now—this moment—bow your head, stoop, creep into that still, quiet tomb. It is not a tomb, it is an ark. It is filled with rooms, with provisions, with a life that can never end, that can never be brought to sorrow or ruin. All you who mourn, who have died many small deaths this year, who have given over much you thought you needed, all this time you have not really died, not if you have gone into his tomb, not if you have made his grave your home. When he speaks to you, every moment that the speaks to you—when he rejoices over you with his gladness, when he quiets you with his love—he is always sweeping away the death, making you alive together with him. The life—not the death—that you long for is already born in your heart by the one who can never die again. The desperate helplessness of your weak hands, your dim minds, your dull hearts is broken apart by the King of Israel, the Lord our God who is risen.
Now then, go out into the night that surrounds you, like the Marys, and Joanna, and Salome, and eventually the disciples, and all those five hundred who saw Jesus alive, and tell everyone you meet about that bright, festal morning, that toppled stone, that broken death, a life that can never die again, those words…Alleluia He is Risen
The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia