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Easter Sunday: SURPRISE!

by Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD.

Readings: Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Luke 24:1-12

What memories do you associate most with Easter? No doubt some sad, some joyful, some even playful. We had a ritual when I was a teenager that my Mom, Dad, brother and I always watched “Your Hit Parade” on TV on Saturday nights. That was in the days when kids and their parents could actually enjoy some of the same hit songs. We would have a snack and then go off to bed. I always had a new dress, a new hat, and new shoes to wear. I would put everything out the night before because I was so excited that I couldn’t wait for the morning.  I would jump out of bed eagerly, put on my new clothes, and a corsage that my Dad always bought for me and my Mom – white carnations for her because her mother had died, and red carnations for me because my mother was very much alive. I can still remember the scent of those flowers and I will always associate it with Easter.

I had sad Easters, too – like the Easter my Dad was in hospital with TB and we weren’t allowed to visit him for fear of contagion. Or the Easter after he died, and the Easter after my Mom died. There were other hard times in our family. But somehow, against all odds, Easter was a time of new life. Even my Dad, who was an agnostic, believed in resurrection – the corsages were just one example. The fact that he went to church in a suit and tie was another, since he was a factory worker and rarely had the opportunity to dress up which he loved to do. Easter was special – it spoke to something in each of us that was deeper than we could articulate.

“Do you not know,” Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? . . . just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

That is what all of us in my family knew. We didn’t have the theology or even the Biblical knowledge to back it up. We didn’t have the rich liturgies that we have celebrated together this week, that would have helped us know more profoundly what was really happening. But we understood baptism into death – through our own sorrows and to sorrows of friends and relative – and we knew resurrection – through our strong family support and the love we experienced from others as well.

Look at the painting on your leaflet cover, which was done by a contemporary artist from Cameroon. I think the angel has the same question that Paul asks: “Do you not know that because Christ was raised from the dead you too might walk in newness of life? “Don’t you know?!” The women in this painting have most certainly been baptized into Christ’s suffering and death. They have walked beside him through his last journey, they stayed with him at the cross, and they have come to anoint him according to the Jewish customs.

Now this painting really depicts more closely Matthew’s version of the gospel narrative, because in Luke’s version that we just read there are two angels, and the women find the tomb empty before they see the angels. In Matthew’s version, as in this painting, the angel meets them at the tomb. In any case, I think the expression on the angel’s face, and his body language, as well as the women’s, capture the strange mixture of surprise, fear, and joy that we see in all of the gospel accounts of the resurrection.

Look more closely at the picture. The predominant colours, as with all the paintings we’ve reflected on during Holy Week, is yellow and yellow-orange. It’s ironic, though, that during Holy Week the colours have been bold and bright, but now on Easter the joy is expressed in much more subdued colours – it’s early morning, the light is soft, and the overall effect is peaceful and expectant.

The only hint that the person on the left is an angel is the white robe – and of course the fact that we bring to the painting our prior knowledge that there will be at least one angel present! He doesn’t have wings. He’s not waving his arms around as if to give a message to the women. He’s just sitting there calmly, his legs crossed, hands in his lap, looking at the women knowingly, seeming a little smug because he has managed to roll away the stone which was supposed to have been totally sealed – and because he knows something they don’t yet know. I think it’s this knowing and even amused expression – gently patronizing – that really drew me to this painting, along with the women in their contemporary colourful African dress and hair-dos.  These are real live people – not some romanticized angel and overly-pious women but the kind of people you would meet if you happened to be in an African church this morning.

There is a sense of community and camaraderie among the women. They are not dragging their way to the tomb but running, almost dancing. Their expressions when they see the angel are of surprise but not alarm.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? the angel asks. “He is not here, but has risen” and he reminds them that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection. The three women here and the others that Luke tells us were with them went back to tell the disciples. “But these words seemed to the disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe the women.”

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, has said that “without women preachers we would have no knowledge of the resurrection” – a happy thought – but in this case one of the men was at least curious enough to run to the tomb – Peter. Most likely the other disciples would eventually have believed him more easily than the women because women simply didn’t have a voice in first century Palestine and still don’t in many parts of that world.

In addition to the actual witness of the women and the good news they proclaimed, there are two other things that the angel says that are really important for us to remember.

First, “why do you look for the living among the dead?” We all do that so often – we think some part of our life is over, maybe because of illness or disability, or some profound suffering we have experienced. But what has died in us, what is no longer possible, what loss we have experienced – these can all lead us to something entirely new.

Second, the women had been worried about how they would roll the stone away from the tomb, and when they got there they found it had already been done. How often do we worry about doing something that seems impossible, that we are not capable of, and then something or someone happens to help us – an angel perhaps. Or maybe a change in our own attitude. Or a trust in the future.

The Scottish mountaineer and writer, William Murray has this advice:

Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:  that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.  All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.  A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamt would come one’s way.

“Do you not know that because Christ was raised from the dead you too might walk in newness of life?” Paul asks.

Everything is possible at Easter. The resurrection is about far more than our being resurrected with Christ at some future time. It is about our life now, about how our sufferings and fears and sadness can all be transformed, about how all manner of help will come to us when we commit ourselves – to God, to loving, to a creative course of action, to living our lives as resurrected people.

Christ is Risen, Alleluia!

The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.

And we have been raised with him, Alleluia!