What Makes Easter, “Easter”? John 20:1-18 by Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson Easter Sunday – April 12, 2020 So my question to you this morning: what makes Easter, “Easter”? For me it’s the singing – that’s what I love most about the Easter Sunday church service. That’s when Easter has really felt “real” for me. Sure, I love getting chocolate and seeing spring flowers and getting dressed up in new clothes and having a big family dinner with ham and scalloped potatoes – it’s all good, but “Easter” for me comes right at the start of the church service, when that powerful wave of sound hits me, when the organ music builds in that opening chord and hundreds of voices all begin to sing, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!” I’ve sung that hymn every Easter as far back as I can remember – and, man, can we sing that hymn at this church, it’s always big and full of flourishes; we get in a timpani player and a trumpeter and then there’s that fourth verse when the choir descant kicks in. You can’t even speak after you’ve heard hundreds of people sing that song on an Easter morning. You might only manage two words: hallelujah, and amen.
But singing that song with hundreds of people, here, in this sanctuary, can’t make Easter, “Easter” this year. No choir is singing in the sanctuary this Easter morning, no trumpet will blast, no timpani will sound. The covers are down on the organ and the piano. You have your own traditions that you’re missing. For so many of you what makes Easter, “Easter” is our daffodil cross. But that tradition can’t make Easter, “Easter” this year either; we couldn’t source the daffodils, we had to get gerber daisies instead. Easter is the loudest and most celebrative day in the entire church year, but right now because of our health crisis we can’t do all the things we normally do to make Easter. “Easter”. This Easter I’m sitting here alone in this sanctuary.
But, you know, that makes this Easter a lot like the very first Easter morning. No congregation sang in that story. There were no big flourishes, no mention of trumpets or blazing sunshine, springtime, or bursting daffodils. The very first Easter was small, no big celebration. The very first Easter, it says in John’s story, there was just Mary, all on her own, and she wasn’t singing. Mary stood weeping outside Jesus’ tomb, it says. The very first Easter happened to a woman full of sorrow.
The sun was about to rise but it was still dark, and Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb, she was coming to prepare his body for burial, according to the customs of the time. But when she arrived she saw something totally incomprehensible – the stone that covered the entry to his tomb had been rolled away. She ran to tell Simon Peter and another disciple. She was worried someone had done something nefarious to Jesus’ body: “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she said. The other disciples looked inside and saw the linen wrappings that had enshrouded Jesus’ body just lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head rolled up in a place by itself. And no organ piped up; and no trumpet sounded, and no daffodils bloomed. The disciples Mary had called to come and see didn’t know what to think; they just went home. And so, in John’s story, on that first Easter morning, Mary stood alone, outside Jesus’ tomb.
Growing up my parents would sometimes take us to our church’s sunrise service. We’d stand around a fire pit in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park, still in snow pants, drinking hot chocolate. I remember the year a middle-aged couple whose adult son had died a few weeks before came the service. I know we all sang, standing in a circle around that campfire, but I don’t remember that couple joining in. What I do remember distinctly was the feeling of incomprehension I felt.
What would make Easter, “Easter” for this couple if they weren’t celebrating as they were used to? I watched as my parents and others approached them – they didn’t just shake hands, they offered both hands. I watched as people came up and locked eyes with these parents, I watched as those eyes got teary. You know, the very first Easter describes a similar encounter – a meeting between one person who is struggling and another who embodies an enduring and powerful love. What made the very first Easter, “Easter”? Mary doesn’t explain it; what she shares instead is her experience. She went home to the disciples and told them everything that happened to her and what she said was, “I have seen the Lord.” She thought he was the gardener. “Woman, why are you weeping?” he said. “Sir, if you have carried him away tell me where you’ve put him and I will get him,” Mary says. But she wasn’t talking to the gardener. One moment Mary was all alone, weeping, and the next she was met by the Presence of the Living Christ. That’s what made the first Easter, “Easter.” Mary experienced Jesus as alive. In a challenging time she came face to face with hope, and peace, and love, and strength – she knew she was not alone.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about that sunrise service years ago, in Edmonton, those parents that stood in the circle around the campfire, having just lost a son, trying to put my finger on what made Easter, “Easter” that day. What I witnessed was the power of hope and love. I saw these parents’ sorrow met with empathy and compassion. I saw an experience that had been very lonely become shared; I saw hands that were empty reached out for, and held tight. I don’t know what those parents said to each other when they left that service, but as I look back on that day what I want to say is that I have seen the Lord.
Easter is a proclamation of faith, that the Risen Christ lives today. All of our Easter traditions – the songs, the daffodils – are a proclamation of this hope and this conviction: that we are never alone. We see Him in the smallest of gestures, the most everyday interactions – the friend who calls, the card that arrives in the mail, the bouquet of flowers, the professionals who accompany us, everyone who advocates for us – we are met by a Living Presence, the Life that will never never die. In life, in death, in life beyond death God was with Jesus – Mary was the first to experience Him as the Living Christ. And so we have this faith: that in life, and in death, and in life beyond death, God is with us. That’s what makes Easter, “Easter” and that’s what we celebrate. Jesus Christ is risen today. May you be strengthened by this knowledge and may you embody His hope that others might feel this as well.