Alleluia! Christ is risen!
We say this to start worship every Easter and for the weeks afterwards called Eastertide. Normally we say them in greeting to each other when we come to church on Easter morning. But this year, as we all know, things are different, and I find I hear these words differently. This year I hear them not as a joyful proclamation of God’s great victory or a message of triumph. I hear them instead as a cry of courage. The courage, in the midst of fear and death, to proclaim the victory of love and life.
Matthew’s version of the Resurrection of Jesus begins with an earthquake. After which an angel who looks like lightning with clothes white as snow, comes winging down from heaven, rolls back the stone, and casually sits on it. The guards around the tomb, quite sensibly, pass out cold. And the angel says to the women, “do not be afraid”. Of course this is what the angel says. This is what angels always say. But, seriously, if this happened to me, especially if I was traumatized, grieving at the tomb of my beloved friend, I would leave plain old fear in the rear view mirror and either pass out like the guards or go for a full freak out. But the women seem to stay with the angel, listening to the words of comfort, then the command to go and tell the others—tell them he has been raised and, just like he said, he is going ahead of you to Galilee. And you know what, they do exactly that. Matthew describes them as acting with a mix of fear and joy, but however they go, they go.
Fear and joy. That sounds like a good description of this Easter day—the day of greatest joy for Christians, and a day clouded with fear of and for the world as it is now. We fear for our lives. We fear for our loved ones. We fear for our jobs. We fear for the breakdown of national life. We fear for the deeper entrenchment of racism into our systems and structures.
One of the most striking things about Matthew’s telling of the story is that the joy of the empty tomb does not take away the women’s fear. They remain afraid. Yet through and despite this fear, the underlying joy of the knowledge that he is risen enables them to act. Enables them to retain their faith amidst their fear. Enables them to tell the good news to their friends despite their anxiety. The Easter message does not take away their fear. It enables them to have the courage to live, to act, to proclaim their joyful message anyway. Courage. Perhaps that is what the Easter message is all about, has always been about. Courage to live faithfully despite all that opposes God in us and in this world. Perhaps our Easter anthems of joy and triumph should be balanced by anthems like Leonard Cohen’s Alleluia—with its line “Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” Perhaps the good news is as much about keeping our feet steady under us in the midst ofÂ earthquakes, about the faith that enables us not just to survive but even to thrive when life is achingly difficult. Perhaps the good news is that we can find depths of courage we did not know we possessed within, and under our fear. Faith and joy, despair and hope, fear and courage—they go together in this world. But the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection—the promise within it is that faith, joy, and hope ultimately carry the day. The promise is and always has been not avoidance of pain and suffering, but God’s presence in and through it. The promise is and has been from that first Easter morning that love is stronger than hate, life is stronger than death, mercy and grace are stronger than judgment. The promise is that, while it often seems that these things: suffering, evil, and death have the upper hand, they do not in God’s ultimate reality.
You may have heard some details of the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, that great WW2 British leader and hero. It was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral—a grand affair in a grand place—and it had been planned by Churchill himself. At the end of the service, at the west end of the Cathedral, a lone trumpeter played Taps—that song that signifies the end of the day and is usually played at a military funeral. When the last note of Taps had finished reverberating through the Cathedral, another trumpeter, located at the east end, facing the rising sun, began to play Reveille. The song of the new day, the call to wake up.
What Churchill understood and was literally trumpeting, is that God is always the God of new life, new possibilities. An ending is always a beginning. The good news of Christ’s resurrection does not take away our fear —though sometimes we wish desperately that it would — but it does offer us courage and hope by anchoring us in the sure promise that God will have the last word, and that that word is one of light and life and grace and mercy and love and peace.
Therefore, even in the midst of the darkness of now we look with courage and faith for the light that even now shines in the darkness, and we loudly proclaim the eternal truth: Alleluia! He is risen. Alleluia! We are risen.