Isaiah 49:1-13+Hebrews 11:1-2, 23-24, 28-39+Psalm 18:2-11, 16-19+John 20:1-18
In all the years that I have been in and around the church – and that has been a lot of years – I have watched or organized or led music or otherwise been part of I don’t know how many Christmas pageants. Grand ones with multiple roles and simulated flying angels wafting about the congregation and small ones where the children pick their part, and the tableau ends up with 3 Marys and 2 Josephs and a squadron of angels because they have the best costume. Yes, I’ve seen them all, in all shapes and sizes, but what I have never seen is an Easter Pageant. Sure, there are Passion Plays that tell the story of Holy Week, but I’m talking about the kind of pageant where the kids dress up and tell or sing the story. And I have never even heard of one of those.
I suppose if you think about it, that makes some sense. I mean, there are no overbooked inns or mangers or shepherds, no singing angels or magi. No, there is just an empty tomb. There weren’t any eyewitnesses to Jesus resurrection. No one actually saw the moment that his eyes opened, and he slipped out of the cloths that had been wrapped around him. No one watched the stone roll away.
No, by the time Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb early on the third day, the tomb stands open and Jesus is not inside. That’s it. Nothing.
You would think that if God had really wanted people to buy into this idea that a dead human can come back to life, God would have had someone there to actually see it.
But instead, we have a bewildered woman who runs to tell Jesus’s friends. Two of them have a little footrace to see who can get their first. It’s rather amusing to read that little detail of competitiveness between these two who supposedly were in mourning and which one gets there first and which actually enters the tomb first.
And what do they see? The burial cloths carefully folded. No angels, at least, not yet. But our text is deliberate in telling us which disciple won the race and then, once seeing the empty tomb and the cloths, he believed. This is the beloved disciple, John, who is also writing this narrative (or someone close to him is), and there seems to be a little self-aggrandizement happening here. What, exactly, did he believe in seeing these things? If he believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, don’t you think he might have said so? But no, he and Peter leave. And Mary stays behind, weeping.
Mary is not in a hurry to go anywhere. Her friend was brutally murdered by Rome, and all of her hopes and dreams and those of her community went into that tomb with him. Where is he, though? In her bewilderment and sorrow, the angels speak to her, “Why are you weeping?”
“They have taken my savior, and I do not know where they have laid him.” And then he appears, although she doesn’t recognize him. She doesn’t recognize him until he calls her name. Mary. And then she knows, and she goes and tells. “I have seen the Savior.”
Given the cataclysmic nature of this event, of that mind-boggling statement by Mary Magdalene, the whole thing seems a little underwhelming, at least from a dramatic perspective. It is far too minimalist to make into a pageant.
So, why did God do it this way? Why no blaring trumpets and thunderclaps and angelic choruses? And why no eyewitnesses?
It comes down to a question: do you believe? One of the most mystifying things about God is that God will never force us to do anything, will never try to prove her existence to us, will never look us in the eye and say, “It’s me.” As at the beginning of creation, God – for some inexplicable reason – leaves it up to us to decide. Free will, they call it. And it’s up to us to make of that what we choose.
But God has also planted within each of us a gift of faith, a gift of belief, and a role to play in God’s reign. For Mary Magdalene, it was to be the first to proclaim the Good News: I have seen the savior. For Peter, it was to lead the early people of the Way in establishing communities that would become the Church. For the Apostle Paul, it was to carry the gospel throughout the Mediterranean region.
And because we carry these seeds inside of us, we never truly rest until we have found our place in nourishing those seeds, those gifts, and letting them flourish. Those of you who know something of my story know that it was a long and winding road to get me to where I am standing here this morning, absolutely certain that this priestly ministry is where God want me to be.
We all have that, no matter who you are, where you’re from, what denomination you grew up in, what faith or lack of it you think you have. God has given us all a gift, and when you begin to live out that gift, you will know it.
And sometimes finding out what that is takes nothing more than listening to a voice from an unexpected place. For Mary, it was the one she took to be the gardener. For me, it was countless people over the years who affirmed something in me that I did not know was even there. Maybe it’s a parent or a child or a friend or the barista or a co-worker – listen for those voices, because they will call your name and you will know, maybe for the first time, who you really are. Be who God created you to be, and then, in the words of St. Catherine of Siena, you will set the world on fire.
That first Easter morning may have been a little anticlimactic as drama, but it was only the beginning of the greatest story ever told. Its ripples rocked the world then, and these millennia later, the impact of that empty tomb continues to reverberate in this world. And it does so through the people of God who continue to come seeking maybe something they can’t even name, and Jesus meets us there, calling us, inviting us, into the joy of the resurrection life.
So, no, we don’t have an Easter pageant. We don’t need an Easter pageant. We are the Easter pageant.
Happy Easter, my friends.
Alleluia, Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.