An Easter Vigil Word

mary magdalene Preached by Denise Griebler at the Detroit Peace Community/Catholic Worker/ St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Easter Vigil on Mark 16:1-8.

16 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The other day I cyber-stumbled on a new childrens’ book called Rad American Women from A to Z – it’s a picture book that teaches kid’s a little women’s history along with the ABCs. A is for Angela (as in Davis) – Z is for Zora (as in Neale Hurston). There’s even X for the women whose names we do not know.   It’s a collection form AtoZ of courageous, badass women we want our kids and our grandkids to know.

One of the parts of Easter that I look forward to, is a chance to tell the story of the women. M is for Magdalene. M is for Mary the mother of James. S is for Salome. These brave women, who stood their ground and did not cut and run like the other disciples. They walked with Jesus in the street as he carried the cross. They claimed their space beneath his cross where they could see him and he could see them.   And they could talk to him and pray – maybe they sang to him. I hope so. They were so brave. They claimed their space and like a tree planted by the water, they would not be moved. They held their ground and stayed with him until it was clear that he had died. They made sure that the body was claimed and would be buried. They followed to the grave so they would know exactly in which tomb they had laid him. They watched until the stone was rolled into place to seal off the entrance from animal or human intruders. They watched until it was all done. And then they returned to their homes and gathered up spices and oils for a proper burial which couldn’t be done until after the Sabbath.

They moment sunrise marked Sabbath’s end, they returned to the grave. They didn’t worry about who would see them. Maybe there would be a guard. Maybe there would be informers lurking about. Whatever . . . Let the chips fall where they may. These were hard-core, courageous, badass women.

I love telling their story and recalling other courageous women I’ve known in my life. Women who have helped me be bold and brave to rise up and meet what life sends. I think of the women in Detroit who are leading the water struggle and welfare rights. I would follow them anywhere. I think of the women in my last congregation who taught me how to live after my first husband died. I learned from the other widows, women who have faced into death and change so courageously and gracefully. At least that’s how it looked to me. They showed me that I could go on, that there was still more life.

But geez, that’s not the way that Mark lands it, is it? The gospel shows a more intimate – a more real view – of these strong women. It wasn’t all bravado and courage.

The three women begin strong and brave, but on the way to the tomb they start wondering and worrying, fretting – about the stone. And now it’s all they can think about. It’s really big and heavy – huge – and getting larger the more they worried. How would they get in there to wash and anoint his body? Who would move the stone? They might be brave, but they’d never be able to move that thing on their own.

Have you ever started toward something, full of energy and purpose and even good courage and had the wind just go out of your sails? A decision or action that sounded good in the planning, but the closer you get to it, you start to second guess it. And you worry and fret over all the things that are in your way to stepping up or stepping in? Yeah. Me too.

And then the path winds around– and the thing they worried so much about is simply not an issue. Well – it’s not THE issue any more. Because as soon as one thing is resolved, life presents a new challenge.

And then the path winds around – turns out we can’t see around corners – and the thing they worried so much about is simply not an issue. Well – it’s not THE issue any more.

They go right in. They’re back! Badass, right? And then they are completely overwhelmed by what they discover. The various translations say that they were amazed, alarmed, frightened, struck by amazement, completely taken aback and astonished. His body is gone!

Maybe they should have expected it. Maybe they were berating themselves for not having anticipated something like this. I want to say I can’t imagine this. But of course we can. Think Michael Brown in Ferguson. How his body was disrespected and disregarded – how leaving it out on the street for four hours like a deer hit by the side of the road – how leaving his body in the street was used to threaten and intimidate black men, black youth, black children. The thing was designed to stun, alarm, frighten and terrorize.  This is what crucifixion was all about. So why stop at that? Why not drag his body out of the grave?

And then there’s this young man sitting in the grave – must have been an angel because angels always say the same thing whenever they show up: Don’t be afraid.

And then he tells them to look. Look at the empty place where they had laid him. Look right at it. Don’t look away. Take it in. Let it sink in. He’s not here. He’s been raised. By God who says Life and Love will go on.

Now go and tell the others.

And the women – these brave, badass souls – do exactly the opposite. The various translations say: they fled, they got out of there as fast as they could, trembling and astonished, distressed and terrified, bewildered and trembling, frightened out of their wits, stunned, beside themselves, their heads swimming.

And they said nothing to anyone because they were so afraid.

I find this oddly comforting.

I do not like to be afraid. In fact, I will confess that I am afraid of being afraid. As if it is something that will seize hold of me and never let go – something that has the power to make me smaller, less alive.

And I do not like for others to see me afraid. I want to be brave – I want to see myself as brave and I want others to see me and to think of me that way. Not just because I have an ego problem (tho I suppose that’s part of the human story!), but because I really do want to be of use when it comes to Life and Love having the last word. I want to believe it with all my heart and embrace it with everything in me. And how can you do that if you are afraid?

Well. Somehow they did. We know, because here we are.

Some of us were here on Thursday and together again on Friday. These were serious, somber days and nights. We remembered Jesus’ last days – his teaching about loving and serving one another, his betrayal by his friend, his prayer in the garden when he asked God to please figure out a way out, his arrest and trial and suffering, the cross and his death. Maybe you came this morning feeling brave. Or maybe the last days of Jesus’ life left you feeling beaten down and crushed. On Friday afternoon I joined a hundred other walkers on a Good Friday walk through the streets of Detroit. We witnessed to the ways human beings are being crucified in this city and in this country and around the world. We witnessed to the effect of gentrification, water shut-offs, tax foreclosure pushing poor people out of our city. We witnessed to the destruction of public education, drone warfare, the dehumanizing effects of technology and unaccompanied refugee children being arrested at the border, and the forces of racism. Simply turn on the TV or radio or open a paper and we are overwhelmed by terrible news and we wonder what this world is coming to. And it makes us feel small and afraid. If the world of human beings has you feeling stunned, amazed, terrified, frightened, taken aback, beside yourself, well, you are in the company of these courageous Easter women, who were themselves so scared that they could not even speak.

For a while, at least.

Let us remember that they . . . and we . . . are in the company of angels. Who are always saying: don’t be afraid. And don’t be afraid to look. Look at the unthinkable. Look at the emptiness. And believe that in the worst of times: Life and Love insist. They are the first and last word. Believe it. Tell the others.

I want to talk about the emptiness. It is the thing that terrifies us the most I think. The emptiness of death that waits us all, or of the possibility that our lives really don’t matter or mean very much. And yet it is from the void – from the emptiness that creation and creativity and even love and the Word – issue forth. We have to risk being present in and to the emptiness.  Because that is precisely where Life and Love will find us.

It’s like negative space in art, right?   It’s the nothing that makes it possible for something to emerge. When I make a clay vessel, it takes shape around the emptiness. And it’s the emptiness that turns out to be what’s most useful. It’s what makes space for your coffee or your oatmeal. The stuff of life finds a place in the emptiness.

The Uses of Not

— Lao Tzu (Lao Dzi)

   Thirty spokes
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where it’s useful.

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.

So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.

We are in the company of angels. They are always saying: don’t be afraid to look. Look at the unthinkable. Look at the emptiness. Here’s the deal: Life and Love still insist. Like a little sprout pushing through the soil. Nothing can hold it back.

Believe it. Tell the others. Maybe you can’t all the time or right away. But trust it every time you are able.

I had a really good friend who died young. Bethany. She had breast cancer for 18 years. Sometimes it was terrible. Sometimes it was quiet. The doctors removed a lump. And then a breast. They told her she shouldn’t have a child. She did anyway and nursed her on the one breast that worked. Bethany was one of the most courageous people I’ve ever known. I learned courage and faith from her. She was definitely to be counted in the company of badass women.

But the truth is, she wasn’t always brave or strong. Sometimes her fear drove her crazy. She needed friends to just sit with her and listen as she cowered in fear or raged against the emptiness and to wait with her until she could rise up again and tell us and even more, show us, how Life and Love are the last word.

Toward the end of her life she would say goodbye to you with a big hug. She’d whisper right in your ear – and it would almost startle you. She’d whisper: “Be as well as you can.” It has a double edge – do you hear it? I always heard it as a call to fully rise to life – to be fully yourself and fully your best – and at the same time it was a gentle invitation, even reminder, to be gentle with yourself. Bethany was not only brave, she was compassionate and wise. I hope somebody says that about me and you while we’re alive and after we are long gone.

But what I want to say is that it was when she honestly felt her fear and experienced the terror of her own emptiness that she made space for us to be human together.  This is where the roots of friendship dove down deep and entwined.

Sometimes I think the best we can offer ourselves and each other is the encouragement and courage to unflinchingly look at the emptiness and fear in our lives and community. To just look at the excruciatingly beautiful and broken world. To simply look. And to listen. And to take it in. And to trust that as we do, God is looking at us and all who are stunned or distressed or bewildered or beside themselves and Loving us. All of us. Loving us to real life. For this is the heart of an Easter faith and life.

The poet Edwina Gately writes:

Be silent.
Be still.
Before your God.
Say nothing.
Ask nothing.
Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.

Let your God—
Love you.

Love and Life are already and always insisting. They are the first and last word. Alpha and omega. So be as badass, compassionate and wise as you can. Be empty. Be full. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of being afraid.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

We echo back with our individual and collective lives: Risen indeed! Alleluia!

One thought on “An Easter Vigil Word

  1. Why does it take us to get to the worst of places to find the right place?
    Why can we not control this grace?
    Why is it that we cannot teach it nor be taught? Rather all we do is look backward and see it running behind.
    Like my dad, when, for the first and last time, he let go of my bike?

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