“Jesus Christ’s body carried to the tomb,” by Rembrandt (1645)
(Easter Vigil Homily, 2020)
A few weeks ago, a rabbi, a minister, and priest got together for a conversation. It wasn’t a joke, and we didn’t go into a bar, but we joined with members of our various congregations via Zoom to talk about the role of faith in this pandemic that we are experiencing. I was the priest, and I joined Rabbi Aaron Starr and Episcopal priest Rev. Chris Yaw. We are part of the local Ecumenical/Interfaith Group called Lift Up Southfield. One of the questions we raised was the role of faith in our lives in general, but in particular as we struggle with suffering and death. What does faith do for us; how does faith help us?
That conversation has stayed with me as I have moved through these days of responding to COVID 19. I have continue to ponder the role of faith in my own life. What does being a person of faith do for me? For me, faith – which includes a relationship with God and a consequent belief system (for me the Christian tradition),- gives me the “bigger picture.” It gives me a context, a framework out of which I understand my life and my experiences. My experiences, my “little picture,” are explained and informed by the “bigger picture” of my faith. It gives me the “big story” out of which I understand “my story.”
In the last few years, I have heard and read social commentators say that we are living in the “post-modern” era. I am not sure if I completely understand that, but I take it to mean that we have moved past the “modern” era of a few decades ago, when there was a widespread spirit of optimism, a belief in progress, a sense that things were getting better and better. I remembering hearing in college in the ‘70s that we should give some thought to how we would spend all the leisure time we would have in the future since life would be so much easier with all the technology that was emerging. We would work fewer days, and never again use paper.
While we have advanced technologically and live with incredible help from smartphones, iPads, tablets, and robots, we still work more than ever and still kill lots of trees for the paper we use. Leisure? For all kinds of reasons, in this “postmodern” era, the myth of progress has broken down. Our world is not as unified, but more polarized than ever, more fragmented; it seems like there is nothing holding us together. COVID 19 has clearly shown that we are not in control of everything; we are not masters of the universe. It seems that there is no one in charge; there is no absolute truth. Truth, in fact, is relative; we each have our own truth; what something means is what it means to me. It feels like there is no great pattern that explains things, no big picture, no big story out of which I can understand my own particular story. I used to hear young people use the word “random” to describe events of their life. Is that how life feels? Does that sound true to you in any way? It does to me.
Tonight we celebrate Easter, and we tell the great story of the raising of Jesus from death. We put that story into context by telling the story of our salvation history, beginning with creation, the Exodus from slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land, and the covenant offered to us by God.
This particular Easter, unlike other Easters we have celebrated, is bared boned, just the basics. We have no fire, no water to bless, no catechumens to initiate. While sad and disappointing, maybe that is also a bit of a grace. We focus on the basics, the essentials: We focus on the basic big story.
Easter reveals to us the deepest truth, the foundational reality of the Paschal Mystery, the rhythm of dying and rising which pervades all life, and the fundamental truth that dying is not the end. This big story helps me make sense out of my own personal story. This big story is played out in various ways in my own life story. It gives me a language and a way of understanding the ups and down of my own life. There is betrayal, denial, suffering, and even death. But deeper than sin, loss, despair, frustration, there is life, light and hope. Easter tells me that this is the deepest reality. This is, as has been said, the greatest story ever told, the big story into which I put my story.
This reality doesn’t always jump out at me; it’s more like a buried treasure that shows itself like the light that shines under the door of a darkened room. I don’t always recognize it at first, just like Mary thought Jesus was a gardener, and those disciples on the road to Emmaus who walked with a stranger who gave them context, a way of understanding what happened to the one in whom they placed they hope. But then their eyes were opened and their hearts burned with this bigger picture.
Easter is not magic, nor looking at life with rose-colored glasses. For me, it is the key that unlocks the truth, the beauty, the mystery of life.
One of my favorite poets, especially at this time of year, is the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. He has some lines in his poems that speak to what I am trying to say: In one poem he writes, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” I like that; to me, that is Easter! In another he writes, “Grasp God throned behind.” To me, that is Easter! Easter is the foundational reality behind everything else. In another poem he wrote about a shipwreck in which some Franciscan nuns lost their lives; he writes, “Let him Easter in us.” I love how he turns Easter from a noun into a verb. It is a dynamic, the dynamic of all life; it is the big story that is being played out in all out stories. Here is another line that poetically suggests the same thing: Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
So that’s my story, informed by his story, the story that we proclaim tonight. What’s your story?
(Fr. Jeff Scheeler is Pastor of Transfiguration Parish in Southfield, Mich.)