Sermon for Easter Day, Sunday, April 12 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18
“I have seen the Lord.”
It is the voice of the first witness, the first apostle, she who, in the words of John Donne, “once knew, more than the church did know, the resurrection.” It is a voice of deep personal conviction, the certainty of someone who knows her own truth, beyond all denials. It is also, according to the gospel accounts, a voice which was perfectly ignored by the other disciples; and she disappears from the canonical record at this point, though there is other evidence which suggests that she had a significant leadership role in the early church. Perhaps, named and known in the garden where humanity begins again, she does not need their recognition or acceptance. She has seen the Lord, before anyone else even believed it a possibility.
It is a truth hard-won; she is granted this moment alone because she alone has stayed, has refused to abandon even the empty space of the missing body. She is the person named in every gospel as the unfailing witness, present at Jesus’ death, present at his tomb, present at this astonishing moment of new rising. When she believes that absence is all she will ever have left, she remains loyal to that absence. She is prepared to drag the body back with her own bare hands if she has to. Through all the fear and the doubt and the grief, and even, probably, the dull exhaustion of tedium as the day and the night ran on, she held her soul in patience, and did not break.
I hardly need to draw the obvious comparison with the task before us now, our endurance through this strange mixture of danger and nothingness, the threat of disease and the frayed tension of confinement, our isolated longings, vanished hopes, financial insecurity, relationships suspended or strained, and the sense that all this is meaningless compared to the death toll, or the necessary risks taken by others. But nothing is meaningless. All our sadness is really sadness, and all our small acts of goodness are really goodness. Mary’s grief at the empty tomb is valid and real, and the burial oils she carried, though no use for their intended purpose, lost none of their richness and fragrance; as all our small attempts at service, generosity, prophetic demands for change, are poured out for this suffering world.
And from her loyalty, she receives that extraordinary moment. A great stillness in the garden, and the voice which calls her by name at sunrise. Love returns her love, and death is not the final word. And we too, though we stand now in the valley of death, must hold this moment. We are the people who have been loved, and named, and sent to speak the news of hope to all the world. Not the false hope of easy rescue or miraculous protection, but the hope that stands in our own truth.The hope which can testify to the persistence of care and kindness, the hope which can testify to astonishing bravery and to quiet, hidden sacrifice. Hope in the scientists who are God’s hands in this crisis, hope in the artists who are the Spirit’s sustaining breath as we wait. Hope in those putting themselves at risk to serve others, and hope in those calling out for changes which will make those risks less necessary. This is the news of resurrection we bring now. We have seen the Lord, still working in this world.
The moment in the garden is achingly beautiful, and perhaps even more so now, when we are necessarily forbidden so many green places, when we are necessarily forbidden to touch. But it cannot last. We have no permanent home in this world, and a garden is not a stable place, it is growth and change and flux and decay, the mulch out of which the green shoots spring. But the knowledge of that moment does not pass. It is an Easter as subdued as ours today—no festival, no acclamation, no choir of angels, no public recognition even. Yet she is changed forever, the woman who once had many demons; and we are changed forever too, and maybe our demons will even come along with us, sometimes, and speak with us when we tell our truth to the world.