Turning Toward Easter

Sunday service in the Memorial Church SanctuarySermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, Easter Sunday sermon April 12, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



I think one of the most disorienting challenges of this pandemic has been navigating time. When I wake up in the morning, I have to think for a minute or two before I can recall what day it is. When I first check my email, I often find messages sent by students or colleagues at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning; I’ve sent a few middle-of-the-night emails myself. And my own confusions are nothing next to the disorientation health care workers describe when they talk about caring for patients who seem to be doing ok in one hour, but by the next are fighting for their lives.

It’s hard to keep track of time when time itself feels like it’s bristling with anxiety, or weighed down by grief. It’s difficult to distinguish one moment from the next when they are all overflowing with zoom meetings and conference calls, or when they are emptied of work and connection. It’s almost impossible to feel ourselves moving through time when time’s been made dense and opaque by illness.

Time has been so compressed over the past weeks that it’s been hard to tell one day from another. For us at the church, these weeks have been measured out in Sundays. From the First Sunday of Lent, when we bumped elbows at the Passing of the Peace, to the second Sunday of Lent when we broadcast our first service from an empty church, to the Third Sunday of Lent when our beloved students were sent home, to the Fifth Sunday of Lent when we sang, preached and prayed the different parts of the service into our phones, the liturgical calendar was the only one that made any sense. As the renunciations piled up — the giving up of touch, of proximity, of being together in classrooms and other sacred spaces — I was grateful that the season of Lent was there to receive them, and bless them, and help us weigh their meaning.

But here we are on Easter Sunday, which coincides precisely with the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, the highest point of the curve that we’ve all been trying to flatten. Is time out of joint? Or has Easter arrived right when we need it? What does it mean to greet the resurrection when we are still in the shadow of the valley of death? What does it mean to shout Alleluia when history barrels forward so quickly that it threatens to swallow up the distinctiveness of our lives and press on us its own defining mark?

Of course, the story of Easter is itself passed down to us from a traumatized community whose disorientation and fear press up through every gospel account of the resurrection. As they race to and from the tomb, speak with angels, experience earthquakes, proclaim that they have seen the Lord, or hide at home and say nothing, Jesus’s followers seem frantic with grief.

In the resurrection account from the gospel of John that Louisa read for us, one of those followers, Mary Magdalene, also seems to be struggling with time. It’s still dark when she makes her way to Jesus’s tomb — maybe she can’t sleep, maybe she can’t bear to keep waiting for the sun to come up--and so she’s the first to see that the body is no longer there. Jesus’s missing body only adds to her distress; it doubles his absence. The gospel says that she runs to find Simon Peter and another disciple, and they race each other back to the tomb. Tentatively, the men step inside, and when they see that it is truly empty, they return home.

But Mary stays at the tomb and weeps. The body matters to her. Not knowing where it is, is unbearable. And as she stands there crying at the mouth of the tomb, her weeping eyes see more than Peter and the other disciple saw. She sees angels, marking the place where Jesus’s body had been with their own shining presence. They ask her: Woman, why are you weeping?

When Mary Magdalene fetched the two disciples to come and see the empty tomb, she said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” But when the angels ask her why she is crying, her answer becomes more tender, more personal: “They have taken away my Lord,” she says, “and I do not know where they have laid him.” The angels reach Mary’s deepest fears with their question which almost seems to open a new time within this terrible time. Gone are the panic, the running and the racing. As any chaplain can tell you, when you ask someone what they are experiencing, rather than telling them what they are experiencing, time slows down, and new possibilities can become visible.

The new possibility that comes into view in this moment is the possibility of resurrection. Once Mary Magdalene has spoken her most heartfelt words, she turns and sees Jesus standing with her, although she doesn’t recognize him. Like the angels, Jesus asks: woman, why are you weeping? Just tell me where he is, she replies, thinking that he might be the gardener, and I will take him away.

In order to recognize Jesus, Mary will have to turn again, which she does when Jesus speaks her name: “Mary!” Some of the commentaries I read on this passage rightly point out that Mary seems to turn unnecessarily — she had already turned toward Jesus, and now, in the moment of recognizing him, she turns again. Maybe this is something the author didn’t catch during the editing of this text; maybe it’s a mistake passed down by a scribe.

Maybe. But maybe Mary turns twice to emphasize the act of turning. Maybe the author is trying to say that the resurrection is an inexhaustible mystery toward which we must turn and turn and turn again if we are to feel its claim on us, if we are be changed by it.

In the late 80s and early 90s, my sister worked on the border in Texas and in California, working to free children who had crossed the border on their own from our country’s detention centers, helping them find their way to family members living here. Sometimes a child would tell her that they had seen Jesus in the desert during their border crossing, news that she learned to receive without surprise. For of course, she said, that’s where Jesus would be — in the desert with those vulnerable children. He’s in the desert, and in the hospital, in the prison, on the unemployment line. This is where he told us we would find him. It’s where he’s born, where he suffers and dies, and where he lives again. From all these places he calls us to turn, and turn, and to keep turning until we recognize him. Until we can say, with Mary Magdalene: I have seen the Lord.

After Mary turns, and turns again, Jesus says a confounding thing to her that has been painted and sculpted and pondered in the art of every age since this gospel was written. He says: Don’t hold onto me. Don’t touch me, because I have not yet ascended to my Father. This feels cruel, incomprehensible, that the only one who stayed by the tomb, who searched for the missing body, who stayed turned toward the trauma even though it hurt, would not be allowed to embrace the resurrected Jesus. Just as it feels cruel and incomprehensible that we cannot touch the ones we love when they are dying in the hospital, or giving birth, or recovering from surgery. As Professor Matthew Potts wrote in Holy Thursday meditation in our newsletter, “even on this resurrection morning, even in the midst of this victory, Mary’s love is frustrated. She cannot touch the one she loves; she cannot love in the manner she wishes.”

That she cannot is heartbreaking, and difficult to understand. But maybe what this gospel is trying to say is that, after trauma, things don’t go back to the way they were. We have to find a new way forward. Just as Mary will have to find a new way to be in relationship with Jesus when he is no longer walking beside her. When she can no longer reach out a hand to touch him.

Last week, a student gave a presentation in one of my classes on an anonymous 14th century mystical text called The Cloud of Unknowing. The student, Chris Fechisin, was interested in how the author wrote about time — nothing is more precious than time, the Cloud teaches, because that’s where God reaches us. Chris drew our attention to a particular teaching: strive to be like the saints, the text says, who “keep exact account of time by means of love.” Maybe because we’re all struggling to locate ourselves in time each day, we all found ourselves arrested by this phrase. What would it look like, we wondered, to keep account of time by love?

The most tempting way to keep account of time these days is in increments of how long it will take for things to go back to the way they were. Will it take four weeks, eight weeks, all summer, a year? How long until we can put all this behind us?

I long for the day when I can teach in a classroom and worship in a church and fly on a plane to visit my parents. Love makes me count the hours. But keeping account of time by love with the saints also means resisting the desire to just go back to the way things were. There is so much we must not take with us as we move forward from this moment: the injustice of the economic and social inequality that has made the burden of this virus fall hardest on black and brown communities. A health care system that leaves so many unprotected. The ridiculously low pay that people doing jobs that are necessary to everyone’s life receive. None of this can be accounted for by love.

There are also things that this moment has illuminated that we need to make sure we do not forget: most especially, that everyone’s life matters to everyone else’s life. That a choice made in one place can save lives in another. That our destinies are bound up together, no matter how we feel about it. Honoring this is a way to keep account of time by means of love, a way to keep turning toward one another in time until we have seen the Lord.

Easter can feel like a destination, a place to arrive at the end of the pilgrimage of Lent. But Easter is not an end point. It’s the beginning of something radically new. It’s resurrection. It’s new life.

In the passage from the prophet Jeremiah that Aidan read for us, we see the resurrection of a community, the people of Israel returned from exile. I was calling to you even from far away, God says, and I’m going rebuild you, and will dance with joy, and plant vineyards and enjoy the fruit. But one of the ways you will know they are home, God says, is when you are called once again to pilgrimage. “For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim: ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.’” Resurrection is marked not by moving back into the way things were, but by moving forward into the way things could be.

So we celebrate Easter year in and year out. In good times and bad, Easter sweeps through history, laying bare the dignity of our humanity in the vulnerability of our bodies. It calls us to live as if the invisible connections between us matter, and calls us to create a world grounded in that conviction. And each year Easter greets in us the hope that God’s love triumphs over even the most radical separations, that even death is not the last thing to be said about us and the relationships we have forged in love.

Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.