The Rev. William C. Redfield
Trinity Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, NY
Easter Sunday—Year B—April 8, 2012
When the 40-day season of Lent began back on Ash Wednesday, I suggested that, instead of ruminating about a whole inventory of specific sins during Lent, it might be more useful to lump them all together into one very human foible—that is, the insidious desire to place ourselves in the center of the universe and demand that life’s unfolding conform to what would be best and most convenient for us. You see, instead of taking life as it is and living it on its own terms, we have the inveterate desire to turn everything around in order that we might occupy the driver’s sea.
You see, we have been inculcated into the belief that we can and should be able to exercise control and mastery over our own life circumstances. We are given the notion that we should be able to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps in order to overcome any adversity that comes our way. And when we don’t or can’t, we are left to feel a deep sense of shame and conclude that we are judged and separated from God.
But that isn’t really the ways life works. Despite all of our subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to control life and to make it conform to our demands, life has the tendency to just smile at our attempts at control and to keep on flowing in its own enigmatic way. But that is because life is more a mystery to be lived than it is a problem to be solved. It requires a more varied and nuanced response than the assertion of control.
Ironically, in those moments when we insist on taking up our position in the driver’s seat and when we refuse to accept and work within the givens of our existence, something very strange happens to us. We become blind. With every act of hording, seizing, defending, or clinging, we become unable to see the rich contours of blessing in this life. Almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s as if our insistence on trying to control the givens of our lives insures both our own shortsightedness and our own great misery.
But conversely, on those occasions when we follow Jesus on the spiritual path and when we model our lives and our actions on his generous willingness to pour himself out in the sacramental offering of life and love—when we do something that in any way models that—we sense that the universe is abundantly overflowing with blessing and that, come what may, we will be met. Then, rather than the desperate sense of scarcity and deficiency that our self-protectiveness brings us, we are delivered to a rich sense of abundance. It’s as if the seeing of life in this way itself opens the floodgates of a fullness beyond imagining.
But no matter how many times we come to this realization and no matter how many times we learn its lesson, there is something in us that keeps trying to sneak back into that driver’s seat. Even though we know that our efforts to control and to cling will not succeed and will bring us more misery than anything else, that temptation remains.
And that is why, as Lent was commencing, I warned that the more traditional Lenten practices of giving up things like chocolate can subtly turn into the ego’s desire to demonstrate its ability to control its habits and to prove itself worthy. More than once I have heard someone claim that the reason they are convinced that they are not alcoholic is because they are able to give up alcohol during Lent. Ah, the fantastic rationalization of the human ego!
But besides running rampant during the season of Lent, that same little insistence on the part of our individual ego that it be the center of the universe and that it be in control can also very easily come creeping into Easter. Here we may want to believe that the meaning of Easter is that individual life is stronger than death and that individual life and individual identity will continue on in a basically unbroken continuation. Actually, that sort of understanding of resurrection may sound both acceptable and prevalent, but it actually didn’t insinuate itself into the tradition until the third century. Before that the understanding of resurrection had been more nuanced and more subtle.
So let me just say it outright. When we think that Easter is about the miracle that a corpse can come back to life, we maybe are secretly hoping that these individual lives and identities of ours will go on forever. While that belief might be perfectly lovely and actually have within at least some seeds of truth, I do not think that that is what Easter is really about or the deepest place that our faith can bring us.
How can I sound so sure of that? That is simply not the way Jesus lived and that is not the way he died. His life was perfectly kenotic. By that term I mean that he never intended and never practiced holding anything back in order to serve his own control demands or to preserve in own continued identity. In other words, he exhibited no desire whatsoever that his life and identity should continue on in unbroken continuity. His life was poured out, but it was not poured out for the sake of some future reward of endless identity. It was poured out for the sake of love.
And so even at the end when his life was unraveling through abandonment and betrayal and even though he was deeply pained through the human emotions of suffering, he could love through it all. His ultimate conviction and wager was not that individual identity was stronger than death, but that love was stronger than death. And he lived his life with the full belief that the very essence of this kind of love leads to abundant life that even death can not diminish or destroy.
But look very carefully. This is not primarily the victory of individual identity over death. It is actually something far deeper. The love that Jesus exemplifies and the path to which he is inviting us is about love that requires the dying-to-self in order that it might be poured out for the sake of the other and for the sake of love. This self-giving love delivers us to the place of transformation—to the place where a corner of the veil is lifted up so that we can see life as it actually is.
And what do we see? We see that we are swimming in an ocean of love and that we are inseparable from the wetness of that water. We are, in other words, integral parts of a wholeness that Jesus called love, the fabric of which is seamlessly stitched to include us and everyone. We are, in other words, part of an even greater identity than our own individual identities. We are more than that which is currently housed within our self-contained skin. We are the wetness of this vast and incomprehensible ocean of God’s love. And the Great Easter Mystery tells us that this reality is true in this life and that it is not interrupted or cancelled by death.
Yesterday a small group of us gathered to mark Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is perhaps the most neglected and most profoundly misunderstood day on our liturgical calendar. Marking the burial of Jesus, this day has become—if anything at all—a non-event. While on the one hand, we could say that Holy Saturday is the necessary gateway to Easter, mostly we just use the time to clear the deck and prepare the church for the next day’s grand and festive Easter celebration.
Perched between the final agony of Good Friday and the unexpected mystery of Easter, Holy Saturday is that empty space that marks the boundary and the entranceway to resurrection. But more than just a time of waiting or shifting gears between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Holy Saturday delivers us to the vestibule of transformation in that it indicates just how we might receive this unfolding mystery we call Easter.
Our attention yesterday rested on Mary Magdalene. In fact, using one of the recently recovered gospels widely known to the early church but then neglected, lost, and all but forgotten—we followed the suggestive outline of Jesus’ powerful relationship with Mary Magdalene.
Without getting sidetracked into any kind of titillating or scandalous take on their relationship, we saw the essential truth that Jesus and Mary Magdalene drank from the common cup of love. That is, they were deeply committed to each other’s spiritual growth and cared so deeply about each other’s well being that each was willing to lay aside his or her own life for the other. And this is precisely what Jesus did—for Mary Magdalene, his partner in ministry, and for us all.
But so united were Jesus and Mary Magdalene in this sea of love that death could not separate them. In the Apostles Creed we say that, after his death, Jesus descended into hell. As Jesus entered the underworld to redeem all of life and, through the divine redemption of love, change the very foundations of existence, Mary Magdalene tracked him from above and kept him tethered by her love. And then following his reappearance in the garden on the day of resurrection, Mary continued a living relationship with him, though he had at that point entered a different and higher realm.
While Jesus was totally oriented to God (after all, we say he was divine), he was also totally directed to those around him (yes, he was totally human as well). His own transfiguration brought him to the deep understanding that love of God and love of neighbor are inseparably woven together. And he shows us that by loving those whom we find in our lives—our family members, our friends, our spouses, and even those whom we find so different), we are being led into the fullness of God’s kingdom.
Now—before I get much further—you might be wondering where I got the audacity to use such a non-canonical writing as the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and to draw such seemingly non-traditional conclusions about the Pascal event. I will tell you.
For the 18 years I served this parish I have been privy to the sharing of secret events of which I have kept private and essentially silent—until now. On more occasions than I could ever recount, a surviving spouse—especially a surviving spouse of a marriage that had been deep or long or both—has told me of a felt presence of his or her beloved that has been experienced as both very real and very physical. The beloved has appeared to the surviving spouse in a form that was much like a physical form—only lighter and maybe more subtle. I have heard this same account from those who have lost beloved friends and family members as well. Is this a “light body” or a “resurrected body”? Good questions.
Here’s what I have come to tentatively conclude. It’s as if the self-giving commitment to passionate love can serve the deeper purpose of the ultimate transformation that can come over the course of a lifetime of give and take (but mostly give) that ends in this final transfiguration. True love, deep and abiding love, provides the alchemy of union that bridges the divide between this life and the higher realms. That is why this connection of love remains unbroken—even in the face of death. And again, this is not restricted to a life-long committed relationship between spouses—it is can also be experienced with committed friendships and relationships with parents and other family members.
If this is true—and I am totally committed to the fact that it is—then the resurrection we celebrate today, the victory of love over death and the grave, is more than an event limited to a particular occurrence two thousand years ago. It is also a trans-temporal reality that can be lived right here and now. It is the lived reality that is open to anyone who has traveled the depths of self-giving love with a beloved. But its essential conclusion is always the same: we are swimming in a sea of love, and we are one with the wetness of the water. This love endures; it cannot be blocked, thwarted, or cancelled by death.
How then can we get to this sea?
We are already in it. But to more accurately and intentionally navigate within it we have only to follow the path of Jesus and self-giving love he taught to us and modeled for us. To experience this in its depth and fullness is the meaning of life. To deliciously swim in this sea of love is what we were born for. And because he has loved us so unconditionally, Jesus continues to be with us and to track us from his presence in the higher realms.