The real text for my sermon this evening is the two verses preceding the official text from Luke, namely, Luke 23: 55-56. “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” Matthew and Mark agree that after Jesus was dead, the women gathered spices but had to wait out the Sabbath before they could embalm Jesus. John differs by saying that Nicodemus already had embalmed Jesus with spices before he was placed in the tomb. But they all agree that the Sabbath was a time through which the disciples just had to wait. Our Easter Vigil symbolizes that waiting. But unlike the disciples whose wait looked back toward the Good Friday death and desolation, ours points toward the joy of Easter.
Jesus’ original disciples spent the Sabbath in traumatized disorientation. They did not know who or where they were after the shock of Jesus’ arrest, the hurried denials and evasions by the leading disciples, and the crucifixion. The text says they rested, but that was because of the commandment regarding the Sabbath. I can’t imagine it was a peaceful rest.
Consider this theological point. There is a profound sense in which Good Friday and Easter are always simultaneously with us, not the latter succeeding the former. Every day we orient ourselves to follow Christ by picking up our cross. Some days are worse than others but life is a continual minefield of crosses. Likewise every day we enjoy the new life of fulfilled orientation to God as in Easter. Every day grace abounds if we but have the eyes to see. Part of the maturation of spiritual life is keeping our feet on the ground as we traverse the minefield of crosses while keeping our eyes on heaven where we already live in God’s light and joy. But I want to say that the experience of Holy Saturday, the day of waiting after desolation and before joy, is also a dimension of every day. Every day we live in a condition of profound disorientation, just like the first disciples, and we require a spirituality to embrace that too.
We orient our lives by a great many things, but I believe they fall into five ultimate categories.
First, we orient ourselves by how we deal with the choices in our lives. Each of us every day faces value-laden possibilities, and how we choose determines our moral character. We all make bad choices sometimes and it is common for us to think of ourselves as sinners who need forgiveness and mercy. We are disoriented with regard to our obligations when we do not know how to live with ourselves and our bad choices.
Second, we orient ourselves by how we deal with the need for wholeness and integrity in our personal lives. Sometimes we are quite literally broken with illness, disability, or other crippling conditions that inhibit our integration. In deeper senses, becoming whole means coming to terms with the important components of our lives, our talents and career dreams, our families of origin, God bless them, our social conditions such as race, class, wealth, and intelligence, the major historical issues of our watch, and a host of other things. Each of us has a wrangle of internal conditions that are integrated one way or another but often in ways that are contradictory, fragmented, and deadening. The quest for wholeness is deep and unending. Third, we orient ourselves by how we relate to other people and to the institutions and natural ecologies of our environment. In some respects, these others are internal to our own experience and we treat them according to how they lie in our orientation to personal wholeness. But that is also to miss the very point of their otherness. Those other things are not just part of us but exist in their own right. Every religion says that we should love those other things. Loving other people is not the same thing as loving institutions or loving various things in our natural environment. But love involves some kind of appropriate respect for those others precisely as other than ourselves but equally creatures of God. Jesus was particularly strong on the commandment of love.
Fourth, we orient ourselves by how we find worth and meaning in life. Some of our value consists in how we integrate our lives’ components. But we also have effects on others for better or worse, effects that they have to integrate into their lives in ways beyond our control. We have impacts on the institutions in which we live. Our very metabolism impacts the environment. Our value-identity in ultimate perspective is not only what we have integrated into our lives but the effects for better and worse we have on others who have to integrate our effects into their own integral reality.
Fifth, perhaps the most important domain of orientation is how we relate to the very existence of our world, especially of ourselves and place. Do we affirm the creation in gratitude and joy? Or is there a low-voiced bagpipe drone of resentment at having to navigate that minefield of crosses, at having to live life so full of failure and suffering, of struggling alongside Job to respond to his wife’s advice to curse God and die? Sometimes our orientation to life is to give up, and that temptation is nearly always with us.
The problems of righteousness, quests for wholeness, relations with others, what our lives add up to, and how we relate to our Creator are ultimate conditions of human existence. They define us existentially in ultimate ways. To the extent we have symbols and practices to engage these ultimates, we are religious. In one sense, everyone is oriented in all these ways. But often we are oriented badly. Sometimes the loss of those symbols and practices disorients us. I wager each person here has suffered ultimate disorientation at least momentarily when the religious path gets lost.
Consider the first disciples on the Sabbath. They had been galvanized to transform their lives and follow Jesus by coming to adopt something like the following story. Jesus brought them into a radical reordering of their religion’s moral life by saying it was a matter of the heart, not just behavior, as in the Sermon on the Mount. Joining with him in this movement healed them in various ways and made them more whole. The journey for which he was the new Moses required them to love one another, more, to love those outside their ingroup, indeed to love their enemies, and they were slowly learning such love. Their lives were given transformative meaning because of their participation in this story of the incoming of the kingdom of God where Jesus would rule and the Twelve Disciples would be his viceroys over the tribes of Israel. God in this story was not only the creator but the triumphant king who would bring about justice, destroy evil, and reward his followers with love and mercy. Something like this is what they believed, and many Christians believe this today, indeed think it is the meaning of Easter.
But by the first Holy Saturday this story was in shambles. The moral purification of his Judaism was ground to pieces in the underhanded collusion between its leaders and the feckless Pilate. The sense of personal healing was destroyed by the failure of the renewal project and manifested in the betrayal and abandonment of Jesus by the disciples. The relation to the world that was supposed to be loving was slammed back in the dirty politics leading to crucifixion, snapping Jesus alleged kingship like a twig. Jesus was not going to be king and rule in justice in the divine kingdom. And the Creator sent no angels, did not take away the cup, and was just absent: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?!!” Nothing that previously had oriented the disciples in ultimate ways was left. That story was false.
Sometimes we suffer from a similar disorientation. For instance, think about the Church. One of the ancient images of the Church is that it is the Ark, like Noah’s Ark, that can carry us to salvation. The Ark is an orienting metaphor. But then, when we realize that our Church in the 21st century denies the full humanity of large groups of people, for example homosexuals, or in the 20th century denied the legitimate findings of science in the name of a culture-bound misappropriation of the Bible, or in the 19th century defended the enslavement of large numbers of people, or in the Middle Ages whipped up crusades to kick ass for Jesus, the leaky Ark can no longer provide ultimate orientation. Now, I could have referred to the crusades as “passionate devotion to hastening the Kingdom of God,” as they spoke of it then. But they were so mistaken as to be vulgar, and my vulgar phrase is more appropriate. When the aura of our customary communal orientations to salvation turns from holy to vulgar, we feel something of the disorientation of Holy Saturday.
Or consider your more personal senses of ultimate orientation. Have you ever thought that some choice you made was so evil in its consequences, wicked in its motivation, and culpable regarding your moral character that you wouldn’t accept forgiveness if it were offered? Have you ever felt so broken and contradictory to the core that you abandon hope for personal integrity of any sort? Have you ever felt that your failure to love, not the heroic love of enemies that Jesus commanded but the simple love of friends he said was easy, is so egregious that you hate yourself? Have you ever thought that all the things you believed make life meaningful are delusions fit for children? Have you ever raged against the God, or the accident, that gave you life because it’s just not worth it? I suspect all of us have even if we usually hide those feelings under an apple-butter layer of piety. I suspect we have these feelings thrumming away in our psyches all the time.
In themselves, these feelings are part of life and are not disorienting. What is disorienting is not to have religious symbols, beliefs, and practices that acknowledge them and give them proper orientation. The problem with these feelings is that they undermine and show up as shams so many of the domestic orienting structures of our religion. Holy Saturday symbolizes the pervasive and profound sense that our religion is in shambles.
I said at the beginning that we, unlike the first disciples, abide Holy Saturday with an orientation to Easter morning. Now let me tell you what Easter is not. Easter is not an affirmation of some old story that postulates victory so as to erase the desolation of Good Friday and the disorientation of Holy Saturday. That triumphalist theology has been common in Christian history but it is just whistling in the dark. Easter is not the happy ending of a story that had some dark moments. In fact, Easter is the demonstration that, despite our many stories that give life proximate meanings, ultimate orientation cannot be in a story at all. The problem is the belief that any story can give ultimate orientation. One of the meanings of Good Friday is that the actual story of each of us is that we inevitably lose and die. One of the meanings of Holy Saturday is that no story ultimately can justify our moral lives, or our brokenness, or our estrangements, or our despair, or our hatred of existence. The Easter gospel requires us to give up on stories for ultimate orientation and come to ourselves in God irrespective of our stories.
The resurrection means that God is never absent after all, despite how it seemed to Jesus on the cross. The astonishing thing about the symbolic power of the resurrection is that it says that ultimate orientation for us all comes from finding our center in God the Creator, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. What happened in Jesus’ story and in ours, is not ultimately important, and this is ultimately important to recognize. As sources of orientation, our stories are to be relativized in light of our fundamental orientation to God our Creator.
The problem with our stories, true as they might be, is that they make it seem as if we are the centers of our lives. But to the contrary God is the center of our lives. God’s creation is the ultimate cosmic reality, and our own parts in it are only proximately important and then only to us. Easter is not about Jesus beating Pilate, or the Devil. It is not about God rescuing his Son from a sticky situation. It is about the glorious reality of God everywhere and always grounding and holding all our stories, a truth so easy to forget when we live under the illusion that our stories are ultimately rather than proximately important.
Our Easter joy is to accept our moral lives for what they are, including our failures, and to tunnel beyond morality to God the creator of an immensely value-filled universe. Easter joy is to accept the brokenness of our lives and meditate into to the wholeness of God who gives us our complexities. Easter joy is to accept our estrangements and enter into God’s glorious fecundity in the Other anyway. Easter joy is to accept the fragmentations of life’s so-called meanings and receive the depths of God who creates all things, even those that do not add up. Easter joy is to accept the world as it is and consent to being in general because this is God’s act.
So you see that, with the truly ultimate orientation to God, our Easter joy brings a sense of humor to the proximate stories of our moral adventures, quests for wholeness, fumbling attempts to love, concerns about what we are worth, and essays to say whether life is worth living. Because of God, whatever we do and are ultimately is just fine. Life is a comedy after all. Easter is a riot of laughter, from God’s perspective.
With such an ultimate orientation, decentering ourselves and centering our orientation on God, of course we should go back to ordinary life and try to do better morally, to become more whole, to love better, to enrich the world as best we can, and to love the God who gives us life. Let’s hear it for sanctification! These proximate stories are the actual content of the life we must engage, the stories of our watch. Because of the Easter orientation to God we can start afresh in each of these ways. But the Easter theme of “new life” is consequent upon coming to ourselves in God rather than hunting for ourselves in our stories. Our ultimate identity is manifest when we take ourselves ultimately seriously with a sense of humor.
Have you ever wondered why our religion emphasizes Jesus as so meek and humble? Why does it emphasize Passion-week which is the story of the failure of his regal story? Why do we preach Christ crucified? It is because we believe our true orientation is in God and not the historical victory of some regal divinity. What did Jesus do? Beat the Romans? Purify Second Temple Judaism? Heal everybody? Make proper theologians of the disciples? Bring righteousness to Zion? Behave like a proper Messiah? No, he accepted the cross and commended his soul to God.
The Easter joy in which we come to ourselves in God allows us also to inhabit the particular stories of our lives with their Good Friday minefields of crosses, but with a sense of humor. It also allows us to acknowledge our disorientations that come with the ambiguities of morality, integrity, engagement, meaning, and life-affirmation; we can abide Holy Saturday with a laugh—who needs all that story-orientation to be ultimate anyway? With Easter joy we consent to God in our small ways as God consents to us in the great creation of which we are humble parts. Amen.
~ The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville