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More Than Magical Thinking


John 20:1-18

Blow the trumpets. It only seems natural. Sing “alleluia” with glad abandon. How can we do anything else today than shout “he is risen” at the top of our lungs. It is Easter, after all; that is what we do.

Most often, John’s is a trumpet-blowing, brass-blaring, alleluia-shouting kind of Gospel, so it is almost shocking how he begin his Easter story – in the dark, in solemn stillness, in dead silence. There is no trumpet fanfare. No alleluia. No shouting from the rooftops. There is only Mary of Magdala headed to the tomb before the break of dawn to do her death duty.

A few years ago, the award-winning writer, Joan Didion witnessed her husband die almost instantly from a massive heart attack. Her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, chronicles her first year of grief. On the night of her husband’s death, despite protests from friends, she insisted that she stay by herself. She writes: “I was . . . in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible . . . I needed to be alone so that he could come back. That was the beginning of my year of magical thinking” (Didion, pp. 32-33).

Unlike Didion, in John’s Easter story, Mary is not looking for Jesus to come back; she is looking for his corpse and it is missing. She is convinced that a grave robber has been at work and so she cannot carry out the burial duties of the bereaved.

John begins his Easter story quietly, desperately, in the grief-stricken cadences of the poet, W.H. Auden:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. (Didion, p. 45)

What happens next in John’s Easter story is for some people solid proof that the church is possessed by magical thinking. Try to explain to the modern mind just how boulders move themselves from entrances to tombs. Explain how angelic beings sit in dazzling display in damp, dark graves. Explain how a crucified, dead, and buried man now strolls about in a garden as if his death were simply a virtual reality.

You can read the Easter story at a safe distance, in this analytic, defies reason, fashion, then smile and shake your head at such silliness and return home confident that Easter is just so much magical thinking. I recommend, though, that you let yourself enter the story and follow Mary from start to finish. For those of us who treasure logic and reason, following Mary is a safe choice, because she is the paragon of human reason.

John’s Easter story begins with Mary doing what reasonable people do when someone dies. They grieve. They take care of the details of life that give them some sense of control when life is totally out of control. Even when Mary finally recognizes that the gardener is the risen Jesus, reason still prevails. Mary wants to do what any reasonable person would. The one she loves is standing in front of her and Jesus asks her to keep her distance, when all she wants is to hold on to him for dear life. Mary is the reasonable one in the Easter story, not Jesus.

Mary wants nothing different than what any grieving person wants. She wants things to be the way they were. When Jesus calls her by name, he goes on to tell her that things are not the same and never will be. Jesus says, “Let go, Mary.” “Let go of trying to recreate a magical past. I am not a vision of your grief-stricken heart.” “I was dead, Mary, and by God’s grace, I am alive.”

I have often thought that the most challenging place to celebrate Easter is in the Northern Hemisphere, especially amid the visual splendor of Spring in our area. On the other hand, Easter in the Southern Hemisphere is more stark, far less natural as the vibrant colors of spring and summer life are shifting into the dull and dormant colors of fall and winter. In our Hemisphere, though, it is tempting to look around at all the plants and trees in blossom, this cross decorated with flowers from our gardens, and think that Easter is just that natural, just that logical, just that reasonable, that the resurrection of Jesus is as routine as the blooming of the azaleas at Augusta.

In this Easter story, Mary is the epitome of reason, but there is nothing reasoned or natural or logical about resurrection. Easter pushes us beyond what we expect, what is reasonable, and invites us to trust in the seemingly impossible possibilities of God.

As I read this familiar story again this week, I could not help but remember my sixth-grade grammar teacher. “Now, class, please pay attention to the verbs.” The risen Jesus says to Mary, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Pay attention to the Easter verbs. “Do not hold,” “go,” “say” – all action verbs that set our sights forward. John begins his Easter story in the dark with a weeping Mary because he knows that death always wants to hold us in the past, even as we want to hold on to our loved ones just one more time.

When Jesus addresses Mary, he tells her that Easter means letting go of the past in order to see what God is about to do, what God is doing even now. What Jesus says to Mary pushes her out of the land of sense and sensibility into a new land of surprise, wonder, and awe. What Jesus says to Mary sends her away empty-handed, but full voiced. It sends her out to look for what my friend, Brian Blount, calls “a God on the loose.”

God defies any trumpeter to play “Taps” today, to do anything to muffle their glad sounds. The risen Jesus stares into Mary’s grieving eyes and and defies her to settle to live a safe and small and reasonable life.

On this Easter day, sit in your pews, if you can. Shake your heads in modern disbelief, if you must. My advice though is to listen to my sixth-grade grammar teacher: “Pay attention to the verbs.” If you do, on this Easter morning, you will dance down the aisle to this table of recognition where God calls us each one of us by name: Josh, Linda, John, Renee, Estelle, Fran, Walter, Kathy, Peggy, Ryan, Kate. But do not linger at this table. Be fed and then go feed hungry people; feed them with huge helpings of God’s love, dish up for them something far more substantial and life-giving than leftover reason and magical thinking.

Run out into a world that is convinced that right now is as good as it gets and announce that the death-dealing powers ruling our world and controlling our lives are on the way out because our God is on the loose. Call that magical thinking, if you will. John calls it the Gospel truth and may we never settle for anything less.

Why? Because, dear friends, Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Hallelujah! AMEN!

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