By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
I hope it doesn’t bother you that many of our Christian traditions and ideas have been borrowed from other religious faiths and expressions, even pagan ones, and then appropriated to fit who we are. If it does bother you, allow me to suggest as gently as I can that you need to… well, you just need to get over it, because it is most assuredly true.
You can’t decorate for Christmas without delving into traditions and themes that came from other religions. The tree, the lights on the tree, the use of evergreen… it all precedes Christianity, and was borrowed by Christians to make our celebrations more meaningful.
In other words, Christian tradition is kind of like a bad neighbor. It’s always borrowing something and never bringing it back. Christianity’s garage is just full of things that used to belong to the neighbors.
We don’t really need to apologize for this. Perhaps we do try to sweep it under the rug at times, but it is nothing to be ashamed of. Just because we’ve borrowed these ideas doesn’t mean they can’t be significant for us.
But having said all this, as far as I can figure it out, Easter might just be our only tradition that isn’t borrowed from someone else who had the idea first. It is true that it usually occurs around the Jewish Passover, but it is based on the cycle of the moon. Easter, you see, always comes on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring or vernal equinox. Did you know that?
That’s why Easter has come so early this year, much to the relief of the good folk in Augusta, Georgia. This year it doesn’t compete with their beloved golf tournament.
Clifford Roberts, along with Bobby Jones, was one of the founders of the Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Georgia. For you golf neophytes, that is where the first of the four major golf tournaments, The Masters, is held every April – the first full weekend of April – without fail. In fact, ask any golfer and he or she will tell you that spring really doesn’t begin until The Masters has rolled around.
Clifford Roberts, to put it mildly, had a single-mindedness about his golf course and his tournament. It was sacred to him, and he, if you will excuse the pun, called all the shots. He even dictated to CBS how they had to televise the competition, and if you know anything about sports and television you are aware that it is TV’s tail that wags the dog. But not at Augusta National.
Here’s the story… It was the 1970’s. One particular year, the final round of The Masters fell on Easter Sunday. CBS requested that tee times be changed to give viewers the opportunity to attend church and still see the entire round afterward. During the discussion Mr. Roberts grew restless. He wasn’t happy with the scheduling conflict. When reminded that the date for Easter changes each year, he said, “Find out who’s in charge of Easter, and let’s see if we can’t get them to change the dates.”
It is not because of some strange scheduling quirk that Easter has come early this year. CBS couldn’t change it, nor could Clifford Roberts. It is based on the moon, and for our particular branch of Christian tradition it always comes on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring or vernal equinox. Got it? Good.
Well now, wait a minute. We know when it is. We’ve established that. But what we don’t know is why it is when it is. I’m not really sure I can tell you why, but there is one interesting thing about it. Easter always coincides with the coming of spring, the greening of the earth.
Sometimes we do get caught off-guard. I still remember the Easter, almost thirty years ago, when I preached a sunrise service and it began snowing. But generally, the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox signals the beginning of that time when the earth begins to show off her lovely green colors. And this year, even though Easter is early, since we’ve had a mild winter that certainly seems to be the case.
A couple of Saturdays ago Janet and I went with her Sunday School class over to the outskirts of Carlisle to engage in the sin of gluttony. It’s better, if you are going to sin so flagrantly, that you do it in public and in the company of good friends. If those friends are from church, so much the better. Like Martin Luther said, if you’re going to sin, do it boldly… and, I might add, in the company of others who can’t later point their finger at you.
A bunch of us, you see, went to eat good old Arkansas fried catfish. Lots and lots of catfish, plus all the trimmings. And you know what those trimmings are… french fries, hushpuppies, coleslaw, topped off with sweet tea… there’s not an ounce of nutritional value in the whole mess, I suppose, but it sure does make for good eating.
When we emerged from our den of iniquity, after gorging ourselves sinfully but gloriously, we were greeted by a beautiful, darkening sunset that left a deep red cast across the western sky. A bare tree was in the foreground and right above it the slither of an early moon. I thought to myself, “Yep, it may be coming early this year, but Easter is right on time.”
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Easter is early this year. Why it seems as if Advent and Christmas were just yesterday. But strangely enough, while it is early, Easter is right on time. At least it is for us. But that wasn’t so true for Mary, the Mary from Magdala, was it? Just like this year, for Mary Magdalene, Easter came too soon. She wasn’t expecting it. But then again, it could have come in late November and she wouldn’t have been ready.
How do we know Mary wasn’t ready for Easter? Well, that’s pretty easy to answer.
For one thing, “The empty tomb does not move her to faith.”1 Her immediate reaction is the logical one, the same one you and I no doubt would have had. She thinks Jesus’ body has been moved by someone. This is not a grave dug out of the ground; it is a tomb hewn from a rocky hillside. Grave robbing was a rather common activity in those days, but usually it was the rich who were victimized by such crimes. Jesus was hardly that. Yet, it’s the logical thing to think, at least as a first thought.
When something unexpected happens, you find yourself scrambling for any explanation, and that’s as good as any other. That’s it. Someone has come and taken his body away.
When the risen Christ first appears to her, Mary doesn’t recognize him. She thinks he’s the gardener. It could have been her grief. Grief can do that to you, you know. You can’t think clearly. Your mind is numbed to all that is going on around you. You really can’t see. Once the fog of grief is lifted, you look back on the most intense time of it and have a hard time even recalling what happened. Who was there? I’m not sure. Somebody brought dinner. Somebody always brings dinner. Funeral food, you know. Who brought dinner? I don’t know. What’d we have? Who knows? It was just a fog. I couldn’t really see.
We don’t remember because remembering has a great deal to do with seeing.
It could have been the shock. Jesus’ body wasn’t in the tomb where it was supposed to be. Mary had watched the two noted rulers, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, hastily prepare the body for burial. They had to get it done before sundown, you see. The Sabbath was about to commence and Jewish law required the dead to be in their graves before sundown. It was then that Mary decided she would come back the next morning, the morning after the Sabbath — Sunday morning — and prepare his body properly. But it wasn’t there.
The real reason, however, is that while Easter may come after the first full moon on or after the spring or vernal equinox, thus signaling to us the beginning of spring, which is a natural occurrence – meaning we couldn’t stop the daffodils from bursting through the ground if we wanted to – resurrection, which is what Easter is really about, is the most unnatural thing of all. Mary wasn’t ready for resurrection, and truth be told, neither are we.
“When a human being goes in the ground, that is that. You do not wait around for the person to reappear so you can pick up where you left off – not this side of the grave anyway. You say good-bye. You pay your respects and you go on with your life as best you can, knowing that the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them.”2
But because Mary of Magdala surprisingly stumbled across a resurrection, on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox, you and I anticipate that we will find a resurrection too. My guess – my hope – is that this is why you are here this morning. You are looking for a resurrection, and to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection is to anticipate the same for our loved ones and for ourselves.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells of her monthly visits to a nursing home on the poor side of town. Each time she celebrated communion with the residents, those poor souls who, as she puts it, “spend their days strapped in wheelchairs against the walls of the television room.”
“Once a month, nurses roll ten or fifteen of them into the sun room and park them in a semicircle around a small table. Some of them complain as I prepare the elements – “Get me out of here! Take me back to my room right now!” – while others doze or stare or drool.”
If you’ve ever visited a nursing home, you know what she’s talking about, don’t you?
She says that “few stay awake through the whole twenty-minute service. When it is time for them to take communion I go from chair to chair, patting them awake and asking them if they want the bread and wine. About half let me press the elements to their lips; the rest refuse to be roused or else they look at me as if I am a burglar. It is one of the hardest things I do because I sometimes doubt the power of the sacrament to break through their fog. I say all the comfortable words and wonder if anyone hears them. I stand there with my arms raised over the bread and wine and suspect that I might as well be flying a kite.”
One day she went on a late Monday afternoon. A volunteer warned her that everyone’s medication was wearing off. It was, Taylor says, a mixed blessing. They were more awake than usual, but also more vocal. One woman sang, “Row, row, row your boat,” bouncing against her restraints.
“What shall I read from the Bible this afternoon?” she asked them. “What part would you like to hear?” The commotion lessened enough for one old woman’s broken voice to be heard above everything else. “Tell us a resurrection story,” she said. Her words settled over the room and the sleepers opened their eyes. “Yes,” someone else said, and then someone else. “Yes. Tell us a resurrection story.”3
It’s true, isn’t it? It doesn’t really matter when Easter comes… early in March or late in April. We’re all ready to hear a resurrection story. And when we hear this story of Jesus we can’t help but believe that because he was brought out of his tomb, in some way that is known only God, the same will happen to us as well.
With resurrection we have hope that springtime comes in the grave as well as on it. Easter brings more than stubborn flowers bursting through the ground, it signals the possibility that we too shall be raised from the inevitable dead. That message comes to us the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. But most importantly, it comes into our hearts. May we hear it gladly, believe it boldly, then go out into our world and live it as if it were really, really true.
Father, may the promise of resurrection dwell deeply in our hearts. Give us the willingness to share such a wonderful thing with others. Find us faithful to you and your kingdom, living as if we really and truly believe that you will raise us from the dead. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1Fred B. Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year A (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), p. 246.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 110.
3Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 61f.
––Copyright 2005, Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.