No-one knew it was Holy Saturday that first time. No-one who lived through Good Friday would have called it anything but evil, terrible, destructive. The end of all that they had hoped for. All that excitement – the drama of being called and leaving everything to follow this new rabbi, the gradual buildup of the healings, the teaching, the intensity of the conversations, the frequent disagreements and misunderstandings, that day when everything seemed to be about to come to a head when they marched into Jerusalem singing hosana to the Son of David, and when it seemed like Jesus was about to bring the kingdom into being right there and then.
All smashed into pieces.
Atheism lies at the heart of the Christian tradition.
Not that fun version beloved of the well-off, powerful, and physically strong where everything is finally permitted.
But the real thing.
It’s in that moment when the rose-tinted glasses are ripped off our faces and we stare into the world as it really is without God. A world where anything goes because nothing matters, and nothing stands between you and the abyss. Be a great saint. Be a terrible sinner. It doesn’t matter. If reality is perfectly content to see Jesus crucified, then really nothing matters. Everything we had hoped for is gone, gone without hope of return. It was all just a momentary fluctuation in the great random swirling currents of atoms and hyper-strings and dark matter and the laws of physics.
Everything else is just whistling in the dark.
Our times too are troubled, difficult, dangerous. We have barely begun to try to live with COVID, after years of on-again, off-again lockdown, with all the fear and uncertainty and blight that entailed, and now Russian soldiers are literally shelling nuclear power plants and performing unspeakable atrocities on civilians like some horrifying re-run of the second world war. And, in the worst perversion of all, the ex-KGB head of the Russian Orthodox church proclaims it a holy crusade.
Perhaps beyond meaninglessness, active evil stalks the world.
Evil has always stalked the world, of course, but, if we are lucky, we can generally shut our eyes to it. Sometimes, though, the awareness of it can break through our carefully marshalled defences. And, sometimes, as in Ukraine, it comes in full realization.
And sometimes, when we wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, we begin to suspect that we, too, might be caught up in it, in spite of our best efforts.
No-one knew it was Good Friday, that first Friday. No-one knew it was Easter Saturday. Light fades, and darkness covers the face of the earth.
Dimly, through this darkness, we see some figures walking.
Jesus has been crucified. The hope is over, the great dream of the coming Kingdom is destroyed as thoroughly as a shattered vase on a hard floor, but still, things must be done.
Luke tells us that it was “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them” who were coming to do the needful, very, very early in the morning, carrying spices to prepare Jesus’ dead body for burial.
There had been no time in the terror and despair and panic of Friday. Just getting the body off the scaffold before the Sabbath shutdown to protect it from the vultures was an achievement. No time to do what was needful then. So here they were, coming to perform the last rights, to do what they could do to try to make things at least a little bit right, or at least less wrong, in these inhuman circumstances.
When they got there, the stone had been rolled away, and the tomb was empty.
People don’t rise from the dead, that much was a clear to the women as it is to us. In fact, it was much clearer. Without modern medicine and surgical techniques, to be alive in the first century was to be much, much more aware of the power of death than we are. To be powerless in the face of whatever life or the fates or whatever had to throw at you in a way is a way of living which feels pretty alien to us. Or, rather, it used to feel completely alien to us, until the day before yesterday when our fantasies of total control ran into the solid concrete wall of COVID.
They weren’t wrong about. Jesus really was dead. He didn’t crawl out of the tomb and kind of limp off to lick his wounds. When the Romans wanted you dead, you were going to be dead. Dead beyond a hope of saving.
No wonder the women were perplexed. No wonder they were terrified. No wonder that, when they went back home and told the others, no-one believed them: It seemed to them an idle tale.
Let’s just pause here to make an important point which shouldn’t need to be made, but does: the first people to proclaim the Good News that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead were, in fact, women. If those first women hadn’t told anyone, if they had not been the first to preach the Good News, then we would not be here right now, handing on the message which they handed on to us.
I say no-one believed them, but perhaps Peter did, at least a little, because he, too, goes sprinting off through the streets to see for himself, and he too comes home amazed by what he has seen.
That’s where the reading ends, but it is really only the beginning of the story.
The women came rushing home. Peter went running off to check. And we have been running ever since, carrying this amazing piece of news.
God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
Evil does not have the final say. Life is not in fact meaningless.
However it feels sometimes, there is, in fact, meaning and purpose in life. God draws our little stories into the big story of God’s way of salvation with his people, God’s astonishing intervention in the world. Good really does conquer evil.
As Scripture says, when Jesus was lifted on high on the cross, he was able to draw all people to himself, because his resurrection is not “just a conjuring trick with bones”, not just a confidence trick, not even just a surprising twist in the complex journey of Jesus’ life.
In raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicated Jesus’ life and teaching. More than that, Jesus has opened for us the way to God, overthrowing the power of sin and death and meaninglessness. The temple curtain has been torn in two, the gates of the Kingdom of God have been thrown open and all sorts of people are suddenly making their way in.
God raising Jesus from the dead has life changing existential importance to us here and now. God speaks to us, tells us that God loves us, and calls us.
Part of the message of Easter is this: it does matter how we live. It means something. It matters because we matter to God, enough for God to intervene through the person of Jesus. And if we matter to God, then we matter as such, and what had seemed to be a view of the unvarnished truth about a meaningless world is revealed to be nothing but an illusion.
In raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God is reconciling us all to Godself and to one another. Not through our good behaviour or acts or personal piety or even through improving the social and economic conditions of the poor, valuable as those all are.
The resurrection, and the reconciliation it brings in its wake is God’s action, not ours.
God has done what is impossible, and the God who loves us continues to work with us and within us now, sending Jesus’ Holy Spirit amongst us, to bring life to what was dead. To bring to fruitfulness all of God’s promises. To draw us into a life rich in meaning and significance.
Because the resurrection says this: nothing shall be impossible for God.
Image: The Resurrection, Luca Giordano, 1665