Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
Easter Sunday, the 12th of April, 2020
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
I want to introduce you to what is probably a new word for most of you, the word ‘eucatastrophe’. You will know of ‘catastrophe’ which comes from the Greek words for ‘down’ and ‘turning’ and means great and usually sudden damage or suffering. Today’s new word, eucatastrophe, adds the Greek word for good or well to the beginning, the same Greek word we hear in eulogy – the good words we speak when someone has died. The word eucatastrophe was created by the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien. Writing about fairy tales, Tolkien said that all of them include a eucatastrophe, a good catastrophe, the sudden joy that comes in the midst of despair, the moment of unexpected deliverance. The reason, Tolkien argued, that fantasy writers like him were able to offer their readers the Consolation of the Happy Ending is because the Creator had already given it to us:
The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy … There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.
What we are celebrating today is a good catastrophe, the surprising moment when in the midst of their despair the disciples hear the good news that their beloved friend has been raised from the dead. This is the ultimate happy ending, as Tolkien argued it is the happy ending that makes all other happy endings possible, and each of the gospel writers describes it slightly differently. This year we hear the story according to Matthew.
In Matthew’s story we find ourselves accompanying two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, as they go to see the tomb. These two women have followed Jesus from Galilee and been among those who provided for him. When he was crucified, they were watching from a distance. When Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body in his own new tomb they were there, sitting opposite it. They’ve watched every stage of Jesus’ journey, from life, to death, to burial. Now they come to sit in vigil. They haven’t brought anything with which to anoint the body – Jesus’ body had been anointed before his death, at Bethany, when an unnamed woman poured costly ointment from an alabaster jar over his head. They’ve come to see the tomb, that’s all.
Sometimes God breaks into the world in such an unexpected way that messengers from God are needed to interpret what’s happened. There was once a man named Joseph, who found that his fiancée Mary was pregnant, before they had lived together. Joseph was going to set her aside quietly, but an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said to him: ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’ (Matt 1:20) Mary’s womb was full, when it should have been empty, but this scandalous fullness was an intervention by God.
Now the women who have come to the tomb in which Jesus’ body was laid find that it’s empty when they expected it to be full. There could be several reasons for that. The women might have come to the wrong tomb. Jesus’ disciples might have stolen the body away, as the chief priests and teachers warned Pilate might happen. Jesus might have only appeared to have been dead, and have revived and wandered off. But an angel appears to the women and with fantastic, cosmological, signs reveals to them that the tomb’s emptiness is an intervention by God. ‘[Jesus] is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.’
Again, God has intervened in history. Matthew doesn’t want us to miss the importance of this astounding event, so he describes it in apocalyptic, end of the world, language – all heaven breaking loose. There is a great earthquake. An angel of the Lord, with a face like lightening and clothes like snow, descends from heaven and rolls the stone back. The angel perches on top of the stone, as though in mockery of those who thought that the tomb could confine and control Jesus. The guards set by the chief priests and the Pharisees to make sure that Jesus’ disciples didn’t remove his body, are terrified and pass out. But the women are reassured by the angel, and given a message that has them running back to the other disciples in fear and great joy: ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’
Jesus truly was dead. And he didn’t come back to life through any power or virtue of his own. That’s what this tale of angels and earthquakes means; it is God who has been at work. Jesus was raised by God. Just as we see God’s love in Jesus’ birth, so we see God’s love in Jesus’ resurrection. In both cases we see God with us, which is, of course, what the name Emmanuel means and what Jesus’ life and death demonstrated. God is with us.
In Jesus’ day resurrection was hoped for as something that would happen at the end of time, at the eschaton. When God’s kingdom came, the righteous would be raised from death to enjoy it. When God raised Jesus, the eschatological resurrection that it was hoped would one day come with God’s kingdom is initiated. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign that in one sense God’s kingdom is already here. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s kingdom may come, but in the resurrection of Jesus we can see that the kingdom is already amongst us. No matter how dark and difficult life may be, there will always be a glimmer of light and hope, because Jesus was raised from the dead.
God’s raising of Jesus isn’t just a sign of God’s continuing presence among us. It’s also God’s comment on the events of Good Friday. Jesus was killed by humans frightened by someone they didn’t understand, someone who challenged the status quo. At his death the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, and the bandits all mocked Jesus, saying, ‘let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him’. Jesus didn’t. He died crying out: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ His life seemed to have been a failure. His message from God, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ (Matt 9:13,12:7), seemed to have been overruled. But in the resurrection God affirmed and approved all that Jesus did. The one who came to ‘call not the righteous but sinners’ (Matt 9:13) was shown to have been doing God’s will. All of us sinners can rejoice!
The resurrection of Jesus is also the greatest case of civil disobedience in human history. Civil disobedience, the breaking of unjust laws in the cause of justice, is something that Christian saints down the ages, from the first martyrs through to Martin Luther King and beyond, have seen as part of their call from God. Here it is God Godself who disobeys the law. When Rome executed rebels on the cross it was using the worst form of execution it knew to discourage further rebellion. It expected that a few crucifixions would end a movement. It also, at the very least, expected that those it executed would stay dead! But God refuses to accept Rome’s verdict on Jesus, and raises him. The one who was meant to be dead is alive again, and the movement that was meant to die with him is reborn. When Christians disobey unjust laws, we have the best of all examples to follow.
Jesus’ resurrection isn’t the only happy ending in this story. There’s another one, smaller, less earth-shattering, but one that’s just as meaningful. The angel tells the women, ‘Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”’ But when the women meet Jesus himself, he changes the message ever so slightly: ‘go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’.
The disciples had failed Jesus. It wasn’t just that Judas had betrayed him, and paid for that betrayal with his death. When Jesus was arrested all the disciples deserted him and fled. The only disciple who didn’t flee, Peter, denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. (The women had managed to stay faithful, observing everything that happened, and were rewarded with the first news of the resurrection, but even they saw the crucifixion from a distance.) But here, by referring to the disciples as his brothers, Jesus shows that all that has been forgiven. The past is past; the disciples will be able to look forward to the meeting with Jesus in Galilee, their slates clean and their failures forgiven. This, too, is part of the happy ending of the resurrection.
Today, Easter Sunday, is a day of celebration. It is a story of apparent defeat turning into a great victory; of sorrow becoming joy. It is about the triumph of life over death; love over hate. This year, of all years, in the midst of a pandemic, unable to gather together to celebrate, we need to hear this message. Every Sunday that the church gathers we celebrate this eucatastrophe, this new life, with joy. Today, when we can only gather spiritually, when we see disease and death all around us, when life is no longer as secure and safe as we thought it to be only months ago, we are still given news of a profoundly good and deeply unlikely eucatastrope, and we can still celebrate it. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’ in The Monster and the Critics and Other Essays, London: HarperCollins, 1997, p. 156