Easter Vigil: Let God roll it away

Stone rolled away

As I’ve watched the addition to our building take shape, I’ve enjoyed looking at the stone. I suppose we could have done the building in cinder block or brick, but it would have been entirely different. Stone communicates something else entirely: solidarity, endurance, care. It takes a lot to get stone and it takes skill to work with stone.

In tonight’s Gospel there is an enormous stone. At first, it’s in the way. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb where Jesus has been taken. They know there’s going to be a stone there because that’s the way the tomb was sealed, but something compels them to go, anyway. On the way, they wonder, “How will we move the stone? Who will do it for us?” Whether their question about moving the stone turned into an actual prayer, or whether God simply overheard them speaking or read their hearts, by the time they reach the tomb, the stone has already been rolled back. They see the young man, or the angel, or whoever he was, and this young man gives them the amazing news that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

If the stone had remained in place, it would have been a very different story. Mary and the other women might have waited for a while, said some prayers, and felt the full force of their grief. Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. End of story. But the stone was moved, which opens up all kinds of things for Mary and the other women, and for us.

Though the stone was surely hard and big and solid, I imagine it representing lots of other things also —things that could have stood in the way of their seeing an empty tomb. I image the stone like a city wall, with graffiti on it, with names on it for what it might represent.

Before it was moved, the big stone might have had the word, “fear” scrawled all over it. Fear could have kept the tomb sealed. Later we hear that the disciples are stuck by fear as they gather in an upper room. Jesus bursts through their fear (but that’s the story for next Sunday and we’re not there yet). The community of Jesus had plenty to fear—the religious authorities, the civil authorities. They probably feared public perception—who would follow Jesus if they learned how the mission had ended, on a cross, as a criminal. They must have feared the future. They had been so sure that God was with Jesus, but now… what are they to think or do? Fear of Jesus (on the part of the religious and secular leaders) was in some ways what crucified him, but fear of the future might well have killed the Jesus movement.

A second word that could have been written on that huge stone at the tomb might be the word, “willpower.” Willpower might seem like a good thing, but it can also be misleading. Willpower is that sense of being able to take things into my own hands, get things done, follow my own sense of how things should play out and barrel on, come what may. Willpower is different from skill, or knowhow, or confidence. Willpower is dumber. It doesn’t listen to others. It certainly doesn’t pray. Simon Peter was operating out of willpower when he drew his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane and cut off the ear of a soldier. Pontius Pilate willed that his hands might be clean of death of an innocent man, but went ahead. Judas used willpower when he convinced himself to sell Jesus out to the authorities. But Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Salome go forward in humility. They go needy and armed with nothing but a few simple spices to anoint the body of their friend. They go in faith.

A final word I think would surely have been written on the great stone is an obvious one: death. But death is a word most of us don’t like to use or see. Too often, we can think of death as an ending, the great final act. Our culture of youth, wellness, and “better living through chemistry” puts death and any discussion of death off into the distant, remote future. But at the tomb of Jesus, death is simply rolled to the side. It still exists, but it’s not nearly as important as previously thought. Death is a passage, it’s a stage, it’s something to be gotten through, but once moved aside, there is new life. St. Francis understood the right place of death as he befriended Sister Death, regarding it as a sibling, as one of the family—not the most important member of the family of creation, but a member to be embraced.

That Easter morning, the great stone was moved and the women went into the tomb. They saw the angel who changed their future. Jesus had risen!

Just because the stone was moved didn’t mean life would be perfect. But eventually, the disciples and the community around Jesus would be filled with the Holy Spirit. They’d be given purpose and direction to work for the Kingdom of God on earth. And that’s we do now. That’s what we celebrate tonight.

We have heard scripture readings, psalms, and music that remind us of the many stones God has moved out of the way: the stone of slavery in Egypt is moved to allow for freedom and passage. The stone of a cold heart is set aside for a new heart and a new spirit. Rock is dried off to allow passage through the Red Sea. Hard rock is turned into a pool of water and flint-stone into a flowing spring.

God moves all kinds of stones that would keep us from the light and love of Christ. Fear will make the stones seem heavier. Willpower will fool us into thinking we have to move them by ourselves. And death will try to convince us that there’s no point in even trying.

But Christ has risen. The stone has been moved and in God’s grace and good time, stones continue to be moved. Whatever stands in the way of full life, let God roll it to the side. Whatever restricts the light of God’s love to you, let God roll it away. Whatever might block the light Christ, let God clear the way.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

In addition to readings during the Paschal Vigil, the primary lectionary readings for the Mass are Romans 6:3-11 , Psalm 114, and Mark 16:1-8.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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