The two souls of Easter

Text: Mark 16 (the empty tomb) * Video of complete service * Order of service (PDF)

On Thursday evening, Kim and I drove downtown to enjoy one of the Edmonton Spark installations. Perhaps you have seen photos of them. One called Fantastic Planet is a group of huge inflatable figures in Churchill Square. Another involves three large sculptures of chickadees on the roof of CO*LAB Art Space in the Quarters neighbourhood. For those who have not yet experienced Spark in person, I recommend it.

On Thursday, Kim and I parked on 105 Street in front of First Presbyterian and walked to an art installation at Beaver Hills House Park, just north of Jasper Ave. The photo projected behind me shows some of it. Called “Wapos,” which is Cree for rabbit, it involves 40 illuminated animals, nature sounds, and a self-guided storyline.

Wapos art installation, Edmonton 2021

Given this was the evening when the church marks The Last Supper; given that Wapos involves rabbits, which are associated with spring and Easter; and given that it was guided walk in the downtown core, it reminded me of the Way of the Cross walk, which Christian social activists like Bob McKeon have organized downtown on Good Friday for the past 40 years; except Wapos is a journey from sadness to joy. So, it seemed to encompass not just Good Friday, but all of Holy Week, including the new life of Easter.

I was enchanted by Wapos, and I was fascinated simply by being downtown. We arrived about 20 minutes before our 9:30 pm ticket, and so we went for a walk along Jasper. I was taken aback by how many cars and pedestrians were out and how many bars and restaurants were open and busy. If it were not for all the face masks, I might have imagined the pandemic was over.

A year ago this month, Kim and I went for a walk on Jasper with my sister Catherine, who lives in Oliver, and on that day the street reminded me of a post-apocalyptic movie. It was in the throes of construction, and the only people we passed seemed to be homeless.

So, last Thursday’s walk had another hint of Easter. Edmonton is itching for the end of the pandemic, and when it does end, the city may quickly burst back into activity, commerce, and community.

Except, the pandemic is not over yet. Only fifteen percent of Canadian adults have received a vaccine shot, and cases numbers and hospitalization rates are increasing, at least outside of Atlantic Canada, where, like much of East Asia and the South Pacific, COVID-19 was eliminated last spring. Most of the six non-Atlantic provinces have recently tightened restrictions; and with new cases at more than 1,000 per day in Alberta, I imagine more restrictions are coming here too.

On this second Easter of the pandemic, most of us are feeling both tired and hopeful. The next few months might be difficult, but I am confident the pandemic will end. And when it does, I wonder how economic and social life will be changed.

Two different approaches to Easter could help us reflect on this question. In one approach, Easter celebrates a new life that is pretty much like the one from before. In a second approach, Easter celebrates a new life that is largely unrecognizable to the one experienced before Easter.

Every year, the Revised Common Lectionary, which most Catholic and Protestant churches use to choose their Sunday readings, recommends that on Easter Sunday the account of the empty tomb from the Gospel of John be read — the one in which Mary mistakes the Risen Christ for a gardener. The Lectionary offers alternative readings — in one year, the Easter story from Matthew; in the next, the one from Luke; and in a third year, the one from Mark.

But I often ignore the Lectionary, and during the eight Easters at which I have presided at Mill Woods United, I have usually chosen Mark’s account, which is the one we heard again this morning. I prefer Mark not just because his story is the earliest one, but because it includes no physical appearances of the Risen Christ. This lack reminds me that resurrection is not about a continuation of life as it was before death. It is about a radical transformation.

Mark’s story highlights that life with the Risen Christ is not what our egos want but what our souls need. Life in Christ is a move closer into the heart of Love we call God, a move that flows from the death of illusions.

After the wrenching losses of the COVID-19 pandemic – including the deaths of 2,000 people in Alberta, 23,000 in Canada, and three million across the world – a lot of things will undoubtedly change.

I imagine that many families and other institutions will refine their priorities and have a renewed appreciation of the importance of community.

I hope that some of the social inequities revealed by the pandemic — the poor living conditions of seniors in care homes and of migrant farm labourers, inadequate healthcare resources, and the exploitation of frontline workers who are often racialized minorities – will receive greater attention and care.

And I would be delighted if a post-pandemic world saw changes in the economy that might slow the onset of climate disaster.

Unfortunately, I find it easy to imagine that Edmonton and the rest of the world will slip back into life much as it was before the pandemic and not learn from the experience.

Who knows? What I do know is that every moment of loss and death provides not just pain but also opportunity for transformation.

Whenever we encounter an empty tomb on the other side of grief, we are at a fork in the road. We will fill the emptiness with old preoccupations? Or, with Grace, will a Spirit of universal love flow into us?

The ending of Mark’s Gospel presents us with an empty tomb, a proclamation of resurrection by a young man dressed in white, and a group of terrified disciples who flee and tell no one. Their loss has been so great and their grief so big that they cannot speak or act.

But after this shocking end, I imagine them regrouping and supporting one another; and as they do so, I also imagine them realizing that while their dreams of a new tribal god and king died on the cross with Jesus, the divine Christ is flickering to life within the empty tombs of their grief-stricken hearts.

It is at this point that I imagine them turning to one another and speaking for the first time the quiet but joyous words that have been shared by pilgrims on the Way of the Cross every Easter since – “Christ is Risen! Risen Indeed!”

Amen.

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