Greetings to you all again on this Resurrection Sunday.
Last Sunday afternoon saw the end of Wendy’s and my 14 day quarantine period after my travels. We broke the quarantine in the late afternoon by going for our first proper walk in 14 days.
It was a strange experience, not just being able to really stretch our legs again, but also being out with so few people on the road. Dromore felt a little like a ghost town.
And then on Monday we went for our first shop since I arrived back in Dromore. I don't know what felt more strange, queuing up outside the shop standing 2 meters apart from other shoppers, the quiet tense feeling in the shop as we all did our best to avoid one-another, listening with anxiety for the sound of anyone sneezing or coughing, or knowing what to do with the groceries once we arrived back at the house. Do we wash them all or quarantine them for three days?
For two weeks we had lived in a little Coronavirus free bubble, but going out for a walk and then a shop plunged us back into the crisis that is facing the whole world at the moment and for the foreseeable few months.
But perhaps even more sobering this week was not just the news of Boris Johnson’s decline and admission into I.C.U. but also the news of the death of a friend of our own congregation, the Rev. Ivan McKnight who was one of this week’s victims of Covid-19. The reality of Coronavirus is coming ever closer to home for all of us. Perhaps even more sobering to hear on Friday night that the daily death toll had exceeded 1000 here in the UK, more than either Italy or Spain on a single day and the knowledge that for each of those people, families are doing the difficult work of grieving loved one’s they were unable to say good-bye to in the final moments.
Not since World War 2 has death felt this pervasive or this close to each of us, and we are told the peak is still coming. And after the peak, still more deaths, only a bit less.
While the bright sunny days of Spring have been upon us this week, there are still dark clouds that hover over us and likely to continue to be around for quite sometime to come.
How easy it is to give in to despair, and to fear. It is good that in the midst of all of this, there have been many who have sought to share messages of hope. On our walk on Monday I commented to Wendy about all the Rainbow’s that I was seeing in the windows. Pictures of hope she replied as we walked on.
While on Good Friday, we paused to remember the death of Jesus and people all around the world were able to see mirrored in Jesus crucifixion and death something of our own suffering, fear, pain and sorrow at this time, today we reflect on that part of the Christian story that invites us to go beyond the stories of suffering and death to be reminded of the message of hope.
And that is what the Resurrection story is, it is a story of hope. That even when death does it’s worst, death will never have the last word. A message of hope that even though darkness surrounds us, it is not darkness that will have the last word, but light and life.
The hope within the Resurrection Story of Matthew’s Gospel is communicated to us in a number of ways and today I would like to explore just three of them that might otherwise be lost in the finer details of the story.
Firstly, in verse 1 we read that the Resurrection narrative begins at dawn. “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.”
The word “dawn” invites us to imagine the first rays of sunshine beginning to come over the horizon, breaking through the darkness and bringing the first rays of warmth into the chilled air of the early morning. During the darkness of night it is often that our problems and struggles become magnified and the stories in our heads can terrify us and leave us feeling helpless. But at dawn, when the sun comes up, life often seems more bearable again.
One of Wendy’s favourite bands from South Africa is called the Parlotones. They have a beautiful song with moving lyrics that express this experience. The song is called “The Sun Comes Out”.
This is more than I can take
I won't tolerate this anymore
It's more than I can take
Wake me before the sun comes out
And everything's alright
The sun comes out and everything's alright
Hold on for one more day
I don't believe in much
But for this I'll pray
The sun comes out and everything's alright
Matthew’s Resurrection story begins at dawn. The sun was just beginning to rise… this is a story of hope.
The second sign of hope in this Resurrection narrative are the words: “The First Day of the Week” “After the Sabbath, at dawn, on the first day of the week...”
It is important to remember that when we are reading the Gospel stories, we are not just reading factual details. The Gospels have been written in such a way that often words are meant to be read as if dripping with meaning and significance.
What is the significance of the first day of the week… it is meant to be a reminder and an allusion to the first day of creation, that day in the Hebrew Scriptures in which God spoke over the chaos and brought forth light, life, order, meaning and beauty.
The Resurrection Narrative of Matthew’s Gospel invites us to place our trust in the One who is able to help us start over again, the One who is constantly placing before us new beginnings.
Thirdly, in verse 2 we that there was violent earthquake… The writer of Matthew’s Gospel seems to have a particular love of earthquakes. He is the only writer to include it in his resurrection narrative. He is also the only writer to describe and earthquake at the time of Jesus death.
Again, I believe it is a word that is meant to drip with meaning. It is meant to communicate to the reader a sense that there is something bigger and more powerful at work in the world than the ordinary events of human existence. There are bigger forces at work in life, which often we cannot see or understand and which can unsettle us and yet, which, as in this passage, can open the tombs of death at work in this world.
The Greek word earthquake in this passage is the word “seismos” from which our English words seismic and seismology come from. Interestingly I read this week on a news site that because of the massively reduced activity of people on earth, there are much less vibrations in the upper layer of the earth. With less cultural noise, as they call it, Seismologists are able to detect seismic activity in the earth much further away than they were able to before.
The standstill across the world, caused by the coronavirus is highlighting just how much seismic noise and disturbances we as human beings create. It has also been quite heartening to read of how reduced human pollution has been enabling the recovery of nature. Dolphins and turtles being seen in Venice where they haven't been seen for decades. With less traffic on the roads and less planes in the air, levels of toxicity in the air have been massively reduced.
In the midst of personal tragedy, the coronavirus might also be coming to us metaphorically as an earthquake, as a messenger, to help wake us up out of business as usual, to invite us to rediscover a life that is much simpler and less complicated.
On Facebook on Saturday morning, I read a very challenging quote by Sonya Renee Taylor about our collective talk about life going back to normal. She writes:
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal, other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return my friends. We have been given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all humanity and nature.”
Has the earthquake of the coronavirus come upon us as a sign of hope, to break open our tombs of death and to invite us to learn how to walk more gently upon the earth than before?
Lastly, our passage invites us into hope as we hear the words of the angel and then words repeated by the Risen Christ “Do not be afraid!” Why should we not be afraid? Because there is One who calls to us, whose Life whose Presence and whose Love transcends death. “He is not here, he is risen. Come and see the place where he lay.”