ONE OF MY FAVORITE PIECES OF ART is a bronze sculpture in my office — the gift of a well-known sculptor in Dallas — which is the embodiment of Easter. Two women are speechless as they behold an empty slab upon which a body, that of Jesus, had been laid out. One of them stands looking at the scene with her hand over her mouth, as if she doesn’t know what to say, or is afraid of what she may say. The other woman is kneeling, as if she needs to be nearer the slab in order to take in its grim reality, and she’s looking up at her companion as she gestures helplessly and forms an unthinkable question. There are swaths of cloth scattered across the slab, making a pile — as if they are dirty clothes in a laundry room — on the floor. I love this piece, because it captures not the studied reaction to the news of resurrection — the reaction we all know oh so well — but the first reaction to that news.
Unlike those first witnesses to resurrection, we stand far removed from their point of view. Two thousand-plus years later, as we prepare for Easter, likely having a number of other such services under our belts, we are expecting, after the somberness of Lent, a full-throated and joyous proclamation of the Easter news that “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” We will go to church in our brightest, most colorful Easter best, expecting brass and tympani and anthems and preaching that unwrap this day with confidence and high-noon certainty. The choreography of Lent and Holy Week is taking us deliberately from Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and we are well-rehearsed with respect to what to expect after all of that.
Which means that we do not readily connect with the astonishment and fear of these women there at that empty slab. From their vantage point, the evidence of resurrection is first an unbelievable shock, and all the more so in a cemetery — the last place we expect to encounter anything other than the evidence of death. Only with time (for it takes time for such news to seep into our hearts) does it become the core of the Church’s message for the world. This is why Fred Craddock said long ago that some truths are meant to be proclaimed with a shout; and others are meant to be proclaimed with a whisper.
In Luke’s gospel, an angel came upon that scene and triggered the faithful act of memory. “Remember how he told you,” said the angel, “while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Christians in every age are forever needing to remember this news, in order to tell it well and faithfully. That’s exactly what these women did next: “they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.”
When you go to church on Easter, look around the room you will be in. You will be surrounded by people standing at many points between that journey from fear to full-throated faith. Pros like us will arrive, ready after the bleakness of Lent to let it rip with a joyful shout: ”Christ is risen indeed!” Some with gritted teeth and folded arms will be shushing the rage they feel toward the parents who dragged them there and, all the more, toward the God who has let them down. Others will be holding their bulletins upside down, or holding their broken hearts in their hands. They just may be ready to offer those hearts to God with no idea what may happen next. Remember that that very Lord, the Christ, prepares to welcome all of them, wherever they are, and then to walk with them on that long road from the whisper to the shout.
THEODORE J. WARDLAW is President and Professor of Homiletics at Austin