Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter 2008

Forty-some odd days ago, on Ash Wednesday, I solemnly invited you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent. Our Lenten observance in now ended. Time has passed. Maybe quickly, maybe slowly, but it has passed. Lent has passed, and Easter is here.

Lent has passed.

Words like “pass” and “passing” and “passage” are rich with meaning, because they refer to things that we do all the time. They talk about movement, progress (or regress, as the case may be), growth (or decay, as the case may be), but in any case, change.

“Teacher, can I have a hall pass to go to the bathroom?”

“Psst! Kevin has cooties; pass in on.”

“Do you think you'll pass the test next week?”

“Hello? I'd like to book passage on your next Caribbean cruise.”

“Thank-you for offering, but I think I'll pass.”

“I was so excited I almost passed out!”

“Aunt Susie passed away last week.”

And then there are those events that we refer to as “rites of passage”, events which may not be terribly important in and of themselves, but which signify turning points, movement from one stage or state of life to another—first pair of shoes, first haircut, first day of school, that first party sometime during late elementary school when both boys and girls are invited, the first date, getting a driver's license, graduating from high school, the first full-time job, turning thirty, turning forty, retirement, and several others in between.

Each of these events is in some way bittersweet: they look forward to a somehow changed future; but the future is, by definition, unknown, and therefore threatening. Such moments also mean that you can't ever go back to the way things were. Once you're forty, you can't ever be thirty-nine again!

And so times like these, while promising, are also anxiety-producing. And this is precisely the reason that we tend to mark them, to celebrate them in some special way, formal or informal. By clothing these watershed moments in special rites and ceremonies, even if it's just putting on funny hats and singing silly songs, we intend to conduct that person safely through the threatening event, to provide him or her with safe ... passage from the known into the unknown.

This past Lent—this Lent that has now passed—has been a rite of passage for me. It was my first Lent as part of this worshipping community of St Anne’s. And many members of this congregation have experienced “passages” during the seven months I have been here. There have been new jobs, new homes, new relationships, new illnesses, new hopes and new fears. Some, indeed, have “passed on”, “passed away.” The peculiar relationship a parish priest enjoys with his flock brings with it the high privilege of being present and presiding at this most important “rite of passage”.

This particular passage certainly towers in significance over all the other watershed moments in our lives. Death is the ultimate movement into the unknown, the mother of all human anxiety, the source of all fear. We may ignore it, we may delay it, but we cannot, in the end, avoid or defeat it. Death catches up with all of us. But even though death is a universal constant of human experience, we still fear it, because it remains a mystery. It remains the great unknown. We read stories about near-death experiences, with tunnels and warm, inviting lights, and gently beckoning voices and faces. These are fascinating, and reassuring in their own way. But this is not the same as being stone cold dead, with the molecules in the brain that are the electro-chemical data banks of personhood, identity, and a lifetime of memories, disintegrated into chaos. You don't go flatline on an EEG for 36 hours and then come back to tell your story to the National Inquirer.

That is, unless your name is Jesus!

Here it is folks! Here's the scandalous good news: Jesus was lowered into the very jaws of death, and by suffering death, caused death to choke on itself, the way a snake will sometimes swallow its own tail and literally consume itself. Death has never been the same since, and neither has human life. Jesus has become our safe passage into and through the jaws of death.

During the era of wagon train migration into the American west, the most indispensable member of the group was the guide, the one who knew the territory, who had passed that way before, and come back to tell about it. The guide knew where and how to cross the rivers, where the navigational landmarks were, and how to stay out of the way of hostile Indians. He provided the wagon train with safe passage through the unknown of the frontier, until it reached its destination.

This is the same job that Moses, following the guiding hand of the Lord himself, performed for the company of Israel on their passage out of slavery in Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea and the dangers of the wilderness, and eventually to the destination of the Promised Land.
Jesus Christ is our safe passage through the Red Sea of life and the wilderness of death. He knows the territory. He's been there before, and, more importantly, come back to tell about it.

In the course of time, the events surrounding Israel's departure from Egypt were celebrated with a commemorative “rite of passage”—the Passover. Since the first Easter, Christians have interpreted this original Passover as the pre-figurement, the foreshadowing, of Jesus' passover —his safe passage—from death to life. And not only Jesus', but ours as well.

When we were touched by the waters of the baptismal font, we were united with him in his death, and united with him in his resurrection. His death became ours and our his. His life became ours and ours his. Death is swallowed up in victory. This is the simple but astonishing fact of Easter: Jesus went where we all have to go, but came back to provide us with safe passage through it.

Alleluia, Christ our passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, alleluia!

Christ is risen. Alleluia and Amen.

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