Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, a day of mixed festivity and sorrow. It began with the festival procession recreating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It ended with the reading of the Passion Gospel telling of Jesus’ trial, execution, and death.

During the happy part of the liturgy we entered, as we always do, singing the familiar hymn, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”:

All glory, laud, and honor,
to thee, Redeemer, King,
to whom the lips of children
made sweet hosannas ring.

As I looked out at the congregation, though, I noticed that my wife Kathy was in tears. After church I asked her about it: “You were crying during the happy part of the service. Why was that?”

She replied, “Palm Sunday always makes me sad. But when we were singing that hymn with the line about the lips of little children, all I could think about was Newtown. This will be the first Easter for those families without their children.”

In the hundred or so days since December 14, we here at Washington National Cathedral and most of the whole American faith community have walked in solidarity with the families of the children and teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We have made our way through the church year—Christmas, of course, then Lent and Holy Week—thinking and praying about those children, the teachers, and their families. Now here we are at Easter, Christianity’s most joyful and holiest day. What in the world does Easter have to say to the families of Newtown? What in the world does Easter have to say to us?

As we pose these questions together, let me share a bit of how I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in Lent. Because the new pope, Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, took the name Francis I when he was elected earlier this month, and because up to then I knew very little about Saint Francis of Assisi (after whom he named himself), I decided to give myself a Lenten crash course on Saint Francis. There are many wonderful and stirring stories about Francis—some of them probably even true!—but the one that has moved me the most took place as Saint Francis lay dying. He was sick with a number of ailments: he was in constant pain, malnourished, and bedridden. He was totally blind. And yet as he lay in his sickbed he composed one of the few great texts attributed to him that we know without doubt to be authentic: “The Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” In the midst of his powerful physical suffering, Saint Francis of Assisi responded not with a lament for his suffering but with a hymn expressing the deepest joy and praise of the God he encountered in the created world. It says in part,

Praised be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.

Blessed are those who endure in peace, By You Most High, they will be crowned.

What in the world does Easter have to say to those who suffer and grieve? In answer to that question, it helps to keep St. Francis in mind as we reflect on the Gospel story we have just heard. Outside the empty tomb, Jesus reveals himself to Mary Magdalene, and he tells her to “go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20: 17b).

At first pass, this command may not sound like much. But it marks a turning point in the divine-human encounter. Up to this moment, Jesus has referred to God as his Father. Now, at the empty tomb, the language has changed: the One Jesus previously called his Father is now “my Father and your Father, my God and your God”.

What happens here is as subtle and yet as startling as what takes place when any relationship moves to a new level of intimacy. Before Easter, God was the One Jesus was trying to introduce (or reintroduce) to us. After Easter, God is One who belongs not only to Jesus but now to us and the world. How can that be?

That can be because in the events leading up to today God has taken on what it means to be us. As Christians, we believe and proclaim that God was somehow uniquely present in the Palestinian Jewish peasant from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels tell the story of how Jesus came among us, taught us, healed us, called us into new life and community with each other. The life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth show that we can live an abundant life even in the midst of social, political, and personal suffering. We partake of that abundance not by holding on to what we have but by letting it go—by coming together in community to love, support, and bless each other. In the days leading up to Easter, Jesus lived that message so faithfully that the power structures of church and state couldn’t stand it, so they took him to the cross. And now here we are, at the empty tomb, and his first word to Mary and to us is one of solidarity: “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

At Easter, God belongs to us and the world. Our fear, our aggression, our selfishness could not stop God’s relentless quest to be connected to us. Easter is about many things, but perhaps its deepest meaning has to do with this divine persistence in search of you and me. Do what we will to avoid, betray, even kill the One who comes toward us in Jesus, that One will not be stopped even by our rage, denial, and fear. Jesus is alive at Easter not as some kind of cosmic magic trick. Jesus is alive at Easter as a sign and symbol and witness of the relentless persistence of a divine love for us that refuses to let us go.

What in the world does Easter have to say to the families of Newtown? What in the world does Easter have to say to us? Speaking as a preacher, I would be lying to you if I said that Easter erases the loss of the precious innocents who died there, or that it makes our shared human suffering go away. Speaking as a husband, a father, a teacher myself, I know that pulpit consolations come cheap, especially when you are on the other side of them.

But speaking as one who, with Mary Magdalene and with Peter and the beloved disciple comes to this empty tomb to encounter the risen Jesus, I am telling God’s truth when I say that Easter is about the luminous beauty God can make out of human failing, stupidity, and evil. We human beings can’t seem to help ourselves: we will always manage to get in our own way. But in that relentless, divine persistence that searches for us even in spite of us, God will continue to seek us out and find us. This search will not erase or undo our suffering and loss. But it will take us to a new place: a place of life and hope and wholeness and peace where we now live the risen life of Jesus with each other and with God.

Easter is about the life that emerges from death. It is about the joy that emerges from sorrow. It is about the courage that comes forth from fear. Easter can be about all those things because it is finally about the One who greets Mary at the tomb and tells her, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

With Jesus we have not only a new life; we have a new community. As Saint Francis said,

Praised be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.

Blessed are those who endure in peace, By You Most High, they will be crowned.

God and God’s life belong now to Jesus, to you to me, to everyone, living, dead, and yet to be born. That is what Easter can and does say to each and all of us: Go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Amen.

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