"An Easter You Can Feel" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
Right before we left St. Louis, I officiated the wedding of our friend Jaime. It was my first wedding and an all-around joy, and as the bride’s friend I got invited to several events, I likely wouldn’t have as just the officiant. Beyond getting to celebrate Jaime and her fiancé Justin, these invitations gave me the opportunity to sit and talk with Jaime’s friend Sarah.
Sarah was the unexpected jewel of Jaime’s wedding for me conversationally because I figured out early on, she had a gift for storytelling. And whether it’s because people tend to trust pastors with personal details very quickly, or because Sarah is an open book, she kept me laughing at every wedding-related event.
I found out in the first five minutes of knowing Sarah that she has two daughters and the girls’ escapades quickly became my favorite stories. Sarah’s older daughter is Sophie and Sarah described her as “8 going on 25.” The definition of precocious, Sophie is whip-smart and at some point learned the parts of the brain at school. Sarah explained this became important in their family because Sophie is extremely empathetic and sensitive, often dissolving into tears when friends get hurt on the playground or people raise their voices for any reason.
After learning the parts of the brain Sophie began coming to Sarah when she was feeling overwhelmed or stressed and saying, “Mama I feel too much! My amygdala is tired!” This became Sarah’s cue to either send Sophie to her room for quiet time or to find her place to safely be alone for a few minutes. Sophie slowly became better at handling her emotions and Sarah told me she worried less about her sweet, sensitive daughter getting emotionally overwhelmed.
Your amygdala is the portion of your brain that controls your sense of smell, motivation, and emotional responses. Put another way, it’s the part that feels. And like sweet, empathetic Sophie this morning’s glorious resurrection story could make your amygdala incredibly tired because this is a story you can feel. And by “feel” I don’t simply mean the emotions Holy Week and Easter stir up as we move from the eerie stillness of a dark church on Maundy Thursday to joy of this morning. Neither do I mean the feeling that comes with seeing the beauty of God’s creation expressed in these Easter lilies or the delight of clumsily attempting to follow the choir as they lead us in the Hallelujah Chorus. I’m talking about feelings that are visceral, and physical. Those things that engage all of our senses – sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste – thus creating “a whole-body experience,” which is exactly what Matthew does in these verses.
As commentator Rev. Mary Austin so astutely notes, “this resurrection day is filled with every kind of tactile experience.” Envision the scene: the women feel the earth quaking beneath their feet as they walk dusty roads to Jesus’ tomb. They see an angel so painfully bright he resembles lightning and he’s wearing pure white clothes.
They watch as this unearthly creature pushes the heavy stone sealing the tomb. Then they see him sit on it - which I’ve always thought is a bit incongruous considering the momentousness of the situation. For some reason, my brain imagines this as quite casual, and I see him sitting on the stone, feet swinging. No matter how he actually looks, the angel’s appearance overwhelms the guards who are physically incapacitated to the point of becoming “like dead men.”
Then the women hear the voice of the angel telling them not to be afraid, Jesus has risen, and their welcome to come into the tomb and see for themselves where his body was laid. To encounter the space their Lord so recently occupied. Matthew tells us the Marys depart from the tomb with “fear and great joy” running, their feet slapping against the ground, not even stopping to catch their breath as they hurtle themselves toward the disciples to share the good news.
They’re stopped in mid-stride by Jesus, his body no longer broken and bleeding but whole, vital, and speaking. He greets them and the women fall to their knees at his feet, taking hold of this man whom they never thought to see again and worship him.
Jesus then makes the women the first evangelists - sharers of the Good News - anywhere in the Gospels when he tells them to instruct the disciples to meet in Galilee. the women rise and begin running again, likely falling all over themselves in their elation and shock. I imagine them looking back over their shoulders every few paces to see if Jesus is still standing in the road, confirming that he wasn’t an illusion, something their grief-stricken minds conjured. And surely Jesus stands there unmoving, letting these first proclaimers of the gospel drink in the sight of him until their path rounds a curve and they can see him no more.
Along with being a story that engages all of our senses, “the whole scene is a delightful mixture of the mundane and the glorious,” the bodily and the divine. The guards’ silly, tedious assignment to watch the grave of this thorn-in-the-side-of-authority so thoroughly discredited and executed takes a terrifying turn when the angel suddenly appears. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” come to mourn, likely to prepare Jesus’ body as was the practice of women in their culture, “and end up leaving with a mixture of fear and great joy…”
The women “may be confused about how to feel, but any thought of mourning has given way to that curious mixture of awe and celebration” as these resilient, capable women ride the emotional, physical rollercoaster that is this resurrection story.
Beyond the sheer physicality and overt bodily-ness of these verses, what's most surprising when you stop to consider the women’s reaction is that “the appearance of Jesus is a bonus.” And it’s only when they turn their back on Jesus' grave that they see their friend and teacher. Did you notice that?
It’s symbolically significant that it’s only when the Marys turn their back on the grave, turn their backs on death, the victory of the empire, the world in which anything or anyone other than God gets the last say that they see Jesus. Perhaps they’re only capable of seeing Jesus after they’ve physically moved in a new direction. Perhaps they’ve only capable of seeing Jesus after being presented with the possibility that this story ends differently than they’ve thought.
And when we pause to consider their reaction, we notice that “The angel’s presence has already sent them running. They’ve seen, heard, and felt enough to rush off and share the good news. They need no further convincing, so seeing and hearing and touching Jesus is sheer gift - an extension of expansive, thoughtful, loving grace that acts as a balm for their ravaged hearts and psyches. They are already running, bursting to share the good news with their brothers, and “this moment with Jesus moves them from information to worship.”
My friends, what moves us from information to worship? What moves us from knowing the story of Easter to actually celebrating this expression of love and grace and power that defies description? As we gather bathed in the light of this indescribably holy morning, how do we move from hearers of an old story to participants in an ongoing narrative?
It’s only possible by immersing ourselves in resurrection. Like those who are immersed in the baptismal waters of the bayou, we must be immersed in the promise of life after death, the promise of the tomb that stands empty, the physical change of turning to face the possibilities Christ offers, and the presence of our Lord who simply by breathing in and out shows us the depth of God’s love.
The Good News this morning is that the “good news comes on every level, in every possible way,” in this resurrection story. “In sight and sound and touch.” In music, the handing out of hallelujahs, and at the table of God where we share a simple, sacred meal. Good news comes in the smells of candle wax and flowers after a Lent without them. It comes in the weight of the hymnals in our hands as we stand to sing out our joy. In the wearing of white stoles and the change to white paraments that symbolize eternal life. It comes in the beauty of everyone’s Sunday best and the uncontainable joy of saying “He is risen!” and having you say back to me, “He is risen indeed!”
Easter, my friends, isn’t a single day we celebrate once a year or until Pentecost. Easter is to be felt in the reading of this story and then lived in our daily lives. This story of the women at the tomb engages all of our senses because we worship a God who created those senses and then reaches out to us through all of them.
When you open yourself up to the visceral, physicality of Christ’s resurrection your initial response might be “I feel too much!” But remember the words of the angel and do not be afraid. Begin running to spread the good news and allow the body of Christ in your path to knock you to your knees. Worship at his corporeal feet. Then stand and keep running. His is a message that must be lived out. This is an Easter you can feel.
 Re. Mary Austin, “Narrative Lectionary: The Living and the Dead (Matthew 28:1-10)” from https://revgalblogpals.org/2019/04/16/narrative-lectionary-the-living-and-the-dead-matthew-281-10/