Easter

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The Garden Tomb just outside the walls of Jerusalem.  This is one of two possible sites that is believed to be where Jesus was buried after his crucifixion.  The evidence was compelling, but whether this was the true site or not, the tomb here at least provided a visual for where Jesus was buried on that first Good Friday.

After the story was recounted and the evidence was presented to us, we had a chance to look inside the tomb.

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Above all else, the evidence that was most pronounced to me was that it was empty.  When they discovered this tomb, this burial place had a pillow cut into the rock and the foot carved out – signs that it was a finished burial place.  The one next to it, in contrast, had not been completed.  Two burial places in this tomb, only one completed.  It was prepared for someone, but it was empty.  It was empty!

This completes the story.  The punishment for our shortcomings is death.  God loved us so much that He said, “Whoa, you all are in a predicament that you cannot escape on your own.  Tell you what, I will take your punishment for you.”  In the most awful death, Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  He was buried.  Three days later, Jesus conquered death.  He left us with an empty tomb and gave us a victory that we could never earn on our own.  We don’t deserve it, but this victory is ours for the taking.

This grace and mercy, this unfailing love, this hope, this victory and promise of an abundant life…this is Easter!

(Here is one of the songs we sang in church this Easter morning.)

Incomplete Without that Sunday

This story was read to me nearly fifteen years ago, and from time to time it will creep to the forefront of my mind and recast a swell of gratitude, humility, and reverence.  It couldn’t convey a more appropriate theme for this week…

Ragman
by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange, like nothing my life, my street sense, my sly tongue had ever prepared me for.

Hush, child. Hush, now, and I will tell it to you.

Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our City. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear, tenor voice: “Rags!” Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.

“Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!”

“Now, this is a wonder,” I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?

I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, sighing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking.

The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and Pampers.

“Give me your rag,” he said so gently, “and I’ll give you another.”

He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver.

Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then HE began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.

“This IS a wonder,” I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery.

“Rags! Rags! New rags for old!”

In a little while, when the sky showed grey behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, whose eyes were empty. Blood soaked her bandage. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.

Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.

“Give me your rag,” he said, tracing his own line on her cheek, “and I’ll give you mine.”

The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw: for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood – his own!

“Rags! Rags! I take old rags!” cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.

The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.

“Are you going to work?” he asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole. The man shook his head.

The Ragman pressed him: “Do you have a job?”

“Are you crazy?” sneered the other. He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket – flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.

“So,” said the Ragman. “Give me your jacket, and I’ll give you mine.”

Such quiet authority in his voice!

The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman – and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman’s arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.

“Go to work,” he said.

After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, an old man, hunched, wizened, and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.

And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed. On spider’s legs he skittered through the alleys of the City, this mile and the next, until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond.

I wept to see the change in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.

The little old Ragman – he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. And then I wanted to help him in what he did, but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an army blanket. And he died.

Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope – because I had come to love the Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep.

I did not know – how could I know? – that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night, too.

But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.

Light – pure, hard, demanding light – slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the last and the first wonder of all. There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow nor of age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.

Well, then I lowered my head and trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: “Dress me.”

He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him. The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!

Keep Watch

Today begins Holy Week.  The events celebrated this week are the most critical of the Christian faith.  Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (our Palm Sunday), the Last Supper, the Crucifixtion, the Resurrection – these are no small potatoes.  One of the powerful moments during Jesus’ final week on Earth occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26).  Just before he is given over to his enemies who eventually crucify him, here in this garden Jesus tells his friends how heavy his heart is because he knows that he will soon bear the sins of the world on the cross.  He knows that death is closely upon him.  He sobs.  He prays.  Three times he lets God know that he doesn’t want to go through with this, but in those same moments he surrenders his will and says, okay, if this is really your plan, God, then I’m in.

April’s masthead shows olive trees from the Garden of Gethsemane that breathed the same air that Jesus did.  When we walked through this olive garden on our trip to Israel in November, I wanted so badly to hear these centuries-old trees tell the story of what they had seen, of what they had heard.  I cannot imagine the overwhelming sorrow of that night with Jesus.  But I hope someone told those trees that night to keep watch, because just beyond the darkest event in history comes the most remarkable, the most beautiful, the most powerful event this Earth has known.  Keep watch, good news is coming!

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Gethsemane

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,
maybe,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

~Mary Oliver