Sunday, April 16, 2017
By Bernadette Moore-Gibson
“After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. Then the angel said to the women in reply, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said.”
In a world filled with reasons to be afraid, how do we live as a people defined instead by Joy?
“Do not be afraid” is the most repeated phrase in the entire Bible. It is at the heart of our faith.
It is a phrase that both inspires and perplexes me. It inspires me because I know how different my life is when fear does not hold me back. It perplexes me because it seems Jesus is asking me to do the impossible. Fear is a natural human emotion, a gift from God. At its root, it is a warning system, a
life-saving signal that there is trouble at hand. “Do not be afraid.” They words seem especially perplexing, and especially powerful in our world today. There is good reason to be frightened. This holy week I am especially cognizant of our vulnerability as a Nation. The nightly news reminds us of the terrifying power of demagogues, who play on anger and despair. Wild weather highlights the damage climate change is already doing to our planet. In our personal lives, too many of us face fear of illness, financial insecurity, and the loss of the people we love. In the midst of all these reasons to be fearful, we hear the voice of the angel. “Do not be afraid.” And we ask ourselves what do we do with this message?
I look to our two Mary’s as examples of faith. How did they respond to the angel’s words? The gospel writer tells us: “They left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” “With fear and great joy.” They were still frightened. What changed was now they were also joyful. Jesus was alive! Finally, they understood what he had tried to teach them during his life: God’s love is more powerful than hate and fear, more powerful than abuse of power or betrayal by a friend, more powerful even than death on a cross. Jesus’ message could not be destroyed. Their joy, was greater than their fear. They ran, not running away in fear, running because the good news they had to tell was so wonderful they could not possibly just walk.
Mary and Mary’s example prompts me to hear the angel’s words in a new way. Perhaps the Angel is not talking about fear as a feeling or an experience, but about fear as a self-definition. Do not be afraid. Do not become your fear. Do not let fear control your actions or define your life. Faith, the story tells us, does not take away our fear. Faith gives us courage to refuse to be defined by our fear. That is good news. But the Easter news is even more wonderful than that. Because the tomb was empty, because they now understood that God’s love was more powerful than anything they might ever fear, Mary and Mary claimed a new self-definition: they were defined by joy.
I love the community of Old Saint Patrick’s Church. Because together we find ways to tell our stories and sing songs for healing, peace, and courage in our world. There is a quiet joy in our coming together, proclaiming that life is a sacred gift, trusting that our being there for each other will bring comfort and healing. When we look at the troubles of our world, our fear is that we are powerless. There is joy in refusing to give in to that fear. There is great joy in trusting that what we do matters. There is even greater joy in the discovery that when we work together, our efforts are multiplied.
This is what it means for us to be defined not by fear but by joy. We support one another in finding the courage to say no and to say yes – and when we celebrate our courageous voices, transformation happens. We gather to honor the gift of life and to offer comfort and encouragement and the promise of healing. We dare to trust we can make a difference – and we act on that trust. We live our faith in the Easter promise – God’s love is stronger than anything we might fear. Sometimes the joy that defines us is a feeling, that makes us laugh and leap and run and sing. Sometimes joy is a promise: that new life will emerge out of loss, that we can heal, that what we do matters even when we can’t see it. A feeling, a promise, in whatever form it takes, the joy of our faith is great indeed. Do not be afraid, the angel says to Mary and Mary, and to all of us. Do not become your fear. Christ is Risen; and hope is alive! Dare to trust in the promise of new life. Dare to be Easter Joy! This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.