Emerging from the Ashes

A sermon for Easter Day 2015 based on Mark 16:1-8.

Photo Credit: ecstaticist via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lodgepole pines by ecstaticist via Compfight cc.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

My son Noah and I have been reading through the Harry Potter series together for the past couple of years. We read a chapter or so aloud a couple of times a week before bed, and we’re relishing the time together with these delightful stories.  Throughout our reading, I’ve been taken with Fawkes, Professor Dumbledore’s phoenix. Fawkes has a gorgeous red and gold plumage, and he perches in an area near Dumbledore’s desk at Hogwarts. Harry meets Fawkes when he comes to speak with Dumbledore, and it just so happens it is a “burning day” when Fawkes is engulfed in flames. Harry is quite taken aback, of course, only to find the bird reemerging from the ashes as a fledgling. Dumbledore tells him, “Fawkes is a phoenix, Harry. Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.”[1]

It was St. Clement who introduced the phoenix into the collection of symbols for Christ at the time of the Early Church.[2] The mythology of the bird lined up with the resurrection story of Jesus and his triumph over death. The phoenix with a nimbus—or halo—appears in mosaics and other forms of iconography from the Middle Ages reminding us both of Christ’s resurrection and the promise of our own. Just when it seems that all is lost—Harry apologizes profusely to Dumbledore thinking he had done something to Fawkes—a newborn bird pokes its head out from the destruction.

Mark’s story of the resurrection is the strangest by far, but I have to tell you, I really like it. This ending of his gospel as we read it, with the women running out of the tomb in terror and amazement, evokes a gritty reality to all that has happened. Unlike the Hallmark cards of springtime with bunnies, lambs and chicks, the women respond as many of us would: amazed and terrified and overcome with a wide range emotions. Just a couple of days before, they had seen Christ die and his body laid in this very tomb—a point Mark goes out of his way to point out: the Marys had indeed seen the place where he was laid and watched as a stone was rolled in front of the tomb. So when they see the stone rolled back and the body no longer there and hear the message from this young man, they flee in terror. This abrupt end to the gospel created enough consternation that a monk or two somewhere along the line slipped in a couple of different endings to Mark’s gospel with Jesus actually showing up. But not Mark; he ends with the women being afraid and running away.

As you might expect, I hear a lot of stories from people over the course of a year. It’s a privilege and an honor to walk with so many through the varied facets of their lives, to give thanks during the times of joy and to pray with you as you weather difficult days. Some have had to deal with a difficult diagnosis either for themselves or loved ones. A few have faced infidelity in their relationships with a spouse. We’ve prayed together, you and I, at the death of a loved one. Some have endured the heartache of a teen making choices they shouldn’t, or have had addictions exposed. Add to this the ones who’ve lost of a job or financial security, a winter for the record books, hard workplace demands, and some bearing the brunt of false accusations. You could easily say that any of these had been a day when they went up in flames. So we talk together and search for signs of redemption poking through the ruin.

When our family traveled to Yellowstone National Park a number of years ago we learned from the park rangers about the Lodgepole Pine which is indigenous there. Lodgepoles—pinus contorta—grow thin and have a narrow crown at the top of the tree. What makes them fairly unique, however, is their pine cones. The three-inch cones have sharp tips on them and are serotinous, meaning they release seeds only in response to an environmental trigger. The lodgepole cones are sealed shut by resin and only open when exposed to intense heat, like the massive forest fires of 1988 that devastated Yellowstone. As Yellowstone naturalist and guide Kevin Sanders explains it, “This adaptation ensures that the seeds of lodgepole pine will not disperse until wildfire creates conditions that favor the establishment of seedlings—diminished litter on the forest floor and plenty of sunlight.”[3] Within the year, new lodgepoles had sprung up throughout much of the park, literally emerging from the ashes of the devastation.

Three years ago this week I got the call about my dad. It was Good Friday. He had been given 24-48 hours, and, as a solo parish priest, I couldn’t drop everything to be with him in Detroit as we entered the holiest days of the Christian calendar. I spoke with him after the liturgy that night, telling him how much I wanted to be there with him but that we couldn’t come out until Sunday after the services. He told me not to worry about it, that he was proud of me and my calling. We prayed together and I told him how much I loved him, and said my goodbyes. That Easter morning is a blur; we were on the road by noon hoping to make it. However, my brother called me as we hit the outskirts of Buffalo late that evening. No matter the date, I cannot help but think of my father on Easter—resurrection day—the day of his passing from this life to the next. His memory pushes me on to be a great dad too, to fill my kids with hope and love and a desire to find their life’s calling.

Fear and amazement seem altogether plausible to me. The women had gone that Sunday morn to finish caring for Jesus’ body, to say one last goodbye. Is it any wonder that when they found that young man dressed in white there in the tomb he told them not to be alarmed? They had just been through the excruciating pain of Friday, a day that could easily be described as being engulfed with flames no matter how you parse it out. They had spent the Sabbath weeping over their loss, their dashed hopes, waiting as patiently as they could to go and attend to these last rituals for him. And then as soon as they sun had come up, they made their way to the tomb. Even though the man in white told them to go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus would be going ahead of them, Mark tells us that “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Good Fridays happen in the midst of life. Calling them “burning days” is a fitting metaphor. Whether we want to or not, we face into the despair, and it’s easy to be overcome by it all. But out of the ashes, out of the tomb, life emerges. Yes, those women were afraid and they said nothing to anyone, but that’s obviously not where it ended. While amazement and terror seized them, they eventually told someone. The seedlings of hope appeared among the charred earth. They might not have understood it—that deep mystery of the faith—but soon they would say “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Death does not get the last word. They told the story that he had risen just as he promised.

Which is tremendously good news on this Easter Day, on this day of Resurrection. Jesus was crucified, but he has been raised. He is no longer in the tomb. Jesus experienced the worst of life and overcame it through his love. And, because of this, he offers redemption to us. There is hope, and love and redemption. Do not be afraid.

Maybe you have experienced a devastating loss in your life just this week. Do not be afraid, Jesus has faced the cross and is with you.

Maybe you’re still experiencing the impact of a raging fire that happened in your life years ago. Do not be afraid, open your heart to God’s grace and healing and look for signs of life.

Maybe you are just noticing seedlings of resurrection in your life. Do not be afraid, Jesus goes ahead of you wanting you to follow him.

Maybe you’ve been enjoying the beauty of resurrection for a long time. Do not be afraid, go higher up and deeper in to the love of God, there is much yet to be discovered.

Wherever you are in life, do not be afraid. Christ has indeed been raised, overcoming death and the grave, bringing life and grace and hope to us all. Put your trust in him and his deep and abiding love, that may he bring you the joy of his salvation this Easter and in the 50 days ahead.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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[1] J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Sercrets. Scholastic Books, 1999. Page 207.

[2] Patricia S. Klein. Worship without Words. Paraclete Press, 2000. Page 56.

[3] http://www.yellowstone-bearman.com/yfire.html. Accessed April 1, 2015.