Each of the three chief feasts of the Christian year, Easter, Christmas, and Whitsunday, has sets of propers for three different Eucharistic celebrations. All three have a set of prayers, lessons, and chants for the eve of the day, which in all three cases is really the initial celebration of the feast itself. Then all three also have a proper both for a main celebration on the day itself and another proper for an early Eucharist if one is held. On all other days in the Church year, apart from All Souls’ day on November 2nd, the same proper is used: that is, even if the size of the church requires that more than one Eucharist be celebrated to accommodate the congregation, the same readings are simply repeated.

In regard to Easter, I think it is very notable that the risen Lord himself does not appear in the gospels for the Easter Vigil (St. Matthew 28), for the early morning celebration (St. Mark16), or for the principal morning celebration (St. John 20). Jesus is not in any of the Easter gospels. In all three cases he is, as it were, ‘off stage’.  The principal feature of all the Easter gospels is the empty tomb, which is attended or visited by various parties – angels, Mary Magdalene and other women, Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Is this not odd? Is it not as if none of the Christmas gospels featured the Babe in Bethlehem or as if none of the Pentecost gospels featured the Holy Spirit?

The obvious question is, Why? Why does the hero of Easter not appear in the gospels of Easter?

The longer I preach on the traditional, one year cycle of lessons in the Western Church, the more wisdom I find embedded not just in its individual lessons or its pairs of epistles and gospels, but also in the multi-week and seasonal patterns of lessons. In my first years as a preacher I tended to concentrate so much on the individual lessons or days that I often overlooked the wider patterns and the context they provide. But often it is difficult to understand fully a particular day or its proper lessons without considering the wider pattern and context. Let me give two examples of such patterns.

First, it is surely no accident that in the first three Sundays in Lent, the gospels all involve the devil and the demonic. In the first half of Lent, the Church’s great season of penitence, the gospels all compel us to consider the dark side of things, the evil which shadows our world and us and which we need to purge from ourselves if we want to make spiritual progress. This is not just a theme for one Sunday, but is a repeated subject forced upon our intention over three weeks.

A second example of a multi-Sunday pattern, noted by the late Father William Ralston at Saint John’s, Savannah, concerns the three Sundays before Trinity Sunday and then Trinity itself. Together this group of four Sundays form a progressive revelation and then celebration of the Holy Trinity. Rogation Sunday (Easter V), with its concern for prayers of asking (rogare = ‘to ask’) directed towards the Father, focuses on the first Person of the Trinity, God the Father. Next is Ascensiontide, centered on the final glorification of God the Son and his divine session at the right hand of the Father. Whitsunday, of course, concerns the Holy Spirit, sent into the world from the Father and the Son, to create and inspire the Church as the continuing presence of the Son in human history. This progressive movement through three Sundays then leads to the great feast of the Trinity, the culmination of God’s self-disclosure and self-revelation to us. And this pattern could be extended further, since the gospel for Trinity I, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, shows how the New Testament revelation of God should involve us in the vital duty of care for the poor and the wretched.

If we begin by assuming that the patterns of the Church’s calendar and its lessons have deeply embedded significance, then we naturally will take a careful look at things that at first might seem puzzling or merely odd. Wisdom begins in wonder, when we realize what we do not know and then ask, ‘Why?’ With that idea in mind, I ask again, What does the absence of Jesus in the Easter gospel mean?

One obvious reason is that the empty tomb is itself significant. The Resurrection is a symbol and a significance and a meaning, but it is a symbol, significance, and meaning that are rooted in an intransigent, historical claim: that the cold, dead body of Jesus was buried and entombed, but then was gone from the tomb. The Resurrection is not a free-floating symbol, but something rooted in factual assertion. We cannot, of course, prove a miracle, which is by definition something beyond our world and its systems of causality. But we begin with an assertion of something which cannot be explained without reference to a divine Cause beyond that world and system. We assert that a buried body ceased to be buried or dead. Without this initial fact, which Christians assert, there is no Easter, no reason for joy, and no hope for eternal life.

If we look at the Resurrection appearances in the gospels, we find that most of them involve an element of dullness on the part of the disciples: they are ‘fools, and slow of heart to believe’ (Luke 24:25). Mary Magdalene meets the risen Lord, but mistakes him for a gardener. Jesus speaks to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and despite long conversation, including a significant Bible study, is not recognized by them until the end of their encounter. The Lord is seen by disciples on the shores of Galilee as they are fishing but is not immediately recognized. Thomas doubts that the Lord has appeared to the other ten apostles.

None of this tardiness in recognition seems in the least surprising. The disciples, far from being credulous or engaged in wishful thinking about the return of their Lord, seem quite willing to accept the commonsense idea that dead people stay dead. Easter is not a case of wish-fulfilment and credulity, but a slow and seemingly reluctant overcoming of natural assumptions and skepticism.

In the Easter sermon I heard this year, Father Athanaelos pointed out that in the gospels what we see is that faith seems to involve our sensual, incarnate nature. Thomas wants to touch the wounds of Jesus. Mary Magdalene responds to his voice. The disciples on the way to Emmaus learn nothing from the sermon, but realize the Resurrection through eating, or at least through the breaking of bread. The disciples on the shores of Galilee recognize Jesus as he cooks himself breakfast. Preaching is of some value. Sight is of some value. But it is the fuller involvement of the senses, the encounter of hearing and smell and taste and eating and sight and touch, that moves the hearts of the weak and doubtful disciples.

So why is Jesus not around on Easter? Because we are so dull and slow to believe, that the wonder of the Resurrection only dawns on us slowly and gradually. Easter is only grasped in stages. For that reason the Prayer Book pattern is wise. Easter Day we discover that the tomb is empty. Only in the days and weeks that follow do we meet the Risen Lord. We cannot take too my glory at once.

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