Lections: Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Luke 24:1-12.
I've just returned from a day trip to KwaZulu-Natal to be with some of those whose lives have been devastated by what we are told are the worst floods in South Africa's recorded history. It's a tragedy of overwhelming proportions – hundreds have died, thousands of homes destroyed and probably tens of thousands displaced. I visited the community of Ntuzuma in eThekwini, where streets have been destroyed and closed off, and displaced people are staying in a local hall. The community is suffering severe emotional stress and pain, and search and rescue efforts for those who are missing are still continuing. I have been asked by the Motsepe Foundation to chair a committee disbursing a donation they have made for flood relief, and joined a meeting of religious and government leaders which included King Misuzulu ka Zwelithini. Please keep the people of the dioceses and Natal and Zululand in your prayers, and provide whatever help you can through ACSA's disaster relief fund.
In tonight's reading, Luke is very precise with words. He tells us that it was nearly light, a technical term for the fourth watch, somewhere between 4am and 6am, and therefore still dark, but darkness charged with the promise of the light to come. Luke speaks of a very present reality, something we can understand, for we all live in places and times that are still dark – dark despite our efforts to lean towards the light, to wait in anticipation of it.
And the darkness in our nation and in our world is very real. I enjoy reading and, less so, looking at cartoons. But the other day it was Zapiro who captured the essence of Covid darkness for me. How do you know, the cartoonist asked, that the Covid State of Disaster declared by the government is over? His answer was a series of depressing scenes, broken cars, the unemployed begging in the streets and other scenes depicting the chaotic state in which Covid has left us – in sum, he was portraying the darkness which has followed lock-down. And in the world beyond our borders, it is as if we are in an evening of violence, with the worst darkness still ahead of us. Think of the clamour of war in places as different as Tigray in Ethiopia, Unity State in South Sudan, Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, not to speak of the stalemate in Syria and the ongoing fighting in Yemen and Ukraine; all places of great darkness and suffering today.
Returning to Zapiro and the current-day reality of South Africa, it is a dark time for those whose lives are devastated by domestic abuse and gender-based violence. Darkness distorts the lives of children who go to bed hungry and people who sleep in the streets of this city. Our nation is a dark space for the poor who have been robbed by corrupt officials. It is dark days for those who live in fear of the gangs which haunt the streets and suck young people into spirals of violence, and for learners in Gauteng and other parts of the country who are lured into eating so-called "space cakes", which are stuffed with potentially addictive drugs. It is dark times for those who have lost their jobs in the pandemic, and for long-term job-seekers who have given up looking for work in despair, increasing emotional and psychological stress for individuals and families.
When Luke in his gospel embeds the resurrection narrative in the dark hours, he is being very deliberate. Locating the resurrection story in a time of darkness is not just a clever literary device. It is a solemn reminder that the stuff of our prayers and our ministries, the hopes and dreams of people of faith, are rooted in dark times. We cannot bypass the darkness; we cannot spiritualize it or intellectualize it; we have to confront it to transform it into light. If we do not engage the darkness, the promise of light signalled by Luke will never be realised. Those whose lives and situations are trapped in darkness will not escape it.
In reading Luke these last days, it strikes me that another darkness pervades that story. It emerged in that offensive line which records the response of men when the women who had seen the empty tomb and heard the angel's words took that message back to the leaders of the apostolic band. Those leaders, the men, rubbished the women’s testimony. They dismissed the story of the resurrection as nonsense and in so doing diminished the integrity of those women as witnesses. This is another element of darkness.
Such darkness continues to pervade society today. I like to quote the political philosopher Edmund Burke, who once said “An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent.” It may be difficult to speak about contemporary elements of darkness, but we must talk. We too in our time dismiss other people's experiences and rubbish their claims, and we intensify the darkness when we do so. It happens all the time. It occurs when men ignore the cries and the anger of rape survivors and the survivors of gender-based violence and write it off as if it is something they asked for. It occurs when we fail to speak out against naked aggression perpetrated by the world’s great powers, whether it is the United States and Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan or Russia in Ukraine. We intensify the darkness when we blame poverty on the poor and say they should pull themselves together. We amplify darkness when we scapegoat migrants and abuse the rule of law to deal with them in a vigilante fashion.
When we dismiss the testimonies of others, the pain and the struggles of those consigned to the margins, when we undermine and destroy women, survivors, migrants, and the poor who long for opportunities and justice, we don't only diminish them. We confine ourselves to the darkness of the tomb and stop the dawn from breaking; we demean ourselves, and most seriously, we frustrate the resurrection. In the name of God, we cannot allow this. Especially on a night such as this, we need to name the evil of war, no matter who perpetrates it, because the light of Easter forces us to go into the darkness that that war brings and to illumine the Christ, the Prince of Peace.
It is little wonder that the critical moment of Luke's story is that the women and then Peter and John find the stone at the entrance to the tomb rolled away. We know from the mention of the neatly-folded grave clothes that Jesus unbound himself without disturbing the folds of the cloths. Of course, Jesus could have come out of the tomb miraculously if he had wished, as it seems he emerged from the grave clothes. But that is not the point of the story. The stone was not, I believe, rolled away so that Jesus could come out, but so that the women, the apostles, and indeed you and I can go in. It was rolled away to go in and confront our darkness, our personal and communal and national areas of death, the things that trap us in patterns of death and a culture of exclusion that spells the end for others.
When we affirm that Christ is risen indeed! hopefully, we accept the Risen Lord's invitation to come into the tomb spaces of our lives to deal with the toxicity of our lives together and ensure we do something about it. To fail to do something about the violence that besets us, the poverty, the inequality, the unjust treatment of migrants and refugees and the wars that threaten the planet's peace and can destroy our common home; not to stand up to the evils of our time is truly to frustrate any signs of resurrection.
Luke's story, though, is also a narrative of being the custodians of the first glimmers of light, of resurrection. We are invited to be midwives of a new creation. I remember reading as a student the words of C.S. Lewis: “You cannot look directly at the mystery of Christ's resurrection any more than you can look directly at the sun. We see the creation exposed in all its beauty through the sun's light, so in the light of Easter, we see the reality – and potential – of the new creation. Everything has changed, and we are not the same as before.” This sense of the resurrection was something my mother experienced, for when we were youngsters, she would wake us up early on Easter morning to see the "sun dance," and we had better see it dance even with our sleepy eyes.
Luke gives us some very ordinary hints and clues as to how we can grow our resurrection witness and live a resurrection life. Running through all the gospels are stories which are testimony to the power of love – a love that doesn't look at adversity and flinch or turn away, but faces it and trusts its capacity to raise us up and face it. Sometimes as in the gospel of Luke, we find that the Lord has already gone before us and opened up ways to deal with the challenge, pointing to possibilities which we might not have factored in because our hearts and vision are pre-occupied by the extent of a problem rather than by the potential for solving it. The answer, my mother would lovingly insist, is to open those sleepy eyes, because if you do, you will see the sun dance on Easter morning.
The women on that Easter morn were drawn to the tomb by a deep and costly love to do what that love bade them to do. They went despite enormous adversity, facing a detachment of soldiers guarding the tomb and a heavy stone. (In fact, they ask each other on the way to the tomb, who will roll the stone away?) Yet despite these obstacles, they followed the instincts of love. They found that pathways opened for them to follow through on what love challenged them to do. The critical lesson is that we should not dismiss love from the equation in the making of our relationships, our spirituality and our quest to make our world a more resurrection-filled environment. I love how in John's Gospel, Mary Magdalene meets Jesus but thinks him to be the gardener and asks, “Where have you laid him so that I might fetch him?” She doesn't think of the practicalities, of how she would go about doing what she needs to do; no, instead, she knows deep in herself that love will never let the other lie abandoned, not ministered to. This has enormous implications for those who are, so to speak, dead in multiple ways along the road of life. It testifies to allowing love to do something about it and to keep the “dead” on our radar screens because resurrection love always finds a way.
It is also reassuringly significant that resurrection encounters happen in the places and spaces where we need to be encouraged; places and spaces which are different for everyone. For the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it was amidst the personal anguish and disappointment of a dream seemingly abandoned. For Peter, it was when he grappled both with amazement and hesitation; for those in the Upper Room, it was while they were locked away, in hiding, riddled with fear. No two situations were alike; each was deeply contextual. Therefore, we are not treated amorphously but very personally, sensitively, and intimately in new moments, so our issues can be met and dealt with in the broken places which are specific to each of us. We can be made whole and, as it were, made “ready for the purpose.”
God does not offer “one size fits all” solutions. This prevents us from the tendency to engage in group-think, to coalesce around our social or economic group’s experience, our way of doing things, our spirituality, our dogmatic emphasis, origins, race or class. To allow this to happen ultimately leads to us developing practices of exclusion, chauvinism and the kind of populism that is so damaging to the quest for social cohesion and the flourishing of all. In a country and a world where there is an increasing trust deficit between different people and groups, we need to guard against creating more distrust in the name of our limited privileges.
As with the women on that Easter morning, it takes courage to step out into the darkness, to follow love and to give witness to its public implications even as we hold it in our hearts. We cannot sidestep that angelic instruction, “Go and tell…” Nor can we fail, in the light of this command, to draw comfort, to find strength as we lean on the other promise that command offer, that which assures us “and he has gone before.” Easter is the sublime reminder that we are not alone as we face new beginnings and uncharted territory.
By The Most Revd Dr Thabo Makgoba
Archbishop of Cape Town.