The Shortest Season of the Year
But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said…
Matthew alone among the four Evangelists tells us the story of Eastergate, the conspiracy to cover up the resurrection, a conspiracy concocted by an uneasy, reluctant coalition of pious Pharisees and secular Romans. The chief priests and Pharisees, who during Jesus’ lifetime never paid him any respect beyond thinking him important enough to kill, pay him the compliment, now that he is dead, of worrying that resurrection might be afoot.
On the Saturday morning after Jesus is crucified, the Pharisees scurry to Pilate and plead: “We remember what that imposter said: After three days I will rise again. Give us some Navy Seals with Tazers and 357 Magnums, lest his disciples steal his body and perpetrate a gigantic fraud.” Resurrection prevention is what they want, a preemptive strike against the resurrection, as one author puts it. Pilate consents and gives them their Navy Seals.
It doesn’t work out quite the way they planned, however. While the intrepid guard play penny poker at the campfire and pass around a bottle of Jack Daniels, the earth shakes and a great vanny envoy from the great starry beyond descends to earth and sits on the gigantic slab of rock imprisoning what is supposed to be Jesus’ ragged corpse in the earth.
The Navy Seals promptly act like sissies and faint from fear as if dead. The women, by the way, Jesus’ lady friends who’ve come to pay their respects, manage not to faint. So much for the intrepid ‘Y’ chromosome. The guards are scared to death, almost literally. That’s an exact translation. “The guards shook,” Matthew tells us, “and became like dead men.” The guards shook.
Perhaps you have learned already that I try to convince you that you know more Greek than you think you know. The earth quakes: seismos in Greek. The guards quake: seismos. I trust you know what that means. Earthquake, Guardquake. There’s a seismic shift in the cosmos. The guards, who are supposed to be very much alive, act like dead men, and Jesus, who is supposed to be very dead, seems to be very much alive, heading at a brisk clip this very moment, according to the angel at least, to Galilee, where he plans to rendezvous with those who love him still.
“Do not be afraid,” counsels the angel. As if. “Do not be afraid. He is not here, for he has been raised. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.” The women are unable to accept the angel’s counsel to be unafraid, but, Matthew tells us, “they left the tomb with fear and great joy.”
They left the tomb with fear and great joy. It’s probably where most of us are every Easter Sunday when we come to church to gaze into the empty tomb: a little fear, but great joy. There’s reason for fear.
April 20: Easter Sunday. But also a portentous day in western history. On April 20, 1889, a baby was born to a family of modest means in a small Austrian village near the Bavarian border. He was baptized into the Christian Church a few days later, and confirmed as a disciple of Jesus Christ when he became a young man, but the world didn’t notice him until as a corporal in the German Army he published a little book called Mein Kampf.
Before and since that April 20 in 1889, violent and tragic events seem to cluster up during the third week of April. On that date in 1997, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School; they seem to have chosen the date carefully. On April 19, 1993, the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, left 76 dead. Two years later, again on April 19, Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people, many of them children, in Oklahoma City. On April 16, 2007, 33 students and teachers died in the Virginia Tech massacre.
Every April 15 is Tax Day, of course, a calamity for some of us, but also the day of the Boston Marathon Bombing one year ago. Also the day President Lincoln died; he’d been shot the night before–Good Friday. And if you want to add deadly accidents to this list of violent crimes, the Titanic sunk on Tax Day, 1912, and on April 16 of this year, another ship sank in the Yellow Sea; we still don’t know how many are dead.
There is reason for fear. Can you see the Roman guard with their bristling weapons clustered around that silent grave that first Easter Sunday, trying to prevent resurrection? There are Roman guards in every age, especially during the third week of April, agents of death with lethal arsenals and fierce malice.
The Good News of Easter is that our great joys eclipse our little fears, because there is always a second chance, we live by God’s grace and not by our own trifling abilities, and God makes sure that a life like the Carpenter’s, so transparent to the divinity from which it came and so evocative of the humanity we all crave for ourselves, can never be undone by the Pharisees’ hostility, Pilate’s equivocation, Peter’s faint-heartedness, Judas’ treachery, Roman executioners, and Death’s sneering face.
This is God’s world, and in God’s world, death can never have the last word. The earth itself is preaching the good news of resurrection. Birdsong returned weeks ago, and just now the drab palette of winter is giving way to the gaudier crayons of springtime. I walked the dog yesterday; they’re playing baseball at Watts Park in Glencoe; I saw it with my own eyes. Not long ago we doubted if we’d ever play baseball again. They’re playing baseball in Comiskey Park. They’re playing baseball at Wrigley Field. Not well, but they’re trying!
It was a long winter, wasn’t it? I know we say that every year–it’s the law; if you don’t say that, they give you a ticket. But this winter it was true, right? Arguably the worst winter ever. Average temperature December-March: 22 degrees, a Chicago record. Twenty-six days at or below zero: a Chicago record. Lake Michigan 90% covered with ice; ties a record. Eighty-two inches of snow: third most in recorded history.
They packed up all my earthly belongings in Connecticut on February 6, a Thursday. The driver says he might be able to get to Winnetka by February 13, the next Thursday. Dudley and Kathy and I ask ourselves: where are we going to sleep for the next week? So we spend two extra nights in Greenwich with our best friends, hoping that by the time we finally leave, they’ll be so sick of us they won’t even miss us. Then we start loitering across the broad thorax of America, driving real slow across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, because there’s no reason to get to Chicago to sleep on the bare floor. We drive real slow and stop at boring places and spend the first night in Youngstown, Ohio; then get up the next morning and drive real slow again across Ohio and Indiana.
About 3:30 in the afternoon we call it a short day and pull up in Michigan City, Indiana, and I get out of the car for gasoline and the cold blast of Polar Vortex air that hits me in the face convinces me that I have truly landed in Chiberia. It gets cold in Connecticut but not that cold. Dudley’s teeth were chattering.
I had been told that Michigan City, Indiana, was on the south shore of Lake Michigan, but we guessed that we’d been misled; we couldn’t find any lake. We followed the signs to the beach, but there was no lake; it was white and ice and snow as far as the eye could see; we found a lighthouse, so there must have been a lake there at some point in history, but not the day we arrived.
It has been a long winter. But did you know that in fact long winters are a myth? A long winter is an urban legend. A long winter is an old wives’ tale. Did you know that in the northern hemisphere winter is the shortest season of the year? Every year? You probably knew that, but I didn’t know that until I was poking around for some information on the spring equinox and stumbled upon the happy and astonishing news that every year in the northern hemisphere, winter is five days shorter than summer. Five days! Winter is about 89 days long, autumn about 90, spring is 93 days long, and summer is a lingering 94 days long, which means that the “getting warmer” seasons of spring and summer are collectively seven days longer than the “getting colder” seasons of autumn and winter.
You never want to get your astronomy lessons from a preacher, but I gather it has something to do with the fact that the earth’s orbit around the sun is not a circle but an ellipse, and during the winter months of the northern hemisphere, the earth is closer to the sun and thus hurls through space a little faster than in the summer months.
So that in the northern hemisphere, summer is five days longer than winter. Which means that I am never moving to Santiago or Capetown or Sydney.
I was so happy when I heard that. It doesn’t make any difference, of course. It’s still colder around here in March than the Cubs’ batting lineup, but it makes me feel better. I don’t know why.
You’ve heard the story of the farmer with sprawling acreage right on the border between Minnesota and South Dakota. He always thought he lived in Minnesota. He had a Minnesota driver’s license and a Minnesota mailing address, but he wasn’t sure and wanted to know, so he called a surveyor who staked out his property to see if it was in Minnesota or South Dakota, and when the surveyor had finished his work, he knocked on the man’s door and said, “Well, sir, as it turns out you do in fact live in South Dakota.” And the farmer goes “Thank God!” The surveyor says, “Why so happy, sir?” And the farmer says “Why so happy?! No more Minnesota winters!”
Knowing that you live in South Dakota not Minnesota, or knowing that winter is shorter than summer, doesn’t change anything. The last week of March around here is still colder than your girlfriend Sondra when you call her Julie. It doesn’t change anything; it just makes me feel better, and I thought I’d share the happy news with you on Easter Sunday.
Every year, Easter falls at the end of the shortest season of the year, and the beginning of the longest, and the Church’s festival of resurrection and renewal is always coincident with the return of life and hope to the moribund, wintered earth. Jesus rises when the daffodils do.
Can you see it, in the inky darkness just before dawn on that first Easter Sunday in that cemetery, the earth quaking, the guards shaking, and fainting away as if dead? Can you see it? A giant slab of rock tossed carelessly aside like a poker chip, the fractured seals, the yawning mouth of an open tomb, Christ the Crucified King shattering death’s door?
Can you see it? The fragile green shoots piercing earth’s frozen crust like the spear
Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), Volume 2: The Churchbook, p. 774.
Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 87-88, 91.