Easter Sunday, Year B
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
It can be so energizing when the seasons of our church year align miraculously with the other seasons that structure our lives. Sometimes the weather cooperates, and there's rain and clouds on Good Friday, followed by warmth, sunshine, and daffodils on Easter morning. (Not this year.) Sometimes the academic calendar puts Spring Break right after Easter, so we can spend the holiday with family. (Not this year.) Sometimes the Girl Scout Cookies are safely ordered, delivered, and eaten before Lent. (Not this year!)
This year, the liturgical calendar was just a little out of synch with glorious spring weather and relief from schoolwork. But the alignment of Lent, Holy Week and Easter could not have been any more perfectly aligned this year than with the NCAA basketball championships.
March Madness set in mid-way through Lent, subjecting fans and players to tests and trials, to nail-biters and upsets, to failure and survival. The large bracket of contenders narrowed all the way down to the Final Four by last night, so that fans in sports bars and Christians at Easter Vigils were watching for who would cross from certain death to new life. And the championship game is tomorrow, the day after Easter, when the basketball world will finally taste and see a decisive and complete victory over every foe . . . at least until next year.
Alongside the movement of Lent into Easter this year, I've felt from basketball fans around me a deep desire for victory. And there's a sacred version of that desire, which we celebrate today. Our Psalm this morning is a victory song. The words proclaim, "There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous: / The right hand of the LORD has triumphed!" In the resurrection of Christ, we celebrate the decisive victory of life and love over death and sin.
Of course, athletic victories are partisan and partial; they're won at the expense of others, and they last only as long as this mortal flesh holds its strength. But this year, as the college basketball schedule fell into step with the liturgical year, I discovered two dimensions of basketball victories that reflect the kind of victory that Christ has won for us. I contemplated these while listening to an interview with three members of the 1988 NCAA champions, the University of Kansas Jayhawks.
First: Victories taste best when they follow a long record of defeat. At the end of the 1988 game, an announcer shouted that the Jayhawks had "lost more games than any champion in the history of the NCAA." How's that for an accomplishment? They lost 11 games in the regular season. When they were invited to post-season play, they thought, "we're not even supposed to be here." They played teams they'd lost to before—Kansas State, Duke—but then won the second time around. In the final against Oklahoma (whom they'd lost to three times), one player remembers scoring not from the 3-point line, not with a swish, but with a reverse layup after going up for a shot and bringing the ball back down on the opposite side. They won from behind, they won from below.
Now that's the type of victory that our Psalmist would recognize as divine. It comes after a series of losses, after a lifetime of hanging in there. The Psalmist sings about resisting the tide of loss and death by living. In his own losses, he declares his faith like this: "I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord." And the Psalmist also has a proclamation about rejection: "The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone." What once seemed useless and unworthy is now foundational, integral, crucial. That's a story of victory.
What if our goal was to become not the clear and obvious victors, but the losingest champions this universe has ever seen? What if we really tried just to rack up the losses and rejections in our attempts at love and in our struggles for justice? What if we just tried to hang in there, and keep the score close, believing in ourselves when no one else will, and trusting our God to push us to victory in the last moments? That's the kind of victory that tastes divine.
The 1988 victory of the Kansas Jayhawks also bears another resemblance to divine victory: It's the kind of victory we can savor for the rest of our lives. It's a victory that sustains us, that brings us joy, that gives us confidence, that gives us strength. It's not just a matter of re-living some past glory; it's a matter of knowing, palpably, what victory feels like, and letting that feeling give us both gratitude and hope.
The three basketball players in the interview I heard didn't ever go pro. Their victory didn't make them superstars. Their victory didn't allow them to fulfill some dream or fantasy that they might have had as young athletes. Instead, one of them faced a series of business failures, buying and selling homes and then cars; he faced a cancer diagnosis (which he survived); and he faced a broken relationship. And yet through these losses, he's actually found his past victory to be a lifeline. He hears from people and churches in Kansas who tell him how much the unexpected victory meant to them. Clint Normore, a point guard, struggles to put the feeling that the victory gives him into words. He says, "to this day I can't explain, articulate, fully, the feeling, the emotions I had . . . in winning. I felt gratitude for the opportunity; I felt as if this moment was unreal."
Real or unreal, explicable or inexplicable, this kind of victory stays with us for the rest of our lives. It's not our victory: It doesn't make us superstars or heroes. It's Christ's victory, and we, all of us amateurs, have the privilege of seeking victories of love and justice that matter so, so much to others. It's a victory that gives us a feeling, whether we lose jobs, opportunities, or relationships, or whether we just settle into lives that feel a little less glamorous than we might have dreamed. The victory of Christ offers us joy, gratitude, and strength.
When the Psalmist recalls the Lord's victory, he sings, "On this day the LORD has acted; *
we will rejoice and be glad in it. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; * / his mercy endures for ever . . . The LORD is my strength and my song."
This victory of God in Christ, this victory of life and love over death and sin, brings us joy, gratitude, and strength all the days of our lives.
In our gospel this morning, Mary Magdalene finds herself at the end of a very losing season. Her friend and teacher has died, and, along with him, his vision for a whole kingdom. And now, she has lost not only the companionship of Christ, but also his very body, which she'd wanted to care for properly. Jesus comes to her at the end of this chain of losses, during her fight to hang in there, to at least treat Christ's body with dignity in death after the empire appeared to conquer the kingdom Christ proclaimed.
When Christ speaks Mary's name, and she suddenly recognizes him, he tells her not to hold onto him. This isn't a victory she'll be able to cling to . . . but it is a victory that will sustain her for the rest of her life. Jesus asks her to tell the disciples that that he is living and present in defiance of all powers and expectations.
This is the victory we're looking for, waiting for, cheering for, fighting for. To be the losingest champions of justice and love. To have in our lives a sustaining force of joy, gratitude, and strength. This is the victory that the Psalmist knew the Lord was capable of. This is the victory that Mary knew in the face of the risen Christ. This is the first day of Easter—the day of victory, and always our championship season.