Today’s scripture readings:
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Twenty-four days after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian government posted a powerful video on social media. As the video begins, the word “WAS” appears on the screen in huge capital letters, and then President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks. “‘Was.’ It’s a simple word,” he says, “but it’s not so simple for us, because now, everyday Ukrainians cannot say ‘was’ without bursting into tears.” Footage of a missile striking an apartment building rolls on the screen, followed by the image of a bombed-out office building, then a firefighter holding a puppy, a child hoisted into an ambulance, footage of the casualties of war. Zelenskyy’s voice provides the narration: “This was my home. This was my job. This was my dog. This was my daughter. This was my father.” Was, was, was—each new image on the screen more heartbreaking than the last.
But then the scene changes. Images of beautiful new skyscrapers painted yellow and blue appear, and people waving Ukrainian flags, carrying yellow and blue umbrellas, wearing yellow and blue shirts, children playing soccer in yellow and blue jerseys, a choir in traditional Ukrainian clothing singing together. A different word appears on the screen in the same bold letters: “WILL.” President Zelenskyy goes on: “We Ukrainians know what comes next. We will prevail. And there will be new houses. There will be new cities. There will be new dreams. There will be a new story. There will be—there’s no doubt. And those we’ve lost will be remembered. And we will sing again. And we will celebrate anew.”
Was, will be. Friends in Christ, this is Easter. It’s the promise that what was, what has been, what we have known to be true in the past, is not what will be in the future. Christ’s resurrection makes a new future possible.
When the women woke up on Sunday morning, they were living in was. Hours earlier, when Jesus was arrested and the other disciples fled to safety, the women stayed and looked on as Jesus was put on trial, condemned, and crucified. They followed at a distance as his body was carried to the tomb. The women watched Jesus die and they saw where his body was laid. Their grief was overwhelming. This was their teacher. This was their friend. This was the messiah—at least, that’s what they had believed. Was, was, was. With his death, the hope Jesus inspired in them had been dashed, and all that remained was grief and despair.
Two days later, in the morning on the first day of the week, the women gathered spices and ointments. They were simply following the protocol of was. In the world of was, it was customary to prepare a body for burial by adorning it with fragrances that would smother the stench of death. So the women did what anyone would do whose reality was defined by was: they gathered spices and made their way to the tomb. Jesus was dead, and he needed a proper burial.
But then the scene changes. They are greeted at the tomb by angels who announce the end of was. Jesus is raised from the dead! And that’s not all. By his resurrection, was has been undone and will be becomes the new reality. Everything they thought they knew is out the window, and from now on, things will be different. In this new reality, dead things don’t even stay dead! And if dead things don’t stay dead, what else will be possible?
Was, will be. The good news of Easter is that the old ways of the world are no more. The future is not defined by the past. God has the power to do a new thing. No matter what was we have experienced, Christ’s resurrection frees us to think differently about what will be, to dream about a different kind of future, to trust that what lies ahead will not be determined by what came before. What was is not what will be.
What is your was? What is the was you have been living? Chronic pain. A broken marriage. Addiction. Mental illness. The untimely death of a parent, a child, a spouse, a friend. Long-COVID. A long pandemic isolation. Anxiety about our world, about climate change, about the rise of authoritarianism, about the Supreme Court. Anger about white supremacy, about transphobia, about the mistreatment of refugees and asylum seekers. The was we’ve lived is real. There is no denying it. Like the women who saw Jesus’ dead body shut into the tomb, we have had our own very real experiences of death closing in and choking the life out of us. It has left wounds that we continue to feel, wounds that provide a constant reminder of what was. But was is not the end of the story. Was has no bearing on what will be.
The resurrection means we can acknowledge the reality of was even as we hopefully anticipate what will be. The resurrection means we can accept the reality of death even as we reject its ultimate power over our future. This is not a head-in-the-sand sort of denial of what was, what has been, of the pain we’ve experienced or death’s attempts to steal our life away from us. This is a promise that despite all we have seen, all we have experienced, all that was in the past, today we have a fresh opportunity to imagine what will be, to determine to live in such a way that the past has no claim on our future.
In Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, the main character, Sethe, is an escaped slave haunted by painful memories of great violence inflicted against her. She is befriended by Paul D, another runaway slave similarly tormented by his own experience of brutality and dehumanization. They have escaped slavery, but they are not free, shackled to the past by memories of the violence they endured. Escaping slavery has not liberated them from suffering because they cannot envision a future in which they are truly free. They can’t imagine that their world could be better, that what lies ahead could be different from what came before. In a profound moment, Paul D says to Sethe, “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”
“We got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Dear friends in Christ, this is the promise of Easter: There is a tomorrow. We all got some yesterday—more yesterday than we care to remember—but we also have the promise of tomorrow. A new day. New possibilities. The tomb is empty, and the future is not defined by the past. Like the women who showed up Sunday morning, spices in hand, and returned to the disciples with a new story to tell, so too do we receive this day a new story, a new future, a new promise: What was is not what will be.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Defence of Ukraine, Twitter post, March 20, 2022, 10:15 a.m., https://twitter.com/DefenceU/status/1505563566480498692.
Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).