In the Gospel lesson for the Tuesday in Easter Week (John20:11-18), Mary Magdalene is so caught up in her grief over Jesus’ death and her despair over the disappearance of his body that when she turns around and sees Jesus, she doesn’t recognize him. Instead, she mistakes him for the gardener. She comes out of her grief and despair enough to see what is right before her eyes when she responds to hearing the risen Jesus call her by name.
We can get so deeply into grief and despair that we miss signs of hope that are right in front of us. Just as the mismatch between the sorts of hopes and expectations Mary Magdalene had imagined and the reality of Jesus’ resurrection led her initially to fail to recognize the wonderful reality standing before her, the mismatch between our imagined expectations and a wonderful reality can keep us from recognizing that reality even when it is unfolding. Those of us who pay attention to the degradation of the earth and particularly to the discouraging math of global warming find ourselves at times grieving the plants, animals, eco-systems, and way of life we know and love that are beginning to disappear or change, and we can feel despair when we see the enormity of the challenges we face compared to the lack of political will to do enough soon enough to make much of a difference to a our future.
One of the many joys of Easter in our tradition is the restoration of the alleluias that disappear during the somber Lenten season. Some parishes do a sort of ceremony of burying the alleluias on Ash Wednesday to help children grasp something of our Lenten practices. When Lent ends, our alleluias at the breaking of the bread in the Eucharist and at the dismissal bring notes of joy and hope and renewed energy that can remain with us as we go into the week to love and serve Christ.
Most of us experience the return of the alleluias as a welcome return to a spiritual norm of joy, while others, especially in times when we have faced a great loss or difficult challenges, when we are grieving or in despair, may find ourselves more in tune with the quieter but no less faithful wilderness walk of Lent. But Easter comes along whether or not we are ready for it, even when we are so deeply into grief or despair that we can’t imagine finding hope or joy again.
Yesterday evening I attended one of the planning meetings for people opposed to TransCanada being given a permit to build the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to transport Alberta tar sands through the central United States, including Nebraska, to Gulf Coast refineries. The purpose of these planning meetings is to help pipeline opponents be well-prepared to testify at the State Department hearings scheduled to be held at the Heartland Event Center in Grand Island on April 18. The pipeline fighters face huge odds given the money and political power of the oil industry. It’s one of those daunting challenges that could make our alleluias ring hollow.
And yet when I listened to leaders from the Sierra Club and Bold Nebraska, and when I heard the discussion by those who plan to be at the hearings either to testify against the permit or to support those testifying against it, it felt like an alleluia response. We know that grassroots opposition to the pipeline has delayed its construction so far. We know that landowners, environmental activists, people of faith, and others will keep fighting the construction of this pipeline and the expanded mining of the Alberta tar sands. There is something very good and life-giving here.
Even if President Obama denies the permit to build this pipeline, the challenge of keeping greenhouse gas emissions to a level that gives us a chance of a sustainable future is a huge challenge. If our expectations and hopes are of a future that resembles today’s business as usual, we may not recognize whatever signs of a realistic hope we might encounter. That doesn't mean that hope isn't there; it doesn't mean that grief and despair are the only valid responses to our situation.
When Bill McKibben’s Do the Math tour visited Omaha, he said that he became discouraged at first when people pointed out that he was involved in a David and Goliath situation, but then he remembered how that story ends. Easter tells us the end of the bigger story, and it calls for an alleluia response.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!