The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
One of the most famous pieces of artwork in all of human history is a magnificent sculpture from the famous Michelangelo, carved in the last couple years of the 15th century from the finest Carrara marble, and now housed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. For those of you in our Sunday morning art study, you’ve probably already figured out that I’m talking about the Pieta—the stunning image of Mary, the mother of our Lord, ever so peacefully cradling her dead Son in her lap moments after He was taken down from His cross. It’s a powerful image, and it’s easily recognizable the world over. EVERYONE knows the Pieta! We’ve all seen some version of it. I’ll bet you dollars to dimes that you’re picturing it in your mind right now. What I find so interesting, though, is the fact that not many people (at least in non-Italian speaking culture) know what the word “pieta” means—“to be pitied.” Once you understand what the title of this magnificent opus means, the sculpture takes on a whole new level of profundity and meaning. Mary is to be pitied because her Son—this true gift from God, her firstborn—was dead, put to death in the most brutal manner imaginable, and unjustly so, at that. While any mom here would understand this maternal pity, this is especially true of those moms who’ve had to experience the pain and sorrow and misery of burying a son. It is truly pitiable.
Of course, theologically-speaking, Mary is also to be pitied because she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t understand. I know that sounds incredibly rude and mean, but it’s true. I’m not kicking her while she’s down. I’m simply saying that she doesn’t get it. In terms of the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, she doesn’t understand “what does this mean.” You can argue all you want, but you can’t get around the fact that she was headed to that tomb on Sunday morning with spices to anoint a corpse. She wasn’t headed there to be the first to welcome Jesus back from the dead. That’s truly pitiable. Even mom didn’t understand.
And we know that this sort of pitiable, pitiful reality was prevalent on that first Easter Sunday. Mary isn’t the only guilty party to be pitied for her ignorance. None of the apostles believed, even after the women ran back and told them the news. They had to go out and see for themselves, and even then they didn’t understand. It just didn’t compute. Dead people don’t rise again. St. Luke tells us that Peter and the boys went away “marveling,” which is a nice way of saying they went away scratching their head. St. Mark tells it more plainly and bluntly, relaying the truly pitiable truth that even after they had heard, they disbelieved. Such was their disbelief that Jesus Himself appeared to them and rebuked them for not believing. St. John says much the same, recording that until Peter and John had physically beheld the empty tomb and the burial cloths, they did not believe because “they did not understand the Scriptures that He must rise from the dead.”
There’s also the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. These two speak for all the disciples…even us, if we’re so bold to confess. Jesus meets up with them and asks them why they’re all dejected and sorrowful. Not recognizing Him, they answer, “We thought He was the One; the Messiah…but then He was crucified.” Pitiable. Truly pitiable. Jesus Himself says so in so many words. “’O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”
Even today, on this day of days, St. Paul gets in on the pity party action, declaring, “if in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” This is a profound, cage-rattling confession of faith! If this is all there is, then we’ve wasted our time! We are to be pitied most of all. If this is all there is to life, then we’ve wasted all our time with getting up on Sunday mornings and getting ready and going to church. We’ve wasted all that money, putting it in the offering plate. We’ve wasted all that time and effort, trying to be good and bring glory to God in all that we say, think, and do. We could’ve just done what we wanted and not worried about offending God or sinning. If this is all there is, carpe diem! Live life to the fullest, for tomorrow we die and go in the ground, and that’s it. End of story.
But that’s just it—we know in the certainty of faith that this isn’t all there is to life. This isn’t the end. “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home!” We know in the certainty of saving faith that there is a whole other blessed, eternal chapter to life—heavenly life—and Christ Jesus is the living proof! His empty tomb is the “receipt”—the verifiable and tangible proof that the transaction that took place on Friday, when He laid down His life for all sin for all time and declared, “it is finished,” was valid and complete and acceptable to our heavenly Father. His resurrection, as attested to by hundreds of people who beheld the living Christ face-to-face in the forty days after His resurrection, as well as by Paul himself, who met the resurrected Christ in a rather in-your-face way on the road to Damascus, is proof that all those who’ve been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection will also be raised again to new and heavenly glory, just as He has promised. Jesus is the first in a long line of resurrected holy ones (saints). He’s the firstfruits of resurrection; not the only one, but the first one. All who’ve been baptized into Christ and die in the faith are sure to follow. His victory is their victory.
And yet…how often are we to be pitied most of all? How often do we show that we really don’t get it; that this resurrection to new life, which has already been begun in Baptism, which continues to be fed and nourished in Holy Communion and the pronouncement of Absolution, really has no appreciable effect on us in our day-to-day lives? The proof is there. We put it on full display all time with our words, our thoughts, and our deeds. Such pitiable “faith” shows itself in how we treat our neighbor; that person whom God created and loved enough to die for. Such pitiable “faith” shows itself in how we treat God, failing to dialogue with Him in daily prayer and meditation. Ignoring someone or giving someone the silent treatment has never shown itself to be a great demonstration of love, has it? Such pitiable “faith” shows itself in something as simple as showing up to be fed and nourished by Him, as if we don’t regularly need His divine nourishment and sustenance and grace and forgiveness and peace while we dwell in this fallen and sinful wilderness. How often we treat God more like a dentist than the heavenly Father we dare to call Him.
And even when we are here regularly, we often show ourselves to be pitied the most. We’re busy checking our phones or doing the crossword. We’re preoccupied with worries about donuts or coffee or appliances or table settings or flower arrangements. We grumble about singing hymns instead of songs that make us feel “happy.” We grumble and complain that “communion every week takes too much time and is bad for attendance.” Pitiable. Truly pitiable. We’re told that all the angels in heaven rejoice when one single sinner repents, but when some of these same sinners come to the rail in repentance every week to receive the resurrected and victorious body and blood of Jesus Christ, we tap our watches and lament about our loss of “me time.” Pitiable. Truly pitiable…but I digress.
Jesus Christ—God in the flesh—has been raised from the dead. The proof was made manifest on that first Easter Sunday to eyewitnesses, and the proof is still being made manifest today in our hearing and in our midst by Christ Himself. Through the eyes and ears of faith we are able to recognize our risen and victorious Savior in His life-giving Word and Sacraments. We are able to see, hear, touch, and taste the resurrected reality of our Lord and Savior. Here He is, the firstfruits of all resurrection victory, feeding us and nourishing us with His life-giving, life-saving fruits of redemption, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and peace!
When all this is rightly understood, which is something even the littlest ones in the faith are able to do (usually better than us), the message and joy of Easter takes on a whole new level of profundity and meaning, doesn’t it? Through the eyes and ears of saving faith you’re Lord enables you to bear witness to His Divine service to you and to all His people gathered here. You’re graciously enabled to bear witness to a joy and a contentment and a peace that does surpass all human, worldly understanding; a peace that is known only in the resurrected and victorious Christ. Through God’s merciful working in His Word and His Sacraments, He opens your eyes, your ears, and your heart to recognize and give thanks for the sure and certain eternal redemption and resurrection victory that is yours in Christ Jesus. Basically, your Lord, through His working in His means of grace, changes you from pitiable to praiseworthy. Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!
May the joy and peace of Christ’s resurrection victory ever have full reign and sway in your life. May you ever “get it,” and may your words, thoughts, and deeds ever be the proof that you get it, showing forth and making the resurrected Christ known in all that you say, think, and do.
To Him alone be all glory, praise, and honor. AMEN
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