For many folks, Easter marks the unofficial beginning of spring, a day for decorating and hunting for eggs, and baskets of chocolate goodies being delivered by the Easter Bunny himself. For church folks, Easter means dressing up in lovely new outfits, heading to buildings adorned with stained glass windows and steeples, and attending special worship services. At these services, happy songs of praise are sung and uplifting sermons are preached about the resurrection of Jesus, about how death could not hold him, and about the promise of eternal life that is offered by God through the Lord Jesus. When the service ends, all the church-goers head to a nice restaurant for lunch or perhaps home for a family gathering, pictures of which are promptly posted to Facebook for others to "like." At the end of the day, there is little left for the church folks to do besides reflect on how amazing the worship was and what a blessing it is to have the hope of resurrection. All of this is fine and good, as far as I can tell, and it mirrors much of my own experience as a lifelong church person.
What we Christians refer to as "Easter," however, did not occur in a church building, or in a temple or synagogue, for that matter. Mary Magdalene encountered her living Lord not in a house of worship, but at a tomb, a place designed to house death, a cell for storing a body that is not living. This Easter, in the late afternoon, I also went to a "tomb" of sorts to celebrate Easter. I traveled to a maximum-security prison to participate in a worship service for the men warehoused there. Though physically alive, these men have suffered a social death. They are cut off from their family, friends, and community, removed from the view of the larger society. They are largely regarded as subhuman, defined by the worst moment of their lives. As far as the free world is concerned, these men are as unclean as the lepers of Jesus' day. They are untouchable, unlovable, labelled according to the offense for which they were condemned to suffer years, even decades. On Easter I went to this place of despair, and like Mary Magdalene, I was amazed by what happened there.
My companion on my journey was my friend Rahim. Rahim spent twenty-six years in prison after he was convicted of murder when he was eighteen years old. He was released in June of 2015. Our Easter pilgrimage marked his first return to a prison since he was paroled. Furthermore, he served eleven years of his sentence at the prison we were visiting that night. He was understandably anticipating the trip, not knowing quite what to expect.
When we arrived, Rahim looked like someone returning to a dream. As we walked from my car to the prison, he simply said, "I used to live here." As we waited at checkpoint, he mentioned that he used to wonder where his family waited before they were admitted into the prison on visitation days. Now he was sitting in the spot he had tried to imagine for eleven years. As we walked across the compound to the chapel, he showed me where he used to jog on the yard for exercise. He saw two men with whom he had served time, and they hugged him, almost in disbelief that he had returned to visit them. When we entered the chapel, he saw three more men that he knew.
During our service, we did many of the same things that had occurred in church buildings across the world that morning: we sang songs of praise, we shared the Eucharist, and we read the gospel account of Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb. Rahim even preached a powerful sermon about all people being made in the image of God and being God's children. This is our truest identity, the very core of who we are. God's power is at work in all of us, Rahim said, and we can have new life as a result of that power. Heads nodded. "Amens" were offered. In his homily, Rahim drew from his experience as a captive to encourage these men, who were still in a sense "entombed," with the good news that prison and death would not have the final word.
Many of the men came up to Rahim after the service to thank him for returning to that dark place to offer a word of hope. One man stood out. In 1996, while Rahim was still serving time at the prison we were visiting, Rahim's brother, who was also incarcerated there, had a conflict with a member of a gang. As a result, the gang targeted both the brother and Rahim, though Rahim had nothing to do with the controversy. One day, one of the gang members confronted Rahim, two other gang members jumped Rahim from behind, and a fight ensued. Thankfully, Rahim was not seriously hurt, but all of them were sent to solitary confinement. When they were released back into the general population, everyone understood that Rahim had been wrongfully targeted and assaulted, and he was entitled to vengeance. To keep the situation from escalating, however, a rival gang mediated the dispute, and determined that Rahim was entitled to compensation in the form of cocaine. As he relayed this story to me, Rahim admitted, "I haven't always been a good person." Once the restitution was made, Rahim and the gang dropped the issue.
Twenty years later, on Easter Sunday, one of the gang members who jumped Rahim just happened to attend our church service. After Rahim's homily on new life, the man came forward to Rahim. Rahim recognized the man immediately. The man hung his head and apologized for acting violently against him. Rahim, embodying his lesson on the power of God at work in dark, death-dealing places, forgave the man, and they hugged. This Easter evening, Rahim's word became flesh, as resurrection broke through in the form of an apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
I have been involved in prison work for fourteen years. I have seen some remarkable things, and the people I have come to know and love in those prisons have taught me more about the gospel than I ever learned in church, and it has changed the course of my life. But nothing I have witnessed was more powerful than Rahim hugging his assailant in the very prison where he was held captive. Easter happened. But to see it, I had to go to that prison. To see resurrection manifested in such a powerful and dramatic way, I had to venture outside the comfort of church buildings and accompany my brother Rahim to a place of suffering and death.
This is the Easter invitation that is offered to all of us who believe. Like Mary Magdalene, we are all called to go to the dark places, the places where people are in pain, the places where it appears death has won. Had Mary not gone to the tomb, she would have missed the resurrection. If we settle for an hour-long church service, for sweet music and pretty clothes, for lunches and egg-hunts, we may miss our opportunity to witness Easter happen right before our eyes, to see violence be overcome by peace, animosity by reconciliation, hostility by friendship, hatred by love, death by life. Easter is not about going to church. It is about going to a tomb.