On Ash Wednesday, I began my sermon by asking why the number 40 is so popular in the Bible. The 40 days and nights of Noah on the ark, the 40 year wandering of the Israelites from Egypt to the promised land, the 40 day journey of Elijah to Mount Horeb, the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert, the 40 days between the resurrection and the ascension. Those 40 days, I said, were meant to suggest “a long time.”
Little did I know then, or have reason to know, that the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian word quaranta, meaning 40. Indeed, the Italians in those days chose quaranta giorni because of those scriptural references, and the purifications those journeys brought. We are in the midst of our quarantine, which will surely outlast the 40 days of Lent, and perhaps even the 50 days of Easter.
In the 40 days of Lent, we often give something up. Often, it’s something we’d like to be rid of forever, a habit or a vice we wish we could quit, and we use the privations of Lent as an opportunity to better ourselves. But if we were to take that privation seriously, we would give up something that is truly important to us, spiritually important to us. We would relinquish something that is meaningful and crucial, something that makes our lives worth living.
Well, this year, we have. We’ve given up public worship for Lent. We may not have chosen it, but we have chosen to accept it. We have said goodbye -- for an uncertain and unknown period of time -- to the familiar comforts and customary demands of our ordinary worship. We have done without our calls to worship and our hymnals. We have sworn off greeters and the passing of the peace.
Many of us still gather on Sunday morning for worship here on Facebook Live; we still sing a few verses and hear Mark play the organ; Paul still gives us a bunch of announcements and inspires us with a Moment for Children; I still preach a sermon, and it still goes on a little too long. Yet, even though there are things that remain the same, there’s no denying that things are very different, and that we’ve been deprived of something that we love, something that is meaningful to us, something that is life-sustaining and life-giving.
And we have, in just these few short weeks, learned something about ourselves and our faiths and our community and our commitments. We have learned that even though we love worship, our congregation is not only about that. We have learned that even though we love our building, our church is more than that. Even though we love the familiar and the comforting, we can adapt to new circumstances, even as they remain uncertain and unpredictable.
That is one of the goals of our Lenten privations. We are supposed to feel the pain of the loss, to feel in our bones and in our souls the lack of something that matters to us, if only so we can feel the joy of it when it returns. But we are also supposed to learn to live without it and know that there is joy to be had in this world and in this life without it. We are supposed to find new ways of living that open us up to transformations, to not remain beholden to what has been, but become inspired by what might yet be.
We are about to celebrate Easter. And it is a glorious morning on which we shout Hallelujah with joy, with reckless abandon. It is a glorious morning on which all our hopes are realized and all our dreams come true. It is a glorious morning on which the world is transformed by the love of God and on which we are transformed by that love.
But the first Easter morning was not like that. The first Easter morning was full of pain and loss and sorrow and uncertainty. The first Easter morning was of mournful cries rather than joyous shouts. The first Easter morning was full of grief and grieving, over what had been given up and taken.
The story of the first Easter is one of emptiness. It is the emptiness of most of the disciples, who cannot bring themselves to go to Jesus’ tomb to clean the body and prepare it for burial. It is the emptiness of the upper room, where the silence of Jesus’ absence resonates. It is the emptiness of the hopes that had been placed on Jesus by those who expected a mighty king or political leader, who would restore the kingdom by earthly power.
And it is the emptiness of the tomb. It is the emptiness of the power of death, and the emptiness of the power of the rulers of this world. It is the emptiness of oppression and hatred and violence.
And from that emptiness comes transformation. The women who have the courage and the faith to go to the tomb are transformed by its emptiness, and come away full of the Holy Spirit. They leave that place of emptiness full of questions, full of wonder, full of faith. Those women are the first to breathe the story of the resurrection into existence. He. Is. Risen.
They transform the world in their breath. The transform the emptiness of the tomb into the fullness of faith. They transform the emptiness of the cross into the fullness of love and compassion. They transform the emptiness of death and violence into the fullness of peace and grace.
Our building is empty, but the heart of our congregation is full. We have had our expectations turned on their heads, but we have not lost ours. We believe in the resurrection. We believe in the transformation of this world. We believe in love and peace, mercy and justice, grace and peace. And we believe that nothing is empty, but only waiting to be filled by God’s love.