Some Easter thoughts from China

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.  Look, there is the place they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.  –Mark 16:1-8

Easter is generally quite quiet and unassuming in China.  I’ll be up on Easter morning, right around sunrise, getting into a taxi to head to the airport to travel to several provinces and visit foster care projects.  Often the rhythm of my life here in China couldn’t be more different from my previous experiences helping to pastor during the bustle of Holy Week, and I’m left to wonder what Easter means in a foreign land.

But then again, that early morning was no doubt a strange, foreign experience for Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome as they ventured out in the early sunlight to anoint their messiah.  For some reason as my friend and I read through this scripture the other morning, my mind was drawn to their preoccupations over, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  I think about how they must have felt, powerless and hopeless as they walked to the tomb, knowing not even how to move the stone when they arrived.

A week or so ago when we traveled into the countryside to visit foster families, a friend of mine and I got to talking about what we do in America versus what they do in China when someone dies.  It was difficult to explain to her the sterilized world of funeral parlors, embalming, and even cremation.

“I was the one who helped prepare and clean my grandmother’s body before she was buried,” she stammered.  Chinese people are particularly fearful of the dead and of evil spirits, but it perplexed my friend that anyone other than the family would attend to such an intimate practice as preparing a loved one for life in the spirit world.  “I wasn’t afraid, I didn’t even cry,” she remarked proudly.

I think about how the women, despite their own fears and misgivings, not even knowing how to move the stone, went to the tomb anyway.  And I think of how when they arrived the angel told them plainly that their Jesus has been raised, and was going before them to Galilee.

And I think of how difficult it really is to trust that God is going ahead of us.

A woman honors her ancestors during the tomb sweeping festival in China. Photo from The Telegraph.

Another one of my friends talked through her tears earlier this week about tomb sweeping traditions in China where one prays to the ancestors and conflicts between these and her Christian faith.  Many extreme voices from the Christian foreign and local communities, not unlike those centuries before them, stress that believers today need to take a stand against these traditions and their families, and refuse to participate.

But my friend, in her deep faith and wisdom, knows there must be another way.  So she will make the trip home today to her family, to sweep the graves and honor her ancestors and her very much living family, and carry the promise of the resurrection in her heart.  And rather than risking that the promise of grace become confused with rejection, anger, and bitterness, she will wait and pray, and when the time is right, she will share the way in which her faith makes her life full and complete and meaningful with her loved ones.

I pray that she will trust that God is indeed going before her this weekend.  It seems to me that not just my friend or Chinese Christians or the women who brought spices, but all of us wonder and worry who will roll the stone away from the tomb for us.  We all struggle to trust that God has truly gone ahead of us and died for us and been raised, and that no mistake on our part, not even the terror or the muteness that supposedly plagued the women that fateful morning can change that.  The promise has been–and is fulfilled, in the resurrection of our Lord.

That is why we proclaim, Jesus is risen, He is risen indeed, from wherever we find ourselves this Sunday, from the tombs of the Chinese countryside to the sanctuaries of the United States.  And we give thanks that God has done what God promised, and that we, the weak, afraid, mute, and hopeless, are the recipients of such grace that flowed out from that empty tomb on a quiet morning in another land years ago.

P.s.  If you’re looking for more Easter reflection, Rachel Held Evans is doing a wonderful series on Women of the Passion on her blog.

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2 thoughts on “Some Easter thoughts from China

  1. Thanks for for writing this piece regarding Christian conscience and the intersection of cultural tradition. It’s Qing Ming once again and the issue has split my family into two camps. My mom seems to be deathly afraid of exposing herself to what she calls “demonic practices”. Perhaps she had some history in her family where there was a strong demonic grip over a loved one’s life, but she won’t tell me or anyone else in the family. My dad, on the other hand, agrees more with your friend here and adds that it is our duty to “please all men in all things, not seeking [our] own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.”

    My grandfather recently passed away and it is hoped, but uncertain, that he accepted the Lord in his final hours thanks to the ministry of my father. My grandmother is not long for this world, either, which is why there is a sense of urgency to impart the knowledge of salvation to her. It’s a difficult subject to broach because the corollary to unrepentant sinners being eternally separated from God also implies eternal separation from believing loved ones and after a lifetime of union with each other, such a thought is almost unbearable. In fact, it’s repulsive given the imagery of Hell. I so desperately want the Holy Spirit to reach her, but I am uncertain of the means. The best way I can think of is my newly converted cousin who is very close to mama and yeye. Together, we pray constantly for our grandmother’s soul.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story. My prayers are with you as you negotiate the beauty and the depth of multiple cultural traditions alongside the truth that God loves us and desires to know each of us in this lifetime and the next. The conversations in your family regarding the negotiations of culture and faith in this world show me that you are all faithfully contemplating how to love and support one another, and beyond the hope that we have in God, these relationships with our loved ones are the next most precious testimony to who God is in this world. In that sense, the honoring of the ancestors and the praise of our God are not so distant. I pray your family finds peace and comfort in God’s grace and one another. Blessings to you.

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