The Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day, rcl yr b, 2021
ISAIAH 25:6-9; PSALM 118:1-2, 14-24; ACTS 10:34-43; MARK 16:1-8
On this day the Lord has acted
The difference between a dead God, and a living one, is that a living God can surprise you.
One can only imagine that if the Dorothy Day of the 1910s and the 1920s could see the Dorothy Day of the 1970s, she would most certainly be surprised. Dorothy Day’s early life could be called … legendary? I’m not sure quite the word to use, so let me tell you a few stories.
As a newspaper writer living in Greenwich Village New York, she was a true Bohemian. With its cheap rents at the time, the Village was a haven for penniless writers, and Dorothy fit in well. Not only did she love literature— especially Dostoyevsky—she was an aspiring novelist herself, and never able to hold onto a paycheque for long. With cheap rents came tiny rooms in Greenwich Village, which meant that most of your time was spent in cafés, cheap restaurants, and bars like the Golden Swan—better known by its nickname, the Hell Hole.
The Hell Hole was the sort of place that was frequented by prostitutes, drug users and dealers, and the Hudson Dusters, a gang of warehouse thieves. The Dusters liked Dorothy, because she could drink them under the table. It was to the Hell Hole that Dorothy was known to bring “questionable men” (as one biography tells it) to buy them rye. And it was at the Hell Hole that Dorothy met a man that would become a very close friend, Eugene O’Neill, a playwright who would would eventually win a Nobel Prize for literature. (He was just Gene to Dorothy.) Dorothy had first came to O’Neill’s attention at the Hell Hole, on a night Dorothy was singing for everyone all the bawdy verses to the folksong “Frankie and Johnny.”
One of the more tragic stories to come out of Dorothy’s time in Greenwich Village took place one evening at Romany Marie’s—the kind of café that kept poor artists warm, and at least somewhat nourished, on long winter evenings. This night, though, Gene’s friend, Louis Holladay, was just back from a year getting clean from his drug addiction.
Not clean for long, though. That night Louis procured a small bottle of heroin, sniffing a good quantity of it. Seeing that, Gene got mad and left, but Dorothy stayed with Louis, only for him to soon slump onto Dorothy’s shoulder, and into her arms, dead of an overdose.
Louis’s sister told the coroner that he had a heart condition, and his death was attributed to that; it seems likely that Dorothy herself took the bottle of heroin from Louis’s pocket before the police arrived, making the story of heart trouble that much more plausible.
It’s hard to imagine just how surprised that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were that day they brought burial spices to Jesus’s tomb. Jesus had, of course, said many times what was to happen: that the Son of Man was to suffer, and after three days rise again. But in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples are pretty dense, and they never really understood what Jesus meant; that Jesus himself was the Son of Man, and that as the Son of Man death would not, and could not, hold on to him. And while Mark does show the women in a better light than he does the men, they too would have been in the dark, not knowing that Jesus would rise from the dead; they went to the tomb with burial spices, after all. And you don’t bring burial spices to anyone but the good and dead.
But: surprise! The stone is rolled away. And entering the tomb: surprise! No dead Jesus, just a strange young man in a white robe, saying, “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.”
Surprise indeed! Though surprise is perhaps a weak word at this point. The living God can do far more than surprise you, as it turns out. Those women, that day, fled not simply in surprise, but in “terror and amazement.”
By the end of her life, Dorothy Day had established an extraordinary legacy: the Catholic Worker. The Catholic Worker was, and continues to be, a newspaper that reports on working conditions, poverty, and what it means to be a Christian pacifist and labour activist.
It started after Dorothy met a man named Peter Maurin, himself a penniless vagabond, but an extraordinarily keen-minded, deeply religious, and well-read penniless vagabond who would disappear for weeks at a time. But he had a vision for houses of hospitality where the destitute and homeless could find shelter, no questions asked. And that became a big part of the work of the Catholic Worker—more than a newspaper, it’s a movement centred around hospitality, and then farming communities intended to resist the dehumanising elements of urban industrial life.
All this began after Dorothy had a deep religious conversion, beginning slowly at first through her attraction to God through prayer and worship. Politically she would always have more in common with Communists and Anarchists—associations she would keep her whole life, even when it was dangerous to do so. But she also became a deeply traditional Catholic, going to Mass daily, reading the lives of the saints, and believing fully in Christian doctrine—from the incarnation of God in Christ, through to the resurrection—including the bodily resurrection of Jesus after three days dead.
Would the bohemian, sexually liberated, hard-drinking Dorothy Day have been surprised to meet the celibate, prayerful, and traditional Christian she became at the end of her life? Almost certainly. But like those women who fled in terror and amazement from the empty tomb, given some time, the pieces begin to come together.
One of Dorothy Day’s favourite books by Dostoyevsky was The Idiot, a book about a man who was seen by many to be a simpleton—but who in fact a man of incisive intellect. Much like Peter Maurin, a man who many saw as simply a vagabond, but who was in fact a man whose bright vision captured Day’s imagination. Without reading The Idiot, could Day have imagined that Peter Maurin could be as intelligent as he was?
His vision led Day further down a road of near-penniless life; a life in many ways not so far from her Bohemian poverty in Greenwich Village. And her love, too, for those charismatic men, and for all those strange people she would find and bring to the Hell Hole for a shot of rye, was a love that most certainly prepared her to love the destitute, the smelly and unwashed men and women—sometimes covered in lice—that would populate the Catholic Worker’s Houses of Hospitality.
The living God can surprise, most certainly. But even amidst that surprise, the pieces of a life come together, and somehow fit—the useless pieces of a life, the broken pieces of a life, and the pieces of life we try to throw away—God collecting those pieces, putting them together, and making a saint out of them. Sometimes this is true of a community, where God takes the pieces we think are useless, sometimes even the pieces we think are broken beyond repair, and pieces we would rather throw away and not ever see again. God takes those pieces and makes us the community of the cross, the community of the Risen One.
And this can happen because this is what God does with his Son Jesus. Taking a broken man, a discarded man, a suffering and dead man, a man many never wanted to see again—weaving that into life, and love, and human thriving.
A surprise to those women that day; and a surprise to the other disciples too. But it was something we knew would happen all along, wasn’t it? That “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
And that this has everything to do with our lives: that if we would become his followers, we would deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him.
That we would be broken.
But then: surprise. Surprised by joy, surprised by love, surprised by life: “For those who want to save their life will lose it,” he says, “and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,” he says, don’t lose their lives.
They save them.
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons