We are Called to Roll Away the Stone

By Dante A. Tavolaro ’17 M.Div.

Earlier in the spring, while doing some liturgical planning, I read the collect of the day for the Second Sunday of Easter. I have used this prayer countless times, and never thought twice about it. This time was different. Since mid-Lent I have not been able to stop thinking about these words: 

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[1]

I have been moved by this prayer because the present moment urgently requires the transformation of these words—this new covenant of reconciliation, this desire of God to bring us into a new relationship with others—into reality. This, however, begs the question: what is it that we profess by our faith? Confronting the question leads me back to the reasons I am compelled to believe in God.

There is nothing wrong with being vulnerable and asking questions. God meets us where we are, and offers us what we need to heal, to move forward, what we need to believe.

“Jesus Changed All That”

All through the Lenten season, a gospel vision of human dignity unfolded. On the Third Sunday in Lent we heard the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman. Here we witness God breaking down all sorts of barriers: gender, faith, and what is deemed acceptable behavior. Here is a woman who is even on the outs with her own community—going to the well during the heat of the day to avoid seeing others who would look on her with scorn. Jesus changes all of that. Our faith professes that we, like Jesus, break down the barriers that divide us. Our faith professes that each and every person, no matter their identity, their past, or anything else, is a beloved child of God. 

On the Fifth Sunday in Lent the lectionary further illuminated this prayer in the stories of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37) and the raising of Lazarus (John 11). Both stories, each in its own way, make clear that when all hope seems lost, God will find a way. 

Ezekiel reminds us that in the midst of destruction, as we stand among scattered bones, broken dreams, and dashed hopes, the breath of God can bring new life. That Spirit, that breath, which brought the world into existence at the very beginning of creation, is the same breath that fills you and me. When we are trapped in the depths of despair we can join with the choirs and sing, “Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do.”[2] That breath is the animating power that allows us to love like God loves, becoming agents of reconciliation in the world. 

Lazarus and Us

The raising of Lazarus brings the idea of new life closer to home. Jesus experiences the same depths of grief that we experience as he weeps at the grave of his friend. God truly understands our experiences. God weeps as we weep. This, for me, is one of the most powerful reasons to believe in God. God is not some distant being somewhere out there disconnected from us. God understands, because God has been there before. God stands in solidarity with us, God knows our pain. God is always present, carrying us through the suffering of our days. 

When Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus, the stench of death wafts through the air. Despite attempts to persuade him otherwise, Jesus has the stone rolled away. When the grave has been opened Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” God is shouting into the depths, and as the echoes of God’s voice reverberate through death, the man who was once dead emerges from the tomb wrapped in burial cloths. Jesus says, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” 

Our faith professes that destruction, despair, and death are not the end. Our faith professes that in the bleakest of times there is always hope. Our faith professes that when the stench is strong we are called to roll away the stone. We are to be like the prophet always attentive to the word God calls us to speak—the prophecy placed on our hearts to share with the world. We are to be ready like those standing with Jesus to unbind those who have been held captive to the powers of death. 

My favorite part of this story is the moment Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” For those of us whom society has bound through all manner of unjust systems—white supremacy, anti-LGBTQ+ violence, by fear, hatred, and all other forces of wickedness—here God calls for us to be unbound. Here is God proclaiming that we deserve to be free. In an era of escalating violence, of legislatures trying to erase communities from representation and existence, when the desecration of dignity seems the goal of far too many, this is a God worth believing in. 

A Historic Case of FOMO

On the Second Sunday in Easter, when we hear this prayer in our liturgy, we also hear the story of blessed Thomas encountering the risen Lord. Now I might be a bit biased, as the rector of a parish dedicated to St. Thomas, but it is a shame that so many people have written him off as doubting. When he sees Jesus that morning, Thomas is covered in the cloak of grief, with a strong case of FOMO, having missed out on the experience the others had the week before. Jesus meets Thomas where he is, offering him what he needs in that moment. According to John, Thomas never touches Jesus; it is the invitation alone that allows him to move to a new place of conviction proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” 

In this story we learn that there is nothing wrong with asking questions, nothing wrong with being vulnerable and asking for help. God meets us where we are, and offers us what we need to heal, to move forward, what we need to believe. 

In this time these are the reasons I hold fast to my faith. I need to believe in a God who welcomes all in the face of a world that would damn those who do not fit into societally defined boxes of normalcy. I need to believe in a God who can bring new hope in the face of heartache and despair, a God who can take the rubble of our lives and build something new. I need to believe in a God who desires for me to be unbound, a God who will go to any lengths necessary to set me free. I need to believe in a God who will meet me where I am without judgment and offer me what I need to keep going. This is what my faith professes, and I pray that God gives me the grace to show it forth in my life. 

The Rev’d Dante A. Tavolaro ’17 M.Div. is rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Greenville, RI. He is a 2011 graduate of Rhode Island College (B.A. in political science) and a 2017 graduate of Berkeley Divinity School at YDS (Diploma in Anglican Studies). He serves as a board member of the Episcopal Conference Center and the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association. He is also an associate of the Society of St. Margaret, a religious order of sisters in the Episcopal Church.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer (Seabury, 1979), p. 224.

[2] From Hymn 508, words by Edwin Hatch (1835-1889), from Hymnbook 1982 (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985).