Easter begins with an earthquake.
Somehow, in all the many times I have read Matthew's Gospel, I never noticed that before. But as I read the scripture lessons for Easter this year, it jumped out at me immediately.
"After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake."
In Mark, Luke, and John the stone is already rolled away from the tomb when the women arrive. Only in Matthew does the earth shake.
It is tragically ironic that the Matthew reading was the one assigned for Easter 2011.
We were only two days into Lent this year when Japan was hit by one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history. In rapid succession, the earthquake was followed by a massive tsunami and a still ongoing nuclear crisis -- a trinity of horrors.
The suffering of the people of Japan touched a chord deep within many people around the world. It certainly did at my parish, St. Dunstan's in Atlanta, Georgia.
After the quake one of our members had an idea -- have our children make origami cranes to hang in the parish hall. Soon that idea grew to making cranes for everyone to take home as a reminder of our prayer for Japan.
Origami cranes are a symbol of peace and reconciliation. I knew that, but didn't know why until my son told me about a book he read, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a true story.
Sadako was born in Hiroshima in 1943. She was 2-years-old when our country dropped the world's first atomic bomb on that city. She and her family survived the initial horrific blast.
But almost a decade later, Sadako became ill with leukemia, the result of the radioactive fallout from the bomb. As she lay in the hospital, a friend brought her an origami crane and told her of a legend that anyone who folded 1,000 cranes would have her wish granted.
Sadako, weak with illness, set out to do just that, with the wish that she would live. She folded 644 cranes before she died at age 12. Her friends folded the rest of the cranes and buried them with her with the wish for peace and healing in the world.
Today in Hiroshima a bronze statue of Sadako stands in Peace Memorial Park. She is holding an origami crane. The inscription on the statue says, "This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world."
Through Sadako's story, the origami crane has become a symbol of peace and healing. After the September 11 attacks, the people of Japan sent more than 10,000 cranes to the World Trade Center site.
Sadako's story gave me an idea. Maybe we should make 1,000 cranes to send to a church in Japan.
We set up a crane-making station in the parish hall with stacks of origami paper, instructions, a prayer for the people of Japan, and a basket as a nest for the completed cranes.
Slowly the basket began to fill. We started stringing cranes in strands of 40 birds. The first Sunday there were five strands; then they began to grow exponentially as the idea took flight and cranes seemed to beget more cranes.
People of all ages -- children, parents, grandparents -- became what we called "the craniacs."
The cranes and prayers for Japan had become our Lenten project. But I had another concern. Traditionally we collect money in Lent for a school in Tanzania to buy mosquito nets and medical supplies. I didn't want the cranes to take away from that offering.
One evening as I watched my son making cranes, the words of a collect from Morning Prayer came into my mind. "God you have made of one blood all the people of the earth."
And I had an idea of a way to live out that prayer. We would ask people to sponsor the cranes and that money would go to Tanzania.
On Easter Sunday, Japanese Consul General Takuji Hanatani was at St. Dunstan's as we blessed 1,000 cranes. He symbolically received them, and a financial gift, for the people of St. Stephen's Church in Mito, Japan, which was badly damaged in the quake.
Coincidentally, one of Mr. Hanatani's previous posts was Tanzania. He was thrilled to learn that our crane project will also benefit the people there.
We know, of course, that these offerings are a drop in the bucket of the needs facing Japan -- or Tanzania -- and that no amount of care or prayer can take away the grief they suffer.
But on Easter morning we gathered to hear the story of the resurrection, a story that begins with an earthquake.
Easter begins in the place of death. God has not eradicated death and suffering, but with the resurrection there is always hope, even in the bleakest of times.
Resurrection is a proclamation that new life can happen, even in the midst of death and suffering.
We proclaim that Christ is risen.
And we believe that new life will rise from the rubble and devastation in Japan, from the malaria-plagued regions of Tanzania, from the war-torn Middle East and Africa, and from the suffering of our own lives.
The Lord is risen, indeed.