The Hepu River delta on the South China coast has long been known for producing beautiful pearls. In the 2nd century AD, during the reign of Emperor Huan of the Eastern Han dynasty, the local residents harvested the pearls and used them as currency for food. As the pearls were strongly desired domestically and internationally, the county officials were lured into corruption, forcing the farmers to hand over all of the pearls for the officials' own personal enrichment. Emperor Huan himself is known to this day as being famously corrupt. The story goes that as a result of the depletion of oysters, there were fewer pearls to harvest, the residents could not buy food, and a famine ensued.

During this time, Meng Chang became the chief of Hepu County. Known for his morality and righteousness, Meng implemented many reforms—including a sweeping prohibition on local officials seeking personal profit from pearl production. Within a year of Meng’s term, the pearls returned to the Hepu in ever increasing numbers, lifting the local community back into a state of wellbeing. The locals believed that Meng’s benevolent rule earned the favor of the gods, who allowed the pearls to return to the river. This story gave rise to an idiom, pearls returning to the Hepu 合浦珠还, which now refers to the regaining of something after a long absence.

Absence. In the gospel reading from Easter Sunday, we read how Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb and found the stone removed (John 20:1) with just some burial clothes left behind (20:6-7). This sense of absence has confounded many in the church for years. Where is Jesus when I need him? Why do I not hear God’s voice? Where was Jesus in the middle of my shame? In a sense, it may seem the river of our lives is devoid of any pearls, and just mud and sludge that the river has picked up somewhere upstream.

Mary certainly felt this absence, as she stayed by the tomb and wept (20:11). As she mourned, two angels, and then Jesus himself, appeared to her. He called her by name, “Mary!” (20:16). He reminded her that he wasn’t absent at all, and that she should go and tell the others to believe.

As we struggle with the absences in our lives, the Easter gospel reminds us that Jesus is with us. As we weep, he calls us each by name, telling us of his miraculous rebirth. Meng Chang was a righteous man during a corrupt time, but his virtue brought hope—and then the resulting prosperity. Jesus brought the light of God to the people during a repressive regime, but through his resurrection, brought us hope and the abundance of new life. The Easter celebration reminds us that Jesus is not absent, and we only need stand in righteous faith to receive the ever-increasing supply of pearls he has in store for us.