The women come to the tomb, early in the morning, with their grief and their spices, to anoint the body of their beloved Rabbi, Jesus.
But nothing is as they expect. Nothing is what they have prepared for. At the tomb, the heavy stone is already moved away. In the tomb, there is no dead body. Instead, they find an unfamiliar young man. He says:
“Do not be alarmed: you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here… 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.”
All around the world, this Easter morning is different than we expected it would be. So many traditions cannot be carried out. So many gatherings cannot be held. And the churches are empty. Hundreds of thousands of sanctuaries, full of memories, full of prayers, full of beauty, are still empty in the absence of their congregations. They are silent, without the glad greetings of friends and strangers, the singing and ringing and organ playing, the solemn pronouncement of scripture, the patter of small feet.
These empty sanctuaries are signs of loss: the loss of our rituals of celebration, and more tragically, great loss of human life. And yet, like the tomb, our sanctuaries’ emptiness holds the promise of life. In this case, life conserved; life protected; life cherished.
Nothing is as the women expect it to be on that first Easter morning. And Mary Magdalene, and Mary the Mother of James, and Salome are given a task perhaps even harder than embalming the body of their teacher. They are asked, instead, to trust the fantastic news that Jesus has been raised. To trust this news, and to share it.
The weight of this awesome task is most obvious in the version of this story we receive in the Gospel of Mark. The last verse of the whole gospel reads: “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.”
If you find that you have no Alleluias ready today, or not much holiday cheer: take heart. We are keeping Easter in a more biblical fashion than usual. This Easter Sunday, the tragedy of Good Friday is so close, that the idea of love triumphing over death may be too amazing, or even too terrifying, to believe.
This past Lenten season, I had planned for a caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly theme. I was hoping we would get live caterpillars, too, to accompany the ones on clothespins in the hallway. We would watch them grow, and then release them on Easter.
But, as it happened, I spent most of the past few weeks learning new technologies, and dealing with the flu, and homeschooling. I did not get any caterpillars.
So, we’re going to have Easter season caterpillars instead. Let me tell you, when they arrived on Monday the caterpillars were not very impressive: tiny, unattractive, and entirely still: appearing almost certainly dead. But within a day or two, they started moving. Now they are almost three times as large, eating and shedding their skins at an alarming rate. I’m starting to think that they really might make something of themselves, with time.
Easter is strange and surprising this year, hard to accept. But really, it’s always been that way. The church season of Eastertide is 50 days long because it took Jesus’ disciples 50 days to come out of hiding. It took the folks closest to Jesus 50 days to mourn and pray together, locked behind closed doors, before they could then trust in and act on the good news they had received.
So let’s take it slow, this year. We’ll have butterflies a little later in the Easter season. At our house, I’m planning to do Easter crafts for weeks. Meanwhile Spring is coming to New England; the tulips will be here, soon, and the peach tree outside the church just started to show some pink buds. Instead of finding Easter in our beloved church buildings, we’ll need to seek it out in the world. News of great generosity and surprising hope and amazing collaboration emerges every day, even in the midst of a pandemic. All of us will need to be paying close attention to the signs of Easter we can find: and sharing them with one another, for encouragement.
Here is some good news: we can’t do Easter wrong. That’s because Easter is not something that we do. It’s not dependent on us. Easter is something that God does, and God is still doing it. God took a tragic death and turned it into an opportunity: going down to dwell with the dead, breaking the gates of hell, bringing hope to the people, birthing the church, and rising all the way up into heaven. We’re just the witnesses, scared and awe-struck. Even the most faithful among us may feel the urge to run away.
Please pray with me. O God, your love, stronger than death is hard for us to fathom; terrifying in its beauty and power. Stay with us, as we try each day to put our trust in you; as we witness you, each day, bewilderingly alive, all around us. Amen.