The Lord is risen! Easter is here, a time for celebration, a time for joy and glad gratitude for a promise kept and the knowledge that death shall be no more. And yet.
Today is a celebration like no other Easter Sunday we have ever experienced. Instead of a sanctuary brimming over with members, family, and visitors, alive with flowers and sunlight, we are experiencing the strange isolation of watching a YouTube video, in our homes, by ourselves, practicing social distancing and sheltering in place. And yet!
Whether we wanted to or not, I believe that you and I are experiencing a taste of what that first Easter morning must have been like. Stripped of lilies, minus the trumpets, absent the egg hunts and lacking the choirs and exultant organ music – we are still worshiping. Take away the physical reality of hugs and handshakes and hearing other voices join with ours in hymns and responsive readings – we are still worshiping. Mourning our losses, fearing the future – we are still worshiping. And so in a very real sense we can identify with the women who approached the tomb that first Easter morning.
Imagine how very tempted they must have been to give in to despair. They had walked away from their families and livelihoods and a lifetime of tradition to follow this itinerant Teacher whom they believed to be God in human form. And now he has proved to be all too mortal, and death has triumphed, and this is the end of everything.
One reason that we as a society have funeral traditions is that they give us something to do, forms we can follow when our hearts and our minds are numb and dysfunctional with grief. And that is what the women are doing here. Knowing nothing except that Jesus has died, all they can think is that the rituals must be observed, and since the Sabbath rest prohibited them from anointing the body until now, then that is what they will do.
Because they refuse to give up on Jesus even when it appears that all is lost, they become the first disciples of a new religion, one that states unequivocally that death shall be no more. But for the glory of the resurrection to have its full impact on the women, and on us, they – and we – must first experience the depths of pain and loss, something that we as a society try to avoid.
Father Richard Rohr is the director of the Center for Action and Contemplation. He writes a daily meditation that invites those who receive it into thoughtful prayer. He says: “In this time of global crisis, it may be that reality is revealing itself to us – through great suffering – universal patterns that are always true.”
The work of sacred rituals – like the anointing of the dead that brings these women out into the cold pre-dawn light on that first Easter Sunday – is “to situate life in a bigger frame,” so that everything: nature, beauty, work, suffering, and all of life’s ordinary moments – are seen as having transcendent significance. Sacred rituals give life meaning, the one thing the soul cannot live without.
“Heaven and earth have to be put together or this world never becomes home.” The women went to the tomb because, numb with grief and confusion, they did not know what else to do, and yet they felt that they had to do something. Little did they know that the sacred ritual whose origins stretched back far beyond their lives would become an initiation into a new way of being, a way of being that would bring together heaven and earth.
Father Rohr says: “In this time of global disruption, the consistent truths can help us align to reality, our own belonging in it, and remain grounded in the infinitely trustworthy presence of God.”
Death and resurrection are lived out at every level of the cosmos, but it is only the human species that thinks we can avoid death. In trying to numb and to minimize pain and suffering, and in trying to pretend that our lifespans are infinite, we have forgotten something obvious. We try to handle our suffering through willpower, denial, medication and therapy, but the reality is that we do not handle suffering: suffering handles us. It is suffering that leads us into genuinely new experiences. Suffering acts on us in deep and mysterious ways that become the matrix of new life.
Suffering is inevitable. No one goes through life without experiencing pain and loss. And ironically, we have made the instrument of Jesus’ death the central identifier of Christianity even as we use every method at hand to minimize the reality of pain and loss. Nothing less than pain will force us to release our grip on our self-serving illusions. Resurrection will always take care of itself, whenever death is trusted. It is the cross, the painfully necessary journey into night, of which we must be convinced, and then resurrection is offered as a gift. If the women knew on Friday afternoon what they will know on Sunday afternoon, there would be no point. In response to the worst pain they could imagine, the most crushing ending to the story, the darkest of all nights – they reached out to one another and they went to do what needed to be done. They did not question why they were supposed to anoint the dead. They did not seek to numb their own pain. They reached out to one another and they kept going.
Remember what Father Rohr says? “In this time of global crisis, it may be that reality is revealing itself to us – through great suffering – universal patterns that are always true.” The central reality of our faith, that Jesus allowed himself to die, is not the end of the story. The sheltering in place and the social distancing and the closures and cancellations we are experiencing are not the end of the story.
Where is the new life that we seek this Easter morning as we approach the tomb? It is all around us, if we will only see it. Landlords are waiving rent payments for tenants who are not allowed to work. Utility companies are suspending shutoffs for nonpayment. Hundreds of thousands of people are packaging and distributing meals for families who depend on the meals their children and grandchildren get at school. Loved ones who cannot be together find ways to connect through FaceTime, phone calls, and visits at the window. None of this erases the fear and pain that this pandemic is causing. None of it stops the reality of sickness and death. But in our greatest pain, we find our true selves, the answer that we have looked for all along. Yes, Jesus died. And then he rose from the grave, promising the gift of eternity to all of us. We can’t escape suffering. But we can live through it to find ourselves more connected to one another than ever before.