Easter Sunday is always the culmination of a lively liturgical season that seems to begin in Advent, picks up pace in Lent, and becomes a full on sprint in Holy Week. For many of us in the church the joy of Easter is accompanied with a sigh of relief. Easter afternoon is for clergy what seeing its shadow is for Punxsutawney Phil: give us a nice six-week nap and we will be good to go again.
Given all of this, I am loath to even mention something called the Octave of Easter. It is an ancient tradition of celebrating Easter over eight days – the first being Easter morning and the last being the following Sunday (known as “low” Sunday because it signals the end of eight days of festivities). I don’t know many churches that do much with the Octave of Easter, but a quick glance at the prayer book reveals there are collects and assigned readings for each day of the week following the Resurrection. And, as I noted last Sunday, the Octave always ends with the story of Thomas touching the wounds of Jesus and coming to believe.
Think about how much energy we put into Holy Week compared to how little we put into the Octave. Now, I am not suggesting we start a new liturgical tradition here at St. Paul’s, but observing the Octave might help us to do one thing. It might help us to experience Easter more in alignment with how the disciples experienced it.
That first Easter morning the disciples are not flowering a cross or singing Jesus Christ is risen today. Most are in hiding, seeking safety behind locked doors. A small group of women go to Jesus’ tomb early in the morning, perhaps to tend to the burial needs of the corpse. These women discover the tomb empty and receive a message from an angel telling them Jesus is risen. They leave the scene to pass on the message, but do not seem to believe its content until they encounter Jesus.
Now the women dash to where the disciples are hiding, but the men dismiss what they have to say as being “idle talk”. From John’s gospel we learn two disciples go to the tomb to see for themselves. They look inside and find it empty, but there is no indication they believe Jesus is risen. The disciples do not even leave their hiding place to fan the city in search of their resurrected leader.
Today’s reading takes place on Easter day sometime after all of this unfolds. Two disciples decide to leave Jerusalem, perhaps to return home after the Passover. They are talking as they are walking. At this point a stranger approaches and asks what they are discussing. They lay out the story of Jesus concluding with the “astonishing” report of the women.
The story they tell provides an important clue into their mindset. They say, “We had hoped he was to be the one to redeem Israel.” “We had hoped...” As a fan of the Cleveland Browns, you have no idea of the number of draft choices we can say, “We had hoped he would be the player to turn around our losing franchise.” “We had hoped” stands for putting your faith and trust into something, only to have it fail. “We had hoped this investment would provide for our retirement.” “We had hoped this time he could stay clean.” “We had hoped this new treatment would be the cure.” For the two disciples walking that day, the events of the past three days brought an end to their habit of hoping in Jesus.
Easter Day for the disciples is a day marked by fear, uncertainty, grief, and dashed hopes. For one or two of the women it must be a day of total frustration – they can’t get anyone to believe they saw Jesus – and perhaps self-doubt – maybe they didn’t see what they thought they did. In our rush to celebrate the Resurrection we skip past all of this. We miss the opportunity to connect our own experiences of fear, uncertainty, grief, frustration, self-doubt, and dashed hopes with theirs. The Octave of Easter is designed in part to help us walk with the disciples through this day and all its perplexing elements.
Perhaps no Easter story is more bewildering than the one we read this morning. The Risen Jesus walks with two of his followers and describes in great detail how the last three days need to be understood as a fulfillment of Scripture, but they never suspect who he is because “their eyes are kept from recognizing him.” Only at a meal through the sacramental moment of breaking bread do they come to “see” Jesus, but then he vanishes. By the time they return to Jerusalem, the other disciples now believe Jesus has risen because he appeared to Peter, but the details of this encounter are not recorded in the bible.
As we read last Sunday, at some point Jesus himself appears in the room and imparts the peace of Holy Spirit by breathing on them. This is another element to add to the Octave: a calmness and tranquility emerging from a time of chaos and fear. You will remember Thomas is not present for this incredible moment and refuses to believe unless he touches Jesus’ wounds. He will get his opportunity on the eighth and final day of the Octave, giving us a whole week to ponder our own doubts and to reflect on the building block experiences forming the bedrock of our own faith.
We were deeply moved on Palm Sunday by the reading of the Passion and our own participation in it by shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” It connects with a deep realization we are not as faithful as we ought to be and there are moments when we turn our back on our Lord. I wonder what it would feel like on Easter morning for us to participate in the story of the Resurrection by saying something like, “It can’t be, can it?” or “It just isn’t possible.” What would it be like to come to the service fully aware of all the things giving you pause in life – all your fears? What would it look like to bring your sadness and grief, your confusion and uncertainty, your frustrations and self-doubts? What would it look like to bring with you all of your dashed hopes? What would it look like for you to sit in the pew just to see if maybe something might happen to eclipse it all with joy and calm?
Perhaps one thing these stories tell us is hearing about the resurrection is not enough for the transformation to happen. It requires a personal experience with the Risen Christ. This moment may come through the studying Scripture with others. It may come through receiving the bread and wine. Or it may come in so many other ways that are deeply personal. My hope and prayer for each of us is we will have moments when our eyes are able to recognize Jesus is (or has been) in our midst. Encountering the Risen Christ changes everything.