Surely you have heard the joke about the frustrated Sunday School teacher whose young students can’t tell the story of Easter. One confuses it with Christmas, another with Palm Sunday, and still another with Thanksgiving. Finally, one child gets it right, declaring, “Jesus has been in a dark cave for a long time and on Easter morning he comes out and the sun is shining down on him. Then he sees his shadow and goes back into the cave because there will be six more weeks of winter.”
Sadly, Easter morning 2020 feels an awful lot like that joke. Yes, the Cross is flowered, we recognize the tune of Jesus Christ is risen today, and we get to say Alleluia again, but it feels like Lent is here to stay for at least six more weeks, if not longer. If we offer a Blue Christmas service to help people express their feelings of sadness and loss at Christmas time, maybe this year we need to think about a liturgy for a Blue Easter service.
I feel the loss of so many of our Holy Week traditions at St. Paul’s. And try as we might to do our best under these circumstances, I suspect many of us will spend today lamenting what cannot be… droves of children scrambling around the church yard looking for eggs, a crowded and beautifully decorated church, everyone dressed in their Easter best, gathering with family and friends for an Easter feast…
And then there will be tomorrow. No matter on what date it falls, Easter Sunday always feels like the beginning of Spring. Winter is over and done. The world is open again and we are set free. But the tomorrow we face will be just like yesterday. We will shelter in place, maintain social distancing, isolate as much as possible, and try to make the best of virtual connections, but life is still going to be hard and sad and just a little bit frightening.
How can we celebrate Easter when life still feels like Lent?
A couple of things occur to me. First, our current situation shares a lot in common with the first Easter. The disciplines are sheltering in place. The doors are locked because they sense a real and deep threat to their safety. Fear dominates the mood, as does grief. The disciples have lost their leader in the cruelest way imaginable. Even the hopeful report of the woman who say they have encountered the Risen Lord does little to change the atmosphere. It only seems to add to the confusion. They have no sense what tomorrow will look like. They have no clue what to do.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples in the room where they are gathered on Easter evening. He meets them again in the same locked room one week later. Very little seems to have changed over the course of this time. The disciples are still afraid and they are still confused. Mathew’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus telling his followers to return to Galilee. This is their home. This is where they can get back to work. This is where their lives will become “normal” again.
We find ourselves in a “locked room” moment. Jesus is risen. Death is vanquished. But there is still much to fear and much to figure out. We long to be able to go to “Galilee” – to that place and time where our familiar lives return to us – but we are not there yet. No, this isn’t how we usually celebrate the Easter story, but it is (in fact) a part of the Easter story. Jesus is risen, but what it means and how it changes life takes time to discern. In many ways our day tomorrow will share much with the first Monday after the Resurrection. It will take a while for us to get back to Galilee.
While praying the daily office with you this week, I got to thinking about the people on our prayer list; all those who are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity. We all know folks whose problems are not going away because today is Easter and we get to say Alleluia again. There are people with life-threatening health issues, family or relational challenges, employment problems, and on and on. For these folks, the Monday of Easter week is another day to engage the difficult. I wonder how these people – the people whose problems don’t go away – celebrate Easter? And I wonder what can we learn from them? Sure, I suppose some approach this day with a ‘woe is me’ attitude, but the courageous and the hopeful, the ones with a fighting spirit and sustaining faith, enter deeply into the joy of this day and are grateful for the respite it brings. May their example be guide for us.
And one final thought has stayed with me throughout the week. It is a sentence of liturgy found in the preface for the Eucharist at the Burial Office:
For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended…
It describes our transition from this world to the life to come, but also speaks to every resurrection moment we experience in life. We come to this Easter deeply aware that life has changed, but the resurrection message is life is not ended. God is always at work to bring new life out of old. Sometimes this happens in an instant, but most often it is a process of rebirth and renewal. And often times we are not even aware how new life is emerging from old until well after the crisis is past and the healing is done. And so this is also a part of our celebration today, knowing God is at work in us – comforting, sustaining, and renewing.
The interesting thing about Galilee is once the disciples get back home little about it has changed. But the disciples have. Walking with Jesus, witnessing his life, listening to his words, seeing him die, encountering him risen has changed them in incredible ways. Yes, they go back to home and return to what is normal, but they don’t stay there long. They have changed and empowered by God’s Spirit they set out to change the world. I hope and pray one day we will look back on Easter 2020 and be able to say the same thing about us.