Sometimes, I’m not sure I’m happy enough for Easter. When it comes around each year, I sing the alleluia’s that we have stopped saying during Lent, and I clap a lot and say, “He is risen indeed,” when I am supposed to. But I think that part of me is always back at the Good Friday service, or the dark stillness of the Easter Vigil, the night before. Part of me is still thinking about death.
Two years ago, I studied the resurrection and the Easter season (a fifty day period leading up to Pentecost) more carefully, for a project I was working on. As I did so, I realized that I wasn’t alone in my inability to switch quickly from despair to joy.
I watched Mary Magdalene, sobbing in the garden near Jesus’ tomb, chatting with angels, not recognizing him when he spoke to her. I’ve heard people say that he kept himself hidden from her until he was ready for her to recognize him. That may very well be true. But I can’t help but think that the last person you expect to be speaking to you is the friend and hoped-for Savior that you watched die just days before. Even if she could see through the tears, perhaps grief contributed to her blindness.
In all of the Gospels, it is Mary who brings the news back to the disciples, hiding in a locked room for fear of their lives. Mary tells them that she has seen Jesus, risen, and they do not rise and praise God. They do not shout alleluia. They don’t believe her.
A lot has happened in those days, and it’s unclear how much they know. Some dead people were walking around, the earth shook, and the curtain of the temple, the one that separated the most sacred place from the rest of the temple and the world was torn in two from top to bottom. More than any of this, they watched someone they loved and trusted die a horrible death. Fear and skepticism seem like good responses to these events (or at least understandable ones).
I grew up hearing a lot of judgment placed on poor “doubting” Thomas who wouldn’t believe until he had seen and touched. As I got closer to this story, I realized that all of the other disciples had already seen Jesus. Thomas had been absent somewhere. He was asking only for what they had already experienced.
Sometimes it amazes me that I am able to believe in the historical accuracy of these events with ease. I’ve known this story since I was a very small girl. Jesus died on the cross for my sins and rose again on the third day. Thomas didn’t grow up with this. He didn’t grow up singing “Jesus Loves Me” or reading the Bible. He didn’t grow up hearing that the dead would live forever. In his position, I have a feeling I would have been skeptical, too. Yet, as soon as Jesus comes, he believes.
Jesus seems to be in no hurry. He walks with two people walking toward Emmaus, letting them tell him all about what has been happening. He explains that his death and resurrection needed to happen, as they walk (beginning with Moses and all of the prophets, not an insignificant conversation). After this is over, he eats with them before revealing who he is. The risen Lord has time for a long conversation and a meal. He has time to listen to people who are in clear distress.
This isn’t the only time that Jesus took time for a meal. At one point, he passes through a door, so I’m guessing that the usual human rules don’t apply. Still, when he meets with the disciples, he asks for something to eat, a fish, and eats it in front of them. This strikes me as such a normal thing to do, a way to communicate that he was not a ghost or apparition, but an actual fleshy person. The rising was for his body as well, not just his spirit.
One of my favorite post-resurrection moments involves Jesus building a fire on the beach as several of the disciples fish. He calls out to them to come and have breakfast. Jesus could have ascended quickly, with fanfare and flash. He didn’t have to spend so much time just being with his disciples. But if Jesus knows all about being human, then he must know about grief and doubt and trauma. He must know about anxiety and fear, and hopelessness. Those days were a way of touching base with the people he loved, to show them that everything really was okay, just as he said it would be (even if they didn’t understand before it happened). In fact, things were better now, because the work was done, once and for all.
I see myself more in this view of Easter. Sometimes, I doubt, even though I learned to sing “Jesus Loves Me” when I was small. Sometimes I am scared and anxious, sometimes I am even hopeless. I don’t think Easter is about pushing all of this to the side and celebrating blindly. Rather, I think that Easter is best celebrated with reminders of vanquished death in the room: a cross on the wall, and communion bread and wine on our lips.
It takes time to get used to good news, time to believe that the tables have turned in our favor, that neither shoe has dropped. The weight of the nightmare lingers, long after the light has come.