Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, describes Peter addressing Cornelius and his household. Peter described how Jesus began his preaching in Galilee and cured and healed. Jesus was then betrayed and killed. But three days later Jesus rose from the dead and was reunited with his apostles who continue to proclaim all that Jesus taught. John’s Gospel describes the scene when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that it was empty. Thinking someone stole Jesus’ body she ran to Peter and John who came to the tomb. Seeing it was empty they finally understood that Jesus came back from the dead.
Where is everybody? Today is Easter Sunday and we’re supposed to see crowds, not only those we see every week but also people who almost never go to church. We’re supposed to see adult children who spend this weekend with their families and come to church out of a sense of nostalgia, or wistfulness or (let’s face it) guilt.
We’re supposed to see boys with clip on bowties and girls in brightly colored dresses. Easter baskets filled with egg, peeps, and chocolate Easter bunnies.
But today we aren’t gathered together. Today most of us are socially isolated and we are left to watch Easter services online. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for the technology that allows this to happen. But after a lifetime of celebrating Easter in crowds, how do we celebrate the Resurrection in isolation?
Well, perhaps we can look to the first Easter. I’ve always been struck by how Jesus’ Resurrection was so….quiet. Mary Magdalene, perhaps one of Jesus’ greatest apostles, came to his grave to mourn. She had no expectation that he would rise from the dead, she only came to mourn.
But on that first Easter she saw something that neither she nor anybody expected. She found….nothing. No stone in place, no body, no dead Jesus. Nothing. In her panic she feared that Jesus’ body was stolen. Even then she didn’t recognize what Jesus promised. She didn’t believe that he would rise from the dead: it was only when Peter and another disciple did they first understand why the tomb was empty.
But as Christians we recognize this. In the years, decades, centuries, and millennia since this event we’ve built celebrations recognize the unbelievable. And we’ve been faced with the challenge of how we celebrate how Jesus defeated death and how the empty tomb that Mary Magdalene found ensures that we will live forever.
And so as we spend Easter watching worship online how do we celebrate Easter?
I think this calls us for a new imagining of ourselves and Eucharist. We’ve always believed that our celebration of the Eucharist calls us to a Divine place. And I think it calls to a place beyond time. As a child my family would spend our vacation visiting grandparents and other relatives in Massachusetts. Their church was both old and huge (at least older and bigger than my church). My grandfather would often wake early to go to mass in French. Mass was either 5:00AM to 6:00AM; I don’t remember which, frankly as a teenager it didn’t matter. Vacation meant sleeping until 10 and I normally went to a later mass.
One day it struck me that because we were both celebrating the Eucharist we were, in a sense, celebrating it together. And not just he and I. I recognized that I was in the same space as my maternal grandparents when they married there in 1937. I was in the same space as my paternal grandparents in 1918. And so on and so on.
The reality is that while this Easter we are not in the same place, Eucharist means we are in the same space. Eucharist, if it does anything, calls us together and unites us. We celebrate in Communion not only with those who would have set next to us in the same building, but with each other across the miles (or kilometers if you’re not in the US or England) and across the years.
And so perhaps the best way for us to recognize the Risen Jesus in the very emptiness and isolation that we are all feeling. Perhaps it calls us to see through the eyes of Mary Magdalene and the other early apostles who found the greatest fullness in the empty tomb.
Let’s face it: these are hard times. In addition to a global pandemic we are also watching world events with an eye towards a frightening economic downturn. Many of us fear for our jobs, our life savings, and perhaps our very livelihood.
These are not made up fears and those who tell us to simply ignore them are simply wrong. But this is the time to listen to the smartest person in the room, not the most delusional or fearful. Much like the influenza pandemic of 1918, the pandemic of 2020 will be well known a century from now.
And how do we want that story to be written? Let the story be written like this: It was a scary time and many people did not survive. But it brought people together often using new technology. We showed how many industries pivoted away from profits and used their skills to build new ventilators. We showed, in ways large and small, how neighbors reached out to each other and found the things that were needed. Legions of us learned how to make cloth masks and gave them away knowing it would cut down on the infection rate.
Let us make Easter of 2020 a time that our isolation brought us together and our fear emboldened us. And let us keep these things going when we are celebrating Easter of 2021.