It is April, springtime, but as I write on this bright and sunny afternoon (April 2, Good Friday), it is only 40 degrees here in Cambridge MA — not quite what I hope for when I hear “springtime.” We have some new daffodils growing in our backyard, planted last fall by a Jesuit with us on sabbatical for the year. Unlike other daffodils in full bloom on nearby streets, ours have only peeked out, timidly, no flowers yet in sight. We should not be surprised. No spring is the same as any other, as if to please us on a strict schedule, no daffodil blooms before it is ready. Spring is a season of great promise, but an art as much as a science. We will just have to wait a while longer for those blooms in the yard.
April 4 is Easter, of course, still a bit out of season this year. For the second year in a row we are celebrating this greatest of our feasts during a pandemic. Thus far there have been 130 million cases of Covid 19 worldwide, and nearly 3 millions deaths. In a way, things are better, we are no longer shut down entirely as we were last year. Our churches are open again — sort of, in a guarded, not yet familiar way, no more than 25% filled, some of us still hesitant to come, all of us wearing masks, sitting in chilly pews near open windows, participating in trimmed and truncated services, choirs excellent though reduced in size, loveliness sung through masks. Easter is here, but not all is well yet.
But perhaps this is fitting, because Easter is not just a happy ending. It really is a mystery: we have first to confront the empty tomb and the puzzle of loss – not even his body is to be found, a link to a happier past - before we meet the Christ who is alive again. The Gospel according to Mark, which we hear at the Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday night, gives us the earliest of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus:
“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” (Mark 16.1-7)
The reading at Mass ends there, but the next verse, the passage’s natural conclusion, is oddly missing from the Vigil reading:
“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (16.8)
There have been debates for many centuries about whether Mark ends with this eighth verse, debates based on technical matters having to do with manuscripts, Mark’s word choices and the Markan style, etc. The scholarly consensus is that 16.8 is as close as we can get to the Gospel’s original ending. But what a strange way for it to end, without any encounter with the risen Christ or any word from him! Uncertainty as a sign of the resurrection, trembling as life conquers death: is this not our theme, at least this year? Good news — but the women have no idea what to say next.
Things have changed radically, death is all around us, and we really do not know where Jesus is to be found in all this, though we know by our deeper instincts that he is here. Like the good women who go to the tomb, we are given good news, but we are confused, tongue-tied, and so the preaching of the Gospel begins with us too notably inarticulate. What more honest place for the word of faith to begin?
The old order passes. We worry about the future of the Church, in an era of declining church attendance, after all our ecclesial scandals, amid signs that Rome still does not know understand us. Perhaps yet again, people will not return to church. And if I follow the news and then look in the mirror, I realize that I myself am not living out the message of Jesus in the way I should. It is Easter, but what we have right now is an empty tomb. Winter lingers, April is too cold, life returns only too slowly.
Uncertainty: yes, the Church will survive and grow, but we will never again be just as we were in 2019. This past year has changed us, as Catholics too. We’ve had to practice the faith on our own, to make sure it survives. We’ve had to spend the year improvising, figuring out how to live our family and civic and Catholic lives in improvised ways. We’ve had to ritualize our faith as best we can, embodying the Mass and reconciliation and community and the real presence of Christ in our own homes at our own times, in uncertain and new ways. No wonder, like the women who hear the angel, we are a bit uncertain when we hear the words, "Happy Easter! He is risen as he said!"
Perhaps you know the Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), the great American-British poet. At the end of the fourth, Little Gidding (itself named after a small country church), Eliot muses over the idea of endings and beginnings and reminds us that every beginning is an ending, every ending a new beginning:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from….
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Eliot is not easy to understand, though many have tried (see one good effort here), but the point of these lines (quoted here out of context of course), may in part be that in our lives, in a time of death and amid loss and near empty tombs, we keep facing endings; but then life begins again, and we gain the freedom to find our way back, to end up where we started, only different, surprised that we are still disciples of Christ even after his death, after three million Covid deaths worldwide, and diminishments for a million other dreary reasons.
Or listen to Eliot's own ending to Little Gidding, words borrowed in part from the Showings of the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich:
Quick now, here, now, always —
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Maybe not roses but daffodils, sure to bloom sometime soon, though we can’t say when: after all, hope in the resurrection is an art, not a science.