Terrified at the Resurrection: Easter during a Pandemic

women at the tombDuring this time of pandemic, many of us had hoped fondly that the shutdown, distancing, and sudden rupture of ordinary life all would be over by Easter. Lent has seemed an appropriate for withdrawal, solitude, suffering, and for compassion for those who suffer more than we do. Even Holy Saturday (when I write this written-only homily) is appropriately a day of emptiness, silence, a cold and dark tomb blocked with a massive stone. A waiting game, in the face of death. But in the same vein, Easter should so aptly be a day of abrupt change for the better: bright, sunny, warm, flowers more confidently blossoming —ideally celebrating a clear (beginning of the) end of the pandemic. But while there are signs that the worst may be over is some countries (such as Italy and Spain) and some cities (such as New York and Boston), there is no neat division, suffering in Lent, healing at Easter. The resurrection of Christ does not end all suffering in so simple a manner.

The preceding paragraph is a lead-up to reflection on what is probably the first of all the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels (Paul had much to say, in a different genre, in I Corinthians 15). This is the way Mark, first of all the evangelists, puts it in his sixteenth chapter:

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. (1-6)

We find variants on this same account in all four Gospels. The empty tomb alarms the women, since something unexpected, eerie, has happened: he is not here. They knew what death is, and how to anoint the deceased; but they did not know how to make sense of a tomb that is suddenly empty; after all, neither the women nor the readers are allowed to see Jesus rising.

When this passage makes its one appearance in the lectionary, at the Easter Vigil in Year B, one more verse is added, an instruction:

But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (7)

The empty tomb is not simply an unsettling mystery; it is immediately the occasion for the beginning of the mission, to preach the good news of the Resurrection of Christ, first to the disciples, and then to all those in Jerusalem and then, to the whole world. We too may feel obliged, and empowered, at Easter, to share the hope of the risen Christ. We want to be consoled by good news on this Easter in particular – and we want to have a good word of hope, beyond the dying and death around us, on Easter and in the days to come. Yet it is not easy, since words of hope, amid continuing death, can come across as merely optimistic, clueless to the reality. When the news is still largely bad news, how can we offer hope to fellow believers, and then to a wider, more complicated interreligious population, and even to those who have no bond to the story of Christ’s dying and rising? So what to say?

the empty tombMark is wisely hesitant about quickly turning the Resurrection into ready good news. This is why he has one more thing to say in this earliest account of the Resurrection. There is verse 8, a verse that notably is never read at any Mass in the Catholic liturgical year:

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (8)

Such a gloomy ending! There are several added endings to Mark, beginning with a happier turn, inserted very early on: “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” But scholars say that verse 8 may be where Mark ended his short, difficult, rough-edged telling of the Resurrection: no appearing of Jesus, no Peter and John running out to the tomb, no disciples on the road to Emmaus — only these unsettling, inconclusive words, worth hearing again:

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (8)

These women, the ones who loved Jesus most of all, who alone and first came to the tomb, left the tomb; they fled; they were terrified; amazed; afraid – and so they had no words, they said nothing to anyone.

What does Mark mean by this? My guess is that he wanted to avoid domesticating or packaging the Resurrection, as if to make it simply a happy ending to the life and times of his hero, Jesus. He probably wanted us to stop and wait by the empty tomb, sharing in the women’s alarm and fear and terror, and spend some time in that uncertain, unprecedented space. This uncomfortable waiting would mean then to speak of the risen Christ, not simply in familiar terms — he died, but now he’s back! — but only after a certain emptiness, with new words arising out of the unknown, in what we do not have words for: witness not only to the defeat of death, but the beginning of a Life unlike any we have known thus far. The women were the first witnesses, but they simply were not ready to speak. Mark was confident that they would find their voice; otherwise even his Gospel would have been for naught.

Resurrected life is not a restoration — a return to the time before violence, before pandemic — but a new, post-life & death reality. Even earlier than Mark, Paul had grasped something of the new life that of the Resurrection, such as we hardly understand:

Someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain…What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed… (I Corinthians 35-37, 50-52)

singing during a pandemicSomething new comes about in the Resurrection of Jesus; something unheard of, unanticipated, a greater rupture than death itself: not life as we know it, nor death as we face it, but a Life beyond life-and-death, all at once, imperishable, suddenly upon us in the twinkling of an eye.

If so, then we need, once again in 2020, amid pandemic and all else that ails us, to learn how to speak resurrection-words that stop the ordinary way of things and draw people into the mystery of Life writ large and whole. But the cost of such learning may belong to those who imitate Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, who loved Jesus enough to visit the tomb where he was laid, there to suffer alarm, terror, fear, amazement, silencing – all as prelude to what can be said later, in effective words, once death, empty tomb, and resurrection have truly sunk in. So if we want to be hopeful on this Easter, but find ourselves for now still at a loss for words, not to worry: the first witnesses to the Resurrection had the same experience.

But find your own way into the mystery of Easter. I found Mark 16 best for this year, in its stark honesty, loss of words, sheer encounter with the emptiness of God — but you can explore any of the Gospels in their last chapters, and Paul too. Or, as in Lent, once more let Johann Sebastian Bach teach you, this time with his Easter Oratorio, in many places on the web, but here with subtitles. Or more simply, try George Frederick Handel: I know that my redeemer liveth , and Death, where is thy sting?

(You can find my Lenten Sunday homilies at this same website.)