I forgot Andrew’s Easter egg hunt at daycare. I thought it was another day…then I got there, and all the other parents were carrying pastel straw baskets and colorful eggs. Shoot. Mom of the year, right? I rushed to CVS for a standard little basket and eggs I filled full of goldfish. I still am not sure how I pulled all that off in 20 minutes…even taped the eggs closed like I was supposed to. He’ll never know. Anyways, now that I know what he’s going to wear on Sunday and we’ve got all the Hershey’s kisses in pink foil, on to the real work of Easter—repentance and prayer and reflection, the end of Lent, the re-reading of the Crucifixion and Resurrection story.
Easter…that is, the way it’s SOLD, secular Easter, has always baffled me. I mean the candy and the colors and the spring-time aesthetic. It just feels so SILLY. Plastic eggs? Cartoon bunnies? Fluffy fake grass?
I guess I understand–not everybody cares about Jesus. And without Jesus, there’s not much to celebrate besides…spring, I guess? The flowers and grass popping up? Marshmallows and malted milk balls?
And I suppose if you look closely at the Easter Story in the Bible, the aesthetic doesn’t necessarily lend itself to cute decorations. Roman soldiers’ uniforms…long dusty dirt roads…bloody wooden stakes and gigantic nails…white cloths left in a stone tomb.
It’s always confused me, the juxtaposition of drama with cuteness. Because it doesn’t really work; the Easter Story is terrifying. It’s a story of despair barely skirted. Like the Passover Jesus celebrated before he died, it puts its protagonists through the ringer, then ends on a moment of triumph unknown in the history of the world. If you believe it’s true, you have to grapple with the characters. It’s all about humans, not bunnies. Humans of different races and socioeconomic classes, with different personalities and gifts, all faced with something they hadn’t expected, all reacting in their own way.
We get a blow by blow of those last few days from the Gospels. It plays like a climactic season finale—you’ve got everybody in town for a holiday, friends and family and minor characters converge on that setting of Jerusalem in the time of the Romans. That last supper with the low lights…the Passover dinner with all its reader’s theatre and huge courses and probably somebody’s nicest dishes. Conversations between friends, furtive whispers, disciples looking around at each other like, “are you hearing this?” Then you’ve got a peaceful garden setting for a scene full of emotion and terror, failure and clarity, and the clash of Jesus and his humble band with the forces of Religion and State. You’ve got characters sneaking in and out of here and there, somebody getting an ear hacked off, somebody running off without his clothes, interviews with the High and Mighty, crowd scenes, a cameo from Alexander and Rufus’s dad, a public execution, people crying, Jesus’ last words, and then…
A lot of time to account for our characters’ movements between Jesus’ death and resurrection. Enough time for everyone to freak out. When crises happen, my father says, people become more of who they are. And they probably all did.
And that’s the part I think MORE about, every year. What did they all do?
I like to imagine the early church in a modern setting–they’re all pretty believable and flawed, wedded to their time and place and political climate the way we are, and we know much more about them than we do about people in the Old Testament. I’m no scholar and maybe this is stupid, but I have pretty clear pictures of them in my mind, dressed in modern clothes with props in hand.
I imagine Mary Magdalene sitting in a beat-up car…waiting to view the body of Jesus. She’s praying and she’s tired from being up all night; maybe there’s mascara smudged under her eyes.
Peter rushes back to the upper room after the worst moment of his life. Maybe he goes in the bathroom and throws up a bunch of times. Did everybody else hear it? The denial, the rooster, the moment where he realized–of course Jesus had been right. He was always right.
But then, he said all that stuff–about rebuilding the temple and building a kingdom. And he always told the truth. This is what’s going on in Thomas’s mind, in a big circle…he comes back to the beginning every time…but Jesus always told the truth. Remember, Thomas was the one who said, “let us go too, and die with him.” We all talk about Thomas’s doubts, but he was ready to die, he was encouraging his friends to give up their lives if need be. And they hadn’t.
But there’s still time, somebody says–there’s still time for us all to get murdered. And what’s protecting us now? Definitely not the Grace of God. We don’t deserve it…why couldn’t we stay awake for one stupid hour? Did we NEED to eat so much at Passover that we fell asleep like kids? Why didn’t we go after him? Why didn’t we…after all the time and all the promises we made…if I were God I’d get rid of me, the thought goes. And there are ample ways that might happen. There are plenty of people wandering around still thirsty for blood…plenty of ways to accidentally knock us off…courts that appear at midnight and disappear at dawn might show up at any time. Everything happened so FAST.
Joseph of Arimathea, who I imagine in a black suit with sleeves rolled up, is on the phone with whoever he needs to talk to so he can get the tomb for Jesus. That little detail is taken care of—who asked him about it? Did he just approach Jesus’ mom?
What about Mary, Jesus’ mom? What about Mary and John? Jesus bequeaths his mother to his beloved disciple…did they cry on each other’s shoulders? Did all the women huddle together somewhere and sob, like I’ve seen them do before? Did somebody get drunk? Did somebody get angry?
And then, after all that happened so fast, nothing happens. That’s how grief works…you cry and cry and then you can’t cry anymore. Something practical takes shape…eventually somebody stopped crying and made plans to take care of the body after the Sabbath. But as for what those horrible moments looked like between the cross and the tomb, we’ll never know. Maybe that’s good. Uncertainty–that’s what they had to live with.
Did they pray? HOW did they pray? How did it sound? Did they wonder if God had abandoned them? They must have. Or maybe wondered if THEY had misunderstood God all along.
God is the one character in this story that I’m afraid to approach. Because obviously all of this was in His gigantic, eternal mind. But how? And for the sun to stop shining—to hear a child ask why you’ve forsaken them? Drew is leaning against my shoulder right now watching Sesame Street. I can’t imagine it. The thought of ‘forsaking’ him in any way makes me want to vomit. Does that much love exist? Could it be true? All the drama of the splitting temple curtain, the loud cry from the cross, a sky that darkened at noon, and finally an angel rolling away a giant stone to declare, “He is risen!”, are the visuals, the signs, that mean God is love, and that His love is harder, bigger, and stronger than even the ground we stand on. It’s crazy, you guys.
Here’s the thing, though–it must be true. I’ve circled around doubts and complaints my whole life, but I always come back to this…”I cannot un-believe what I believe.” Maybe because I’ve read the Old Testament and it all seems to point to this. Maybe because the story sounds so human, so full of REAL people, and I believe they lived. Maybe because it has so many loose ends, like real stories do, so many unanswered questions still. Maybe because I’ve felt this story pull me back, year after year, with something beautiful I can’t explain.
I’m not a scholar and I can’t argue like one. All I know is the Easter story. I know the gospels have differences, and I know those differences can be arguments for and against their authenticity. I know how nuts it makes us sound. And I know the church is far from perfect. The early church wasn’t even close to being perfect, why would we be any better?
SOMETHING happened. Or else why are we still talking about it? People DIED for whatever that something was. And if it’s all some REALLY long con, sure, we’re to be pitied more than anybody else. But we know that. Jesus told us it wouldn’t be easy. His words to his disciples ring with love and kindness, but also with warnings and realism and sorrow. There’s nothing about Him that feels fake.
So I guess it makes sense why I feel like God is the one character I can’t get a handle on–who ever could, in all the history of the world? It makes sense, you guys–He thought this through. The unapproachable God became a kid who became a man who became a teacher in his little sphere of influence who became the victim of an unjust system who ended up a publicly-executed criminal. This is why Easter is the greatest thing to ever happen in the history of humans. It’s a gross, shabby, sordid history, and this was its climactic moment.
We sang a song in church last week that I’ve listened to for a long time—“Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”. It has great lyrics near the end… “View Him prostrate in the garden…on the ground your maker lies/ on the bloody tree behold Him, sinner will this not suffice? Lo, the incarnate God ascended pleads the merit of His blood…venture on Him, venture wholly…let no other trust intrude. I will arise and go to Jesus, He will embrace me in His arms…in the arms of my dear savior, oh, there are 10,000 charms.”
We don’t have to comprehend the entire mystery of it. God knew we COULDN’T—so we have one story to re-read (told in four versions, which is crazy for the time, but one story), and one day at a time, just enough time to realize we still need the daily bread, and enough faith to ask questions, and enough words to thank Him when we do get answers. The early church did all the work of EXPERIENCING this, and letting themselves be laid bare like this for millions of Christians all through the ages and all over the world…all we have to do is enter into the story every year, every spring that comes after the long, rainy, icy, gloomy, dark winter. Everything really does point to this—even the rotation of the earth and the growing of the plants in the ground. He thought this through.
Happy Easter, everybody. He is risen, indeed.