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The complex joy of Easter

On Resurrection Sunday we offered a reflection about the dark, complexity of Easter this year. You can watch the video above to hear it, or read the text below.

Thoughts about Easter have been consuming this past week. Some of us held out hope that the isolation would be finished or at least drawing to a close by now. Some of us have been obsessing about how to offer a service suitable to this Christian high holy day via Zoom or Facebook live.

Christmas and Easter. The high holy days, speaking to us of birth and death.

The cycle of the Christian year replays across the eons, and we respond to it with rituals and traditions which offer deep consolation and joy. For Easter, traditions include church, hymns, chocolate, and ham. This year we didn’t have to worry about buying the kids new Easter outfits, though we did need to make sure the Easter bunny was still coming.

Easter worship in 202 will be something unusual, based on what we choose to seek out or ignore. Our feasting may be modified based on what we could find on empty shelves or pull from our larders.

It will be an odd Easter, but it’s been an odd week. Yesterday was Holy Saturday, a day of waiting. The height of Christ’s passion played out on Friday, in all its majestic horror. The three cocks crowed, three o’clock came, and Jesus died. Those who were closest to him may have helped him down from the cross, pulling his torn flesh away from the spikes in his hands and feet. Feeling the warmth leave his body. Feeling his dead weight. Feeling forever distant now, from the one they loved so much.

Yes, it’s Easter. The day when we celebrate that all the darkness in the world cannot do away with light. We proclaim the incredible truth that Christ is in the world, then and now, endlessly reappearing from the darkness. We celebrate that the God who is at the center of all things, the beating heart of every particle of matter, will always transform from death to new life. But we don’t have to think that this miraculous power of resurrection means all darkness is banished.

Or that we should forget that darkness.

Somewhere between the dark night of Friday and the appearance of Mary Magdalene at the tomb, flesh and blood became God again. Just as it did when Mary conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Just as it did at the last supper, when Jesus forever transformed an unleavened loaf into the bread of heaven, and a chalice of wine into the cup of salvation. At Easter, a third divine transformation takes place, and lifeless matter is transfigured again. God is manifested in flesh again.

Jesus is alive!

Yes, Jesus is alive. But the risen Christ didn’t forget what happened. He didn’t forget the whispers of the religious elites who conspired to have him killed, or the touch of Judas’ lips in their final kiss. He didn’t forget the squabbling over his garments, or the piercing of the sword in his side. He arose, and he walked in the garden, and he reassured Mary when she came to try to anoint him one last time with her tears. He took on flesh again, knowing all that would come in the future, and the changed new world his friends would face.

The economic deprivation, the danger, the loss.

He knew there would be joy. But the joy wasn’t the kind many of our churches celebrate on Easter. A pastel-colored thing made of jelly beans and happy halleluiah hymns. It was the kind of joy, perhaps, which took place when World War II ended. That relief-based joy we see in pictures of sailors kissing young women in the streets. But as they kissed and laughed, the cities and towns of Europe were destroyed, and soldiers were sent home wounded in body and soul, and many, many lives were lost.

A dark joy. Full of gratitude, yes, but dark, like blood. Complex and murky.

There were a lot of people mourning on that first Easter Sunday. The closest friends of Jesus must have been confused and devastated by what happened, even though he’d tried to warn them.

We are confused and devastated by what’s happening in our nation, despite pandemic warnings.

They didn’t understand how this person who was supposed to be the salvation of Israel, the son of God no less, could be murdered like a common criminal. Their faith in what he’d told them was liable to be shaken. Their trust in the religious and governmental authorities must have been rocked. They must have wondered if they were also at risk. The disciples sat in this sorrow throughout Saturday and into Sunday morning, when the news began spilling out to the world, traveling from person to person, traveling in joy and lingering fear:

He’s alive!

Jesus is alive! Alleluia!

But once they found this out, the follow-on questions had to continue.

What did it mean?

What would life now be like?

Would he be crucified again?

Would they be killed if they traveled with him?

Some of them couldn’t stop replaying the pulling of his flesh from the spikes, and the way his body grew increasingly cold as they carried him to the tomb. Even while they sat with the radiant person who claimed to be Jesus, they couldn’t forget. They couldn’t help wondering:

Why didn’t he stop it?

Why didn’t God protect him?

Would God protect them?

Our Easters are likely to be like that this year. We’re joyful the promise which unfolded that first Easter comes to us again. We’re hopeful that the transformed energy of the loved ones we’ve lost and will lose will greet us when we ourselves are transformed. We’re encouraged by the message of spring, with all its ceaseless renewal of life. But our worries and fears remain.

And that’s okay. Jesus’ closest followers had heavy, joyful hearts. Jesus probably did too. If your own heart is heavy while reaching for the joy of Easter today, it’s all right. You’re in good company.

And God is with you.

Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed.


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