Easter as it is usually celebrated will not take place this year because of the coronavirus. The typical Easter with huge crowds and multiple services will have to wait until next year. Choirs will not sing. Processionals will not parade down the center aisle. Trumpet fanfares will not be played and lilies will not surround the pulpit. The big-budget Easter extravaganza is a no-go this year. The typical Easter has gone the way of March Madness, the NBA playoffs and the MLB’s season openers. Like the shows on Broadway, Christendom’s Easter finale will not happen this year.
This past week N. T. Wright wrote, “There is a reason we normally try to meet in the flesh. There is a reason solitary confinement is such a severe punishment. And this Lent has no fixed Easter to look forward to. We can’t tick off the days. This is a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow.”1 Wright’s empathy and compassion for suffering humanity in the throes of this global pandemic is expressed beautifully. Lent is lasting more than forty days this year, and there’s no telling when it will end. But all that means is that Easter is coming in the middle of Lent this year, and not at the end. As we enter Holy Week, we still have Easter to look forward to. And now more than ever, the liturgical rhythms of grace sustain us. Easter is celebrated on April 12th this year.
Easter as a cultural phenomenon is a casualty of the pandemic, just like everything else that’s canceled or put on hold. Remember the Texas megachurch that advertized their Easter services as the “ultimate giveaway” with $2 million worth of “door-prizes”? Along with 16 new cars and hundreds of HD flatscreen TVs, the pastor offered the “ultimate” giveaway, “the free gift of heaven and Christ.” That kind of celebration is not going to happen this year. Nor will there be any church sponsored “Eggstravaganza” this year. But the Easter that is being postponed this year, the Christendom Easter and the cultural Easter, provides a meaningful opportunity for the church to experience the first Easter in a fresh way.
The first Easter Sunday morning began sad and sober. All the disciples awoke filled with grief and uncertainty. The two Marys “went to look at the tomb” (Matt. 28:1). It was still dark as they walked to the tomb carrying spices to embalm the body. They were crying as they walked, wondering how they were going to move the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. Suddenly a violent earthquake shook the earth, but the earthquake did not roll back the stone sealing the tomb, an angel did. The angel of the Lord came down from heaven and “rolled back the stone and sat on it.” On that very first Easter there was no need for any added drama or man-made hype. Extravagant musical performances came later. Earthquakes and angels marked the occasion. The Roman guards fled when the angels appeared.
The story of the first Easter isolates on Mary Magdalen as she stands outside the tomb weeping. A contrived narrative would not have highlighted women as the principle witnesses in the unfolding and unexpected Easter drama. In Mary’s mind, the body of Jesus was stolen, desecrated and unceremoniously dumped somewhere. There was no shortage of realism in Mary’s imagination. She imagined the worst as she looked inside the tomb. She beheld two angels in white, “seated where Jesus’s body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot” (John 20:12). “Woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked. Mary sobbed, “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him.” Her heartache was palpable. Mary turned around to see the gardener. Through her tear-filled eyes she did not recognize Jesus. He asked, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” She said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Each word in her insensible comment is burdened with weariness and perplexity. She was willing to do anything to assuage her grief. But Jesus only needed to speak her name, “Mary.” She knew the voice of Jesus. Mary cried out, “Rabboni!” “Teacher!” Person-to-person with her risen Lord, Mary was confronted by a resurrection reality that no one imagined. Her resurrection faith was independent of religious aesthetics and homiletical drama. One wonders if our Easter efforts are not designed to cushion the blow of modern disbelief. The spectacle overshadows the underlying question, does anyone really believe this stuff anymore? Probably not, unless you hear your name on the lips of Jesus.
The women ran to Peter and John to say, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2). When Peter and John ran to the tomb and discovered its emptiness along with the discarded grave clothes, they took note of the evidence. John saw and believed. Faith dawned in a troubled heart that was not predisposed to believe. Suddenly the tomb’s emptiness filled John’s mind with meaning and reality shifted in his world.
The sadness of the two Marys gave way to fear as they hurried back to tell the disciples. Matthew says that they were “afraid yet filled with joy” (Matt. 28:8). The phrase captures our experience of Easter this year. Like these two early disciples we are, “afraid yet filled with joy.” In the throes of this pandemic we are afraid, but in the midst of our human frailty and vulnerability, we rest in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. Mark ends his account of the resurrection with a description of the women, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). Unlike any other Easter we have ever experienced this may be how we feel on Easter this year after all the live streaming services and the Zoom Bible studies. The women ran back to tell the disciples who were in lock-down for fear of a crackdown on Jesus’ followers. We can identity with the disciples “sheltering in place” this Easter like never before and the immediacy of Jesus’ presence is what we need and long for. This year the stark reality of faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus will not be overshadowed by spring fashions and Easter dinner.
There is no humanistic explanation for the transition from grief’s resignation to resurrection hope. The first Easter, and every other real Easter ever since, lies on the fault line between unbelief and belief. Easter does not celebrate the great assumptions shared by Christendom crowds. Religion as usual will not happen this year and no one is going to say, “Nice service.” But the tragedy of the moment in all of his pain and sorrow, points to the reality of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Easter celebrates the truth of the one who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:25). If we waited for the tragedy of our human frailty and vulnerability to run its course before celebrating Easter, we would be waiting for the Second Coming. Easter in 2020 takes us back to the grief and sorrow of the first Easter and fills us with resurrection hope. There is an answer to the stillness of “a poised and anxious sorrow.” Easter joy.
Dr. Douglas Webster is professor of divinity at Beeson, where he teaches Christian preaching and pastoral theology.
1 N. T. Wright, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It's Not Supposed To,” TIME (March 29, 2020).