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After a Holy Week disrupted by death, an honest Easter

We are heading into an Easter that stares straight into the eyes of death and empire and still declares love stronger than the grave.

“Holy Women at Christ’s Tomb” by Annibale Carracci, circa 1590. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) — Death is always disruptive. Long before the pandemic, even a “good death” was a rupture. As a loved one slipped beyond our grasp, we would stop our daily routines to attend an 11 a.m. funeral. This pandemic, however, has disrupted even the final disruption of death. We no longer stand in lines at funeral homes to pass along our regards to the family for fear of passing along also a deadly virus.

How we die, and how we mourn has been disrupted.

This year Christians are contemplating Jesus’ disruptive death in a Holy Week like few others, except perhaps the first. Surrounded by so much death we can barely leave our homes, there will be no egg hunts allowed, no Easter speeches from children claiming their own words of liberation, no “Hallelujah” choruses, except maybe a recording online. I am grateful for the wise pastor who declared that whenever we are able to safely gather again, that Sunday will be Easter Sunday.

Even the president, arguably the most powerful political person in the world, attempted to claim Easter as an “economic resurrection day,” before his machinations were thwarted by the sheer magnitude of deaths from this plague.

Last week, a pastor whose congregation is composed mostly of people who live without stable housing said to me: “All our other Holy Weeks have prepared us for this Holy Week.” Her community will surely face an unequal share of death in a pandemic that has already shown, as if we needed confirmation, that death comes much quicker for some in this unequal society.

This Easter, we look death squarely in the eye, as Jesus did, and weep. We cannot look away, as much as we try to distract ourselves with other things. A sickness unto death is everywhere we turn. This is not the Easter I hoped for, not the Easter I want for my people.

Yet this Easter strikes me as the most honest Easter in my entire life. There is no more playing dress-up.

I became a Christian in 1995 at the foot of a 12-foot wooden cross in suburban New Jersey. We had attired ourselves in Bible costumes made from bedsheets and walked barefoot 3 miles through town, just like Jesus on the Via Dolorosa.

Twenty-five years later, I am still stunned that I stuck with Jesus and Jesus stuck with me. This Holy Week, I cut up old sheets to make protective masks for my neighbors and myself. I barely know how to live through this. I venture you don’t much, either.

I have never pastored through a plague before, but the church has. I’ve steadied myself by turning to the stories of Bishop Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, black Christians who cared for white neighbors during the yellow fever of 1793. I’ve reread “Angels in America,” about AIDS in New York in 1983, and just started Geraldine Brooks’ “Year of Wonders,” about the plague in England in 1666.

I’ve never felt more grateful for the stories of Exodus. What helps me is turning to prior disruptions, and learning from the faith of our ancestors. It is the only way I know to make sense of this death, and cling to hope of Easter.

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On Easter morning, the Jewish followers of Jesus were trying to do what they always did when someone died — bury the body and mourn according to their religion and following the practice of their ancestors. The way their mamas had taught them.

“The Holy Women at the Tomb” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1876. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

With spices and oils and cloth tucked under their arms, dry sand under their feet, before the city awakened, the women went to the tomb to enact the mourning rituals.

Depending on who you read, it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome. Maybe also Joanna. But it was always the women, the deeply faithful women doing what dutiful women have always done. Women without whom we would have no testimony of Easter. 

When the Gospel writer Matthew tells the story, there is an earthquake at the tomb, with an angel descending and the guards fainting. Mark’s retelling is quieter, with the stone already removed and a young man dressed in white, awaiting the approaching women. In Luke, the women enter the tomb easily, “perplexed” to find the body gone.

Then, in the Gospel of John, it is Mary Magdalene alone who encounters the absence of a body. For so many families of the dead now, when death comes, out of pandemic precautions, they too are encountering the absence of a body.

In every version, from every angle, Jesus’ death and resurrection is a disruption to the women’s familiar Jewish rituals of burial. During this pandemic, every mourning ritual in every culture is disrupted and upended. No Jell-O salads, no Irish wakes, no home-going choirs, no sitting shiva.

But for those who choose to walk in the way of Jesus, the disruption of his death and resurrection is also what offers us hope. We hold fast to the claim that God in God’s self is disrupting death’s usual course by dying. We need not fear death because even God knows it, too. So we never die alone, no matter the pandemic precautions. No matter if there is no one else in the room, God is with us still.

At the Massachusetts Council of Churches, where I serve, we wrote a guide with public health officials for pastors on how to safely conduct Christian funerals during the pandemic. One of the hardest parts was imagining how to pastor a grieving family without touching. We advised: “Keep your Bible/prayer book/iPad in your hands at all times. Tell the family in advance that for your safety and theirs you will minimize physical contact. This will feel painful and strange.”

Everything these days feels painful and strange.

Yet I refuse a silver lining upon this plague. There is no upside to deaths that could have been prevented by a more diligent government response. I chafe at feel-good stories of church sewing circles constructing cloth masks to compensate for insufficient N95 protections for frontline medics.

There is no silver lining with so much death. What there is, is a massive disruption.

After disruptions, there can be honesty. My comfort, ill-fitting as it is, is in an honest Easter that stares straight into the eyes of death and empire, and still declares love stronger than the grave.

My comfort is the risen Christ outside the tomb, saying to Mary Magdalene “Do not hold on to me” and knowing she felt this disruption, too.

(The Rev. Laura Everett is a United Church of Christ pastor in Boston and is executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. She is the author of “Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels.” Follow her on Twitter @reveverett. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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