My grandma’s ashes are on my bookcases in a striped canvas bag. She died in December after an unexpected and intense two-month decline. To add insult to injury, my dog was diagnosed with lymphoma three weeks later. Cue two more months of death watch. His bodily breakdown included mid-night trips outside to pee every night (him, not me) and feeling the full brunt of sleep deprivation (me, not him). Last Tuesday, the tumors took on a life of their own that finally ended his. Last Thursday, I got him back and took the liturgically apt opportunity to add ashes to ashes. He’s in a box next to my grandma.
Death, in and of itself, disorients the living. While the ashes collect dust, my 92-year-old grandpa is dreaming about my grandma going for walks and not coming back. He hears her calling his name at night. He’s adjusting to life without his partner of 64 years. I pull in the driveway and catch myself looking to see if the dog is waiting for me at the fence. It’s a habit the age of a fourth grader.
Lent has been – as my friends say – heavy, deep and real.
And now Easter is imminent. On the other side of Good Friday, churches will boldly proclaim resurrection, the post-cross crux of this whole thing called Christianity. They’ll break out the brass, tune the trumpets, and warm the choir up to hit those high notes early in the a.m. I bet you know who among you will flip the pancakes, discard shrouds in favor of paisley dresses and patent shoes and deck out the sanctuary with dazzling-white daylilies.
I’ll be honest. After five months of holding beloved, dying creatures – not to mention attempting to be a functional working adult at a new job in the midst of it – my emotional inertia is not in sync with the liturgical calendar. Neither certainty, boldness nor any of these shiny Easter traditions feel authentic to my heart or head. It’s similar to how the well-intentioned “at least they’re with Jesus now” comment always falls flat. Blessedly, the cultural and liturgical traditions of Easter are not scripture. As I was reading Mark and John, I couldn’t help but think that we get ahead of ourselves, even on Easter.
Here’s the thing. In both of the gospel accounts, the first and predominant emotions in the earliest Easter moments are not triumph, joy or jubilation, but rather grief, fear and bewilderment. Women head to the tomb to care for Jesus’ murdered body. In John, Mary Magdalene alerts the disciples about the missing body with enough urgency that they take off running toward the tomb. Nobody is quite sure what’s going on. She weeps and doesn’t recognize Jesus until she hears him call her name. He tells her he’s back, but to quit holding on because he’s got to get going. In Mark, the Marys and Salome are alarmed to find a young man sitting in the tomb. He shares the good news. Despite admonitions not to be afraid, they flee, “seized” by terror and bewilderment – because when does it work to tell someone how they should feel? Never. Case in point – fear prevents them from sharing any of this experience. There’s no happy resolution in that pericope. It ends with fear.
Death, in and of itself, disorients the living. Adding life after death into the mix is totally foreign, completely overwhelming, literally unrecognizable. In my 33 Easters, I don’t remember a church spending much time in this bewildering, liminal space. Instead, we usually skip ahead in the story, declare victory and toot some horns about the vanquishing of death. Yes and. In doing so, we aren’t fully present to these texts, and that leads to a missed opportunity to create space for people to whom Easter does not feel real. People whose grief or pain is their most present reality; people who need to weep. People whose bodies carry the marks of tomb-dark experiences and uneasy feelings. People who find it near impossible to imagine what life looks like on the other side of heavy, deep and real.
As Paul says in Corinthians, “I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain.” So, I’m going to own the nature of my “I am” this year by hanging out in the Easter bewilderness with Mary, Mary and Salome. You’re invited. If the whole empty-tomb-resurrection-thing disorients you, you’re in good company. When you have trouble recognizing Easter, you’re not alone. If it all leaves you not sure what to believe or whether to talk about the things you’ve seen and heard, join the club. When the pancakes don’t sit well, when the shiny shoes are a bit too tight, when you feel more akin to dandelions than daylilies, you’ve still got a seat with the saints. That reality, to me, is its own Easter grace.