Easter without crowds and people??? Not celebrated in our beloved buildings??? Say it ain’t so! Doesn’t the pandemic realize this is the biggest day of the church year? That we never have crowds like we do at Easter? That if it weren’t for Easter, the sanctuary wouldn’t be crammed to capacity? That we couldn’t inflate our yearly attendance averages without the numbers on Easter? Doesn’t it care that Easter is essentially about crowds coming together? Children traveling home to celebrate with parents, and grandparents relishing in precious time spent with grandchildren? And that taking place within the church’s walls? Doesn’t it know that we have so many traditions around Easter that involve congregating together? Rubbing shoulders and bumping into each other as we hunt for eggs? Crowding around a table and sitting elbow to elbow as we are sated by our favorite Easter meal? Does it not understand how much effort we put into making our building beautiful on Easter? That at no other time of the year – save possibly for Christmas – are we as proud of our sanctuary’s glory, decorated from “head to toe” with lilies and palm fronds? C’mon Corona! How can we have Easter without buildings and people???
Yet this Easter it will be so. But there are two essential aspects of the Easter story as recorded in Matthew (28:1-10) that should give us hope. First, there is no community that encounters the risen Jesus. Whereas there were crowds of people who experienced his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the resurrection is much more of a private affair. Only Mary and Mary Magdalene witness Jesus raised on that first Easter. Even the disciples are presented with the risen Christ later, in another location and separate from these women. In fact, it is the same in the other gospels as well. Over and over Jesus appears to individuals, pairs or – at most – small groups of people. Not once does he appear raised from the tomb in front of anything resembling a crowd or multitude.
Moreover, when Mary and Mary Magdalene encounter the resurrected Christ, their first impulse is to grab hold of him. To which Jesus unequivocally states, “Do not hold on to me.” As if it underscore that his resurrection – and the Easter celebration itself – is about something more than physical things. Sure, we associate many of our mountaintop moments with the bricks and mortar of our sacred buildings. And because tradition requires sameness, we tell ourselves that if Easter is meaningful, it is because we celebrate it the same way, with the same people, in the same place. But in not allowing Mary and Mary Magdalene to hold on to him, Jesus gives the freedom to see the truth of the resurrection independent from our traditions – beloved though they may be.
So while we will do our best to broadcast an online worship service that offers images of our sanctuary decorated with lilies, and offer ways to communicate with one other as a faith community online, our real task and obligation is something greater. It is to point one another back to the ancient story of that first Easter. To find in it the hope that there was no tradition to uphold when Jesus rose from the tomb. His resurrection was anything but traditional. There was not a single precedent for it. Just as there is no precedent in anyone’s memory for celebrating Easter the way we will be forced to this year.
And yet??? Jesus rose. He rose without a crowd to celebrate it. He rose without a building to house it. And he will rise this week as well. He will rise above the constraints and complications of our earthly existence. And he will want to carry us with him - as he rises – so that we might see the possibilities for hope and redemption that he sees. Sure, it would be nice to be able to give witness to that truth, and celebrate it, collectively. But in that we, each of us, will bear witness to it at all, we will be doing so together. And that togetherness was never meant to be contained in any one building or by any one crowd. Thanks be to God!