by Todd Donatelli
Each Easter season I feel the dissonance of our tradition informed liturgical behaviors and our Gospel texts. We arrive Easter Sunday to grand displays of flowers, to boisterous, triumphant music, arriving in dress a bit elevated from other Sundays, shouting the long, Lent awaited Alleluias, declaring as boldly as we know how that our Lenten work of repentance is past and all is overcome by the faithfulness and obedience of Jesus who is now understood gloriously as The Risen Christ. Prayers, hymns, processions, let alone eggs strewn on the lawn, reinforce that indeed in the course of the church year this is clearly one of the two most glorious festival days.
The dissonance for me comes in the Gospel text for the day and in the texts for the next several Sundays of Easter. The texts are equally adamant in declaring the first witnesses to Jesus’ life are anything but triumphant neither three days after his crucifixion nor weeks after his crucifixion. They are in fear Easter morning and will remain in fear for weeks to come. They are hiding. They are having trouble believing what they are seeing. In fact it takes more than a few appearances of Jesus before they are able to begin comprehending, let alone living from, what is appearing in their midst. The Risen Jesus, The Risen Christ is not initially recognizable. The Risen One does not immediately calm their fears. The Risen One is not one they quickly band around.
I have some thoughts as to why the Church in its traditions has overwhelmed the biblical texts of resurrection to bring us Easter as we know it.
First, we fear the abyss. We fear emotional/physiological/cognitive/spiritual emptiness. We are unnerved in times when our foundations are not simply shaken but torn away. We hate staring into the vacuous emptiness of loss. For truly experienced loss connects us with the reality that elements of this loss will never return. It is recognizing not only ‘you can’t go home again’, it is recognizing that home as we knew it no longer exists. In this space is also the recognition, the embodied experience, that we are in this moment without a home- truly adrift emotionally/spiritually/cognitively/physically.
Second, we loath despair. If the very love of God will not only be trampled but extinguished- actually extinguished, truly physically assaulted, beaten, brutalized and put to death (and not just in Jesus but in the prophets before him and in prophets since), for what can we hope? If the historically established, consistent reward for speaking God in culture is violence, who wishes to countenance this? If the true cost of discipleship includes Jerusalem not only for Jesus but for us, what will be the consequence of our choosing faithfulness with God?
Third, anthropology shows we do not value, let alone like, weakness and vulnerability. We want strength and we want it now. We want to know that we have, not will, overcome. We want to know we are in control now- even if everything inside us is trying to tell us otherwise (and the cost to our bodies is the sign of our cognitive charade).
Finally, we do not like the unknowing of all of this. We are unmoored by not knowing if, how or when these abyss moments will evolve.
What the Easter Season Gospel texts bring us is the abyss, fear, weakness and vulnerability. Courage returns on the day of Pentecost. Unknowing carries the Season of Easter.
Given the above I am not surprised at what appears in our churches Easter morning. For what does it take to stay in the abyss? What does it take to accept that choosing the abyss over the many mood altering choices of our culture (including our religion) is finally a medicine of life? It is not a coincidence that worldwide attendance on Good Friday is about 1/5th the attendance on Christmas and Easter. What does it take to show up on Good Friday and remain in the abyss for as long as it takes? What has been the experienced fruit of staying with and exploring our abysses with trustworthy companions and guides?
As well, what is the cost to us as a species if even the Church cannot help us stay present in and live in a full season of abyss? What is the cost to us as a species, to nations and communities when we are not given the space to live communally in abyss; when we are not able to learn its offering?
What our ancestors have given us in these Gospel texts is a massive gift. They are saying, what abysses are you currently experiencing? Where is your hope being unmoored? Where are the foundations of your communal life being shaken and torn apart? Where have you found life trampled and abused? They are saying, we have been there as well. Our ancestors and your ancestors have been there as well and what we have found is that for those who gather together in the heart of the abyss, not pretending it is not there but staying in its emptiness, find their way. The gift of these texts is their honesty about the path to Pentecost and a new heart; a restored heart about which the prophets also proclaimed.
Do not hear me suggesting we remove the outward and visible aspects of Easter morning. Hear me instead offering to us a communal invitation. Hear me offering a communal invitation to choose a sacred dissonance, a sacred unsettledness, during the Season of Easter. May we take to heart the proclamation of the Easter texts: Lent has called us to the death of former understandings and practices. Finding our new life, our new way of being, takes time and is an unknown and fear laden path. For those who find ways to hold together with one another in the abyss, Pentecost awaits.
The Very Reverend Todd Donatelli is Dean of The Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, North Carolina