Today is Easter Tuesday, the third day of Eastertide, which for Christians traditionally marks a period of fifty festal days.
This past Sunday, Christians gathered across the country, dressed in their finest (or most comfy) and raised the roof with their hallelujahs. They likely greeted each other, through their digital screens, with shouts of “Christ is risen!”, to which others instinctually responded, perhaps through glitchy wi-fi, “He is risen indeed!” They reminded each other of the empty tomb and the hope that it entails. And they possibly shared hot cross buns with each other as a way to mark the end of Lent.
Yet, two days later, the world still looks a lot like Lent—somber, austere, replete with opportunities for self-denial. The U.S. death toll nears 25,000. Social distancing strictures keep us separated from family and desperate for physical touch. Social and economic inequities increase on the public front, while funerals occur without the witness of loved ones. Depression is on the rise.
At a personal level, I find myself perpetually behind at work, my wife and I experience friction almost daily, my eight-year old daughter fears the specter of anxiety at night, and my toddler son has begun to throw spontaneous tantrums (only God knows why). We also had our shower break in the most spectacular way while we watched the Easter liturgy on our computer screen, largely ruining our brief moments of joy.
As followers of Jesus, we face ahead of us a very strange Easter season. What then does it mean to celebrate Eastertide in the middle of what one clever neologist has called Coronatide? How do we choose joy when we feel only tired and dispirited? How do we rejoice in the new life that Christ’s resurrection promises when we face more of the “same old same old” for the foreseeable future?
We would do well, I suggest, to remember two important things.
First, we must remember that Easter is chiefly a promise, not a holiday.
“Easter Sunday,” writes the British theologian Jeremy Begbie, “holds out the promise of a dazzling future—resurrection life, no less—a life that can start here and now. But it’s just that, a promise, a divine promise, not a human achievement.” By this, Begbie means that Easter is decidedly un-interested in providing us with a much-needed vacation (as nice as that may be), or revitalizing the economy, or even with the reassurance that “we’ll rise up again” after COVID-19 has ceased to menace our planet.
Easter instead marks the beginning of a new Reality that utterly disrupts our own realities, a Reality that we encounter in the face of the risen One who meets us, as he did the original disciples, with the marks of his wounds still visible. Far from a utopian project, Eastertide represents a pilgrimage of the hopeful who live as a people who, by the Spirit’s power, have been made partakers of a life that belongs to the age to come, which we experience now, in this “quintessence of dust,” only as a foretaste of the promised fullness that yet awaits.
The first disciples witnessed in person the resurrected Jesus, yes, and yet they still experienced acute deprivation. They touched the wounded hands of the “Prince of Life,” to be sure, and yet found their own hands bound with chains. They glimpsed the glory that awaited them—but saw around them evidence only of Rome’s cruel oppression and untimely, heartbreaking deaths. And they did so with a resolute joy in the One who had defeated death by his own death.
For the early church, this faith in the Resurrection and the Life meant that they could be truly content in all circumstances, whether living in plenty or in want, and it was largely in conditions of want.
It meant that they could be “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed,” as saint Paul wrote the believers at Corinth.
It meant that they could love not just their neighbors, but also their enemies, to the very end, not because they thought that “things would turn out okay in the end,” but because they knew the true end of the world: life without measure.
A second thing we must remember is that Easter is about joy, not happiness, and the distinction, in biblical terms, is key.
This is something the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood well. In late 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to the “brethren” who had been his students at the underground Finkenwalde Seminary, which he had directed from 1935 until its forced closure by the Gestapo in 1937. He begins his letter by naming those who had been killed in action. About them he says: “Everlasting joy will crown their heads.”
This joy, he argues, is not an artificial joy that, like a drug, numbs the pain; it is true joy that faces the pain. Bonhoeffer writes,
“The joy of God has been through the poverty of the manger and the affliction of the cross; therefore, it is indestructible, irrefutable. It does not deny affliction when it is there, but it finds in the very midst of distress that God is there…it looks death in the face and it is just there that it finds life.”
On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer would be incarcerated at Tegel Prison, in Berlin. Two years later, on April 9, 1945, he would be executed at the Flossenbürg concentration camp. And yet he would remain unwavering in his conviction about joy. With Psalm 100 he would declare, “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever.”
As the psalms imagine it and as Jesus himself exhibits it, joy arises out of contexts of suffering, and it does not ignore that suffering. It declares itself in hope, not in a denial of reality.
This is why, for the Christian, true joy always makes space for sorrow—for the sorrow that arises from the experience of intense loneliness or one’s businesses going bankrupt or the loss of all the rites of passage that mark one’s senior year in high school or college—while happiness, as it is usually understood, cannot.
Rather than dreading this Eastertide, then, which may well be haunted the entire time by this deadly virus, I suggest that we ought to embrace as a gift.
Why so? Because we may find out now whether we believe that Jesus’ resurrection matters—really matters. We may also see how we have allowed our experiences of personal happiness and economic well-being to become indistinguishable from the celebration of Easter.
Perhaps, then, these are the perfect, even if lamentable, conditions for us to celebrate Easter as followers of Jesus. Perhaps now we will see if that promise means anything in the face of disheartening difficulties, if the joy that compelled Jesus to endure the cross means anything in the face of irretrievable losses, and if the hope of Christ’s resurrection means anything in the face of the death of a future that we had all imagined for ourselves prior to this coronavirus.
This is perhaps just another way to say that we may now find out whether the gospel really is the gospel and whether the church really is the church, an instrument of Christ’s Body in the world, able to make visible God’s beauty and love, justice and peace.
W. David O. Taylor teaches theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life (Thomas Nelson, 2020) and Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts (Eerdmans, 2019). He and his wife Phaedra created a set of illustrated Psalms Prayer Cards for individuals, families and communities to pray in light of the psalms. He tweets @wdavidotaylor; Instagram: @davidtaylor_theologian.