I've heard a multitude of terms used to describe our current state of enforced home stay: lockdown, quarantine, shelter in place -- the official order here in California. New York state is "on pause," which captures the sense of suspended animation of these days, as if we were all caught in a giant game of freeze tag, waiting for someone to run by close enough to make contact and set us free to move about our daily lives again.
Reflecting on the familiar Easter stories this year, I am noticing something for the first time: a pause, a moment in the story just before the surprise and joy of the Resurrection takes over. I'm drawn to this pause, a space where the characters in the story realize that something out of the ordinary has taken place, but before they recognize the risen Jesus. The pause might last only a few minutes for Mary Magdalene or a few hours for the disciples walking to Emaus or even a whole week for poor doubting Thomas, but it seems to be there in every encounter.
In John's Gospel, Mary goes to the tomb early and is dismayed to find the stone moved and the tomb empty. She rushes to find two of Jesus' best friends, who race to the grave, find it empty except for the grave clothes, shrug their shoulders and go home. Mary has come to grieve, and so she stays, crying over this new loss -- Jesus' body has been stolen, insult added to the devastation of his death. How long does she stay there weeping? We aren't told, but at some point she leans over and glances into the tomb, and there are two angels sitting there.
When did they arrive? Peter and John didn't see them. They ask a simple question: "Woman, why are you crying?" She tells her tale, "They have taken my Lord, and I don't know where they put him." And then Jesus appears behind her, unrecognized, asking the same question, listening to the same sad story.
I hear such invitation in the question. Tell us the story, they seem to say. Let us hear about your loss, your broken heart. It's the invitation anyone in a place of grief longs to hear -- who was this person you lost, what did he or she mean to you, what is the geography of the empty space left in your life? I supposed in the past I've heard a hint of approbation -- dry your tears, don't you realize what's going on here? But no, today the empty tomb seems to perfect space to contain Mary's grief, to let her drain that cup to the dregs. She is not clueless, blinded to the identity of the man who stands before her as some dramatic device meant to make the audience feel smart as we rush toward the "good part" of the story. She is perfectly honest, true to reality as she sees it -- and how else was she to see it in that moment?
There are moments when the appalling reality of a world holding its breath hits me. When I hear from the student we sponsor in Belize how grateful she is to have received a box of groceries, ensuring that her family will eat this month as they are sheltered at home. When the business owner in New York calls to inquire about software, his voice fluctuating between confident planning for the future and the crushing losses in his family and circle of acquaintance. When I think about the graduation my daughter won't have and wonder what college life will look like for her. Each of us could come up with a similar list with items ranging from trivial to tragic. The pause in the Easter stories invites us to bring our sorrow and disappointment, our overwhelm and just plain grief and hold it in that sacred space. Who knows how or when the Risen Jesus will call our names and invite us into the true joy of Easter?