By Deanna Briody
The first Easter morning dawned without bells. No one was singing. Jesus’s disciples were holed away, stricken with grief, shocked and terrified by the horrific events of the Friday before. All was lost. They had left their jobs, their reputations, their entire lives behind to follow Jesus, who they had trusted as their Teacher. They had believed and professed that he was the Son of God, the promised Messiah, the long-awaited King who would vanquish the enemies of God’s people.
He had been executed as a blasphemer two days before.
He had asked them to wait and pray with him in the garden before the arrest. They had fallen asleep. When he was taken into custody, they had denied knowing him. He had been mocked and beaten; they’d run away for fear. He had died an agonizing death, likely from suffocation, his hands and feet nailed to a cross, the weight of his own body crushing his windpipe.
“How they must have wept,” the poet Mary Oliver writes. Yes, indeed. And when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early Sunday morning when the Sabbath rest had ended, she went not with bells but with tears, her only aim to anoint the corpse of the one who had given her back her life.
But when she arrived, the stone was rolled back from the entrance of the tomb. Mary reacted to the sight of the disturbed grave with distress. She rushed to find Peter and John and, reaching them, broke the news: “They have taken the Lord” (John 20:2). John and Peter ran with her back to the tomb, and they found it as Mary had said. Jesus’s body was gone.
John’s Gospel tells us that John “saw and believed,” but what he believed we do not know, for the text continues immediately after with a suggestive note from the narrator: “as yet [the disciples] did not understand the Scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead” (John 20:8-9). Regardless of what John and Peter believed or did not believe on beholding the empty tomb, the sight was not enough to move them to any extraordinary action. They turned around and went home, the Scripture tells us, leaving Mary behind to weep.
This is the opening scene that first Easter Sunday: John and Peter lingered at home; the other disciples sat in mourning (Mark 16:10); and Mary stood alone at the tomb, unable to stop crying. No one was singing. No “alleluias” rung. And yet, at this moment in history, Jesus had already risen from the dead. He had already broken the bonds of death and trampled hell and Satan under his feet. A moment later in time, he would draw near to Mary, call her by name, and send her to preach the gospel to the apostles. With courageous obedience she would go, bearing the simple, world-altering announcement: “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).
But in the wake of this announcement, the strange quiet stretched on. Later that day we come upon two downcast disciples walking the road to Emmaus, mulling over all that had happened. When the risen Jesus drew near to them, they didn’t recognize him, and when he asked what they were talking about, they didn’t know what to say. Luke describes them as “[standing] still, looking sad” (Luke 24:17).
Come nightfall we find the disciples locked in a safehouse, anticipating at any moment the arrival of a blazing band of chief priests and soldiers, straining to listen for the patter of approaching footsteps. It was a cramped, dreadful silence that Jesus broke with his peace when he “came and stood among them” (John 20:19).
Even so, the quiet persisted. A week passed and the disciples were still hiding behind locked doors. And though their stronghold of fear and doubt was again breached by the peace of the risen Christ, there was as yet no rousing chorus, only the gasp of faith: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
This year we find ourselves in the quiet of that first Eastertide. We find ourselves at nearly every point throughout the story. We are lingering in perplexity with John and Peter. We are mourning in despair with the other disciples. We are standing with Mary before an open tomb, tears in our eyes and an unyielding lump in our throats.
We are walking to Emmaus with our heads down and our voices low. We are standing still, looking sad. We are waiting behind locked doors, afraid of what might be, of what almost certainly is coming.
But the fact of Easter is actual and irreversible, bells or no bells, worship or quarantine, faith or fearful despair: it does not depend on our feeling it. Christ Jesus is alive, and just as he came to Mary, just as he came to John and Peter and the rest of the disciples, so he comes to us. He is active while the quiet endures. He draws near to the anxious, sheltered at home; to the bereaved, deep in mourning; to the lonely, choking on tears. He is present behind the locked doors where depression and doubt preside. He offers his peace; he shows us his wounds. He comes as the crucified Jew, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3), and as the resurrected Lord, who by the scars on his eternally glorified body promises that death will not have the final word.
So even as we live on in the quiet, we live on also in hope. The Lord is risen. May even our gasps and our whispers be praise.
Deanna Briody is the manager of partnerships and international student support at Trinity School for Ministry. She attends Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Pittsburgh.