What is Easter? – Francis Alvarez SJ

How did you wake up today, Easter Sunday? With great joy and hope overflowing from the Easter vigil you attended the night before? With relief that finally Lent is over and you can eat meat again on Fridays? With dread that the short vacation Holy Week afforded is over and you have to return to work tomorrow? Or did you wake up as if it were just any other day?

How did Easter morning find those closest to Jesus? In what Scripture scholars say is probably the original ending of the Gospel according to Mark, the women who went to Jesus’ tomb expecting to anoint his dead body are seized with trembling and bewilderment. They say nothing to anyone about what they see (or more importantly, not see) because they are afraid (Mark 16:8). In the Gospel according to John, Simon Peter and the beloved disciple run to the tomb but leave without understanding what had happened (John 20:9). Maybe things will be better come Easter evening. But at nightfall, where does Easter find the disciples? Hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews (John 20:19).

If Easter has truly come, why is there still trembling, bewilderment, fear, and lack of understanding? Look around you. The Church tells us to celebrate Easter, but even among those who planned the liturgies that are supposed to communicate joy, there is jealousy, bruised egos, and passive-aggression that will last beyond Pentecost. In our families, there is disagreement and hurt. Jesus’ first word to his disciples on Easter is “Peace,” but that remains a dream. There is still injustice, poverty, and death. How then can we truly say “Happy Easter”?

An Easter story: Recently, a couple for whom I celebrated a fifteenth wedding anniversary Mass invited me to dinner. I was ready for a stress-free night with friends, but after the waiter had taken our orders, the husband told me he had just been laid off. I immediately regretted what I had ordered and wished I had gotten something cheaper. This must have shown in my face because the wife quickly said, “But we are OK.” The way she said “we” struck me. Then they proceeded to tell me what had happened. When the husband found out, he immediately called his wife. He simply said, “I lost my job.” His next words to his wife struck me again. He asked her, “Are you OK?” This struck me because at almost the same time, according to their story, the wife had also asked, “Are you OK?” The man had just lost his job, but what he was worried about was if his wife was OK. The woman was just told that half their income was gone, but what she was really worried about was if her husband was OK. Then they told me, “Father, do you still remember what you told us when we celebrated our wedding anniversary?” I tried to remember, but all I could recall was that the Mass was on the first Sunday of Advent. The man rescued me: “Father, you said that Advent is the beginning of the Church year. You told us that though we have been married for fifteen years, we should see ourselves as always beginning. There is always something new to learn about each other, something new to discover, something new to begin again. I lost my job. So… we are beginning again.” That dinner was sometime in the middle of Lent, but that night I already wanted to say to this couple, “Happy Easter!”

Easter does not mean that our trials and missteps are behind us. Easter means that we can always pick ourselves up and begin again. We may not have a supportive husband or wife to be there for us, but Easter tells us we will never lack love. Easter is God loving us enough to die for us and loving us more than enough to rise again for us. Easter is God telling us we will never be alone. In our suffering, he is there. In our resurrection, he will be waiting for us.

Another Easter story: In a friend’s parish some years ago, the rite of blessing and sprinkling with water on Easter Sunday was accompanied with dancing. A woman twirled down the aisle holding the sprigs to be used for the sprinkling. Let us pause here for a moment. In your minds, how do you imagine this woman? Perhaps you are thinking of a young lady, lithe and limber like a ballerina. But in this parish, the dancer chosen was past middle age. Her wrinkled face spoke not only of her many years but her many hardships as well. A few parishioners chuckled at the varicose veins her white dress revealed as she pirouetted. At one point, she almost tripped, but somehow she recovered and with a laugh, continued to dance. I later learned that the woman was just pronounced cancer-free earlier that year. But six months before this, her husband had died of a heart attack. This had wiped them out financially. They had no children to help them. She did not have a steady job. If you ask me, she did not have a lot of reasons to dance. Yet, there she was. And after Mass, she was there greeting everyone, “Happy Easter!”

Easter does not mean our problems just miraculously go away. We celebrate Easter, but our bodies will still get sick and grow old. We sing of light and hope this season, but darkness and despair will still come. So what is Easter? Easter is God’s fulfilled promise that these will also not be the final word. Cancer may return and bring death, but there will still be life after.

“Happy Easter!” This may be easy to say on the lighter side of things. But what if you are still stuck in the dark and the promised dawn is coming later rather than sooner? Much of the trembling, bewilderment, fear, lack of understanding, and doubt which Jesus’ friends experienced that first Easter, they underwent before they were visited by the Risen Christ. Maybe this is what we need also – to really encounter the Risen Christ. You might say (rolling your eyes), “Well, if I met the Risen Christ, too, I am sure hope would come easy. But many of us are not as blessed as Mary of Magdala who heard Jesus say her name outside the tomb. I am like Thomas – I need to see to believe.”

I have not seen the Risen Christ with my own two eyes, or with my own two ears, heard his voice call me. But on the many roads to Emmaus I have traveled, dejected while running away from the Jerusalems that have brought me sorrow, I have met friends who lose their jobs but are not afraid to begin again, heroes who lose almost everything but still find reason to dance. In them, Christ has risen. How can I not believe them when they say “Happy Easter”?

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