On Good Friday, the enemies of Jesus must have thought that it was over. “One less Jewish rebel,” the political authorities might have congratulated themselves. “One more blasphemer, Sabbath violator, friend of tax collectors and sinners dead,” the religious leaders might have comforted themselves. “One less one-world race mixer,” the racial purists might have sighed. With the death of Jesus, they thought it was over.
Even Jesus’ friends and disciples thought it was over. By the time of the crucifixion on Good Friday, the Gospel of Mark says that the disciples had “all forsaken him and fled.” (Mark 14:50) According to the Gospel of John they went into hiding, fearing for their lives. (John 20: 19ff.) They thought it was over. All the Easter accounts in the Gospels have differences, yet each is consistent on this point: Mary Magdalene, perhaps Jesus’ best friend, is always first to reach the tomb. Mary is one of the followers most reluctant to give up Jesus. She went to the tomb early on Sunday morning to grieve. Even Mary thought it was over. When she saw the empty tomb she just assumed that someone had taken Jesus’ body away. When she saw Jesus standing there in the garden, she didn’t recognize him. After all, she thought it was over. But then Jesus called Mary by name. Only then did she know that it really wasn’t over.
Of course, we moderns are skeptical. We want to see for ourselves the empty tomb. We want assurance and certainty that the women were not telling an “idle tale,” or having a delusion brought on by the trauma of the death of their beloved friend.
We can’t rediscover the empty tomb, but we might want to look at Jesus’ closest friends and see what they found. Over the next days Jesus’ followers did see him. The scripture honestly reports that they did not all see him in the same way. Some have him alive and people holding on to his feet. One has a disciple touching his hands and side. Another has him eating fish for breakfast. But in one text Jesus’ cautioned his followers not to touch him. Then there are other texts that have him walking through walls into locked rooms. One account says that in the days after the resurrection some of his followers recognized him but others didn’t. Some were sure of what they saw; others weren’t. But within a matter of weeks, what they were all certain of was that their friend and teacher Jesus, who had been dead, was alive and somehow present with them. Their confidence that Jesus was alive was so real and so powerful that within thirty short years there would be Christian communities all over the Roman Empire, as far away as Britain to the west and perhaps as far as India to the east, a sociological phenomenon almost as incomprehensible as someone dead being made alive again.
It wasn’t over! It isn’t over! What’s changed? Jesus’ life and ministry was not just a candle that burned brightly for a few years and was forever extinguished. For all the reasons why Jesus was killed, if he somehow lives, it means there is hope. People who are oppressed and abused have hope. People who have been excluded from God’s love by the religiosity of self-appointed gatekeepers of God’s grace have hope. People, no matter their faith or creed, have hope. People who are alienated from God, separated from God by their own willful actions, have hope —Jesus lives and God still stands on the front porch looking down the road longing for our return home. Because Jesus lives, we all have hope.
In the earliest centuries of the Church when according to Roman law it was illegal to be Christian, there was a tradition observed in some places when new Christians were baptized as the sun began to rise on Easter morning. The assembled would face east toward Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead. Then, they would turn west toward Rome and spit, a symbolic rejection of the power of mighty Rome.
In the first of his “Hinges of History” series in which he tells the incomparable story of St. Patrick, Thomas Cahill concludes by saying,
Perhaps history is always divided into Romans and Catholics—or, better, catholics. The Romans are the rich and powerful who run things their way and must always accrue more because the instinctively believe that there will never be enough to go around; the catholics, as their name implies, are universalists who instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family, that every human being is an equal child of God, and that God will provide. The twenty-first century, prophesied Malraux, will be spiritual or it will not be. If our civilization is to be saved—forget about our civilization, which, as Patrick would say, may pass “in a moment like a cloud of smoke that is scattered by the wind”—if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.
Even if this isn’t the Easter story your mother told you, maybe it will be the story you will tell to your children and grandchildren. I hope so. Happy Easter!