By Frank Stevens
Not long after Christmas, there was some mention during opening announcements before the church service at St. Mark’s, London that we needed to rethink how flower donations were done. The poinsettias we had for Christmas didn’t go as planned, and it was suggested that at Easter, we could not have Easter lilies as we had some allergies in the parish.
I remember the woman in front of me shaking her head and saying what a shame. And it was a shame. Easter has a fragrance and it is lilies. Easter has plastic eggs and empty cardboard tombs, crosses wrapped in white and a boisterous “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” with an “Alleluia” that somehow has 10 syllables.
Easter 2020, it turns out, I would have given anything just to be back at the foot of the altar. There was no plywood stone rolled away, no purple cloaked crosses, no lilies or tulips or paschal candles or foot washing or anything. And there was no Eucharist.
This Easter, feeling quite empty of those things that meant and mean so much, I sat in front of my little makeshift prayer corner and read the Gospel of John. So little in common with the Easters I know, having already skipped over the liturgies of Thursday and Friday, Sunday almost felt obnoxious, like the triumph of Coronavirus over our communities.
And as I read, something hit me square between the eyes. Mary Magdalene, leaning over the empty tomb, weeping: They have taken my Lord away and I do not know where they have laid Him.
And then it was my turn to do the weeping. I cried as I read. Because that is my story now. Our story. This story can never have that little dash of a grin that it used to, we are no longer in on the joke. We have always known Jesus is risen, hiding behind her, ready to say: Mary! And change her tears to ones of joy and change our lives forever.
As I sit, alone, with my bible in my hand and a candle I purchased many years ago sufficing as a worship tool, pretending this is Easter, I am leaning against an empty tomb, crying: They have taken my Lord away and I do not know where they have laid Him.
As Christians, the Eucharist is the source and summit of our life. Yes, common prayer is wonderful; yes, being in community is wonderful; yes even worshipping God is a powerful thing. But the Eucharist is so much more than that. It is us coming to God, and God coming to us. A wonderful exchange of all that I am, all my failures and betrayals, all the love I have for God and all the love I have kept from Him…for all that he is. In that moment, we are not two but one. He in me and I in Him. All the strength that I need for this spiritual journey, all the love that I wish I had, all the love that I wish I could give, all that I am not and all that he already is becomes intermingled. Such a lot of pressure to put on a wafer! But it is so much more than that. It is Jesus. It is Jesus in all his love, all his self-giving, crucified-died-and- was-buried love, all his on-the-third-day-he-rose-again glory all given to us out of this same love. To love us, and to teach us how to love him, and to teach us how to love others.
And we cannot have it.
They have taken my Lord away and I do not know where they have laid Him.
One of the most painful pieces of the Good Friday church, with all its altar stripping the night before, is the tabernacle hanging open, the Eucharistic body of Christ taken away to an altar of repose, symbolically hidden. And then what glory to see Him put back where he belongs, the sanctuary light burning brightly before him once again when we return on Easter Sunday.
But that is what struck me, realizing that I know what she felt, Mary Magdalene. I am not smiling because she is weeping for what she has already gained back again, I can no longer chuckle and wonder why she didn’t see Him standing there supposing Him to be the gardener. I am weeping with her because I know now. To wander in this brand new world, with latex gloves, N95 masks, 6 foot distances in-between us in the grocery store, and what’s more no Eucharist. I am sure she knew to pray. I am sure she was a good follower of Christ, knew her scriptures, some say it is she that sat at the feet of Christ listening to His words, wept on His feet, anointed Him, and watched Him suffer. But now this final indignity for someone she loved. There is anger in her voice. Anger in mine, too. When I see her in movies, she says in a little lost girl voice, they have taken my Lord away and I do not know where they have laid Him. But we know the same things she knows. How to pray. How to listen. How to do liturgy with all the bells and whistles. This is not what’s missing. It is Him. Every liturgy of the word, every daily office, every devotion reminds me that they have taken Him away and I do not know where they have laid Him.
This particular Good Friday, where we are all alone and at best can watch online just like any other YouTube clip, stings. There was no Sunday in the taste of this Friday. The empty tomb is not exciting, it is not the happy ending to take the blood and nails and corpses away. This time I stood weeping with her. Do I continue to pray, read my bible, trust that he is somehow “in my heart”—whatever that means—while gazing at bloody linens and no Eucharistic, shared, sacramental, tangible, loving and lovely Jesus in sight?
But here is the hope. And the hope I am holding on to as we wander through this.
Mary Magdalene, through her weeping, through her rage, through her spinning around to who she thinks is the gardener -who has the audacity to stand in the middle of a graveyard garden and ask her why she was crying-spits out if you have moved Him tell me where you have put Him and I will go and get Him. As if she, alone, could lift the wrapped body with all its hundreds of pounds of spices already packed on and just put everything back the way it had been before. She cannot. I cannot. We cannot. But it is Jesus she is saying this to. In her rage, her pain, her tears, it is not for nothing. It is the price of love. He is standing there, unrecognized, waiting, loving, calling her by name. And what happens next does not put anything back where it belongs. The tomb is not closed again so Jesus can decay and rot with pounds of expensive perfume and spices covering the stench. No, He is risen. He is not undead, un-died, reanimated or resuscitated, He is not back to business as usual, He is risen. Perhaps we won’t go back to normal. Perhaps we never should. Perhaps this crucifixion of the way we used to do things was needed so that we can be raised up with Him into a body of Christ that knows itself much more than it ever did.
They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have laid Him. But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t right here with me right now. I will weep with her, outside the empty tomb, but I will hold onto the hope that because it is empty Jesus is not locked up alone and dead but alive. Somehow. I do not know where they have laid Him. But still, He sees me, and wonders why I am weeping. And soon, somehow, someday, we will—all will-be together again in the Eucharist.
Frank Stevens is a parishioner of St. Mark’s, London.