Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Allow me to join my voice to the many pastors across Christian denominations who today are pointing out this important truth about the first Easter: the apostles were quarantined. From the time Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane late on Holy Thursday night, the apostles had scattered. Peter and John followed our Lord to the high priest’s house and stood in the courtyard while our Lord was tried by the Sanhedrin in the dark hours of Good Friday morning. Having denied Jesus three times, Peter is reduced to a weeping heap in Jerusalem’s back alleys. John likely went as far as the Praetorium of Pontius Pilate to witness the Roman condemnation. Only John made it as far as Calvary, where with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalen and the other Mary, he stood at the foot of the Savior’s Cross. It was not one of the Twelve who offered a place to lay the Body of the Lord, but a secret follower of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, who helped prepare that sacred resting place. The Apostles, it seemed, were as broken as their hearts as the sun set that first Good Friday. Then this scattered, frightened fraternity, their number lessened by Judas Iscariot’s betrayal, huddled together in fear as the Sabbath began. As soon as light broke on the morning after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalen and the other women went to the tomb to finish the Jewish burial customs, but there they found the stone rolled away and angels telling them that the Lord had been raised. It is Mary Magdalen who rushes to the place where the Eleven are hiding to tell them the good news. Only Peter and John venture out to confirm the story, and seeing with their own eyes, they believe, though their belief is still profoundly colored by mystery.
Having seen the empty tomb, the Apostles go right back to quarantine. They stay in hiding, for they are still afraid. In the days and weeks to come, we will reflect on that first Easter season with them. They had heard the good news, heard the message of Alleluia, that Christ had truly been raised from the tomb! Yet they hid. We, the Christian descendants of that apostolic band are not accustomed to identifying so closely with the Apostles. We know the full story, we know the history, and so our observation of the Lenten season into Easter is, under any ordinary circumstance, a period of self-discipline and spiritual purification. Easter marks the day on which we celebrate the triumph of Christ over sin and death, and, in a lesser way, our own triumph in the Lenten season over our passions and appetites. Not so as Easter 2020 dawns.
This Easter we find that the fear of the Apostles is far more relatable. We too have endured a period of uncertainty. We feel scattered and perhaps alone. For some, only one or two members of the household venture out. Our uncertainty about this viral pandemic keeps us in quarantine waiting for the all clear to sound. While we wait, let us take advantage of this opportunity to understand the Apostles. They spent Easter, not celebrating, but wondering. Filled with a joy they could barely contain, they also burned with questions. For us the good news of the Resurrection must be a source of joy! It must fill us with hope! The Apostles lived with the fear that being seen outside would lead to their arrest and execution, yet they knew He had been raised. The Gospels read on the Sundays of the Easter season tell us of Jesus’ multiple appearances to them in those days when they were in isolation, hiding in the upper room. We will read that Jesus came to them in spite of locked doors, in spite of fear, in spite of their doubts. And when they did venture out – see Emmaus, and the unsuccessful apostolic fishing trip – He came to them so that their faith in the Resurrection would be confirmed, and that their joy might be restored. After forty days, the Apostles were still waiting and wondering what they were to do when they spoke face-to-face with Jesus for the final time. After the Ascension, they waited another nine days until Pentecost when the Holy Spirit finally drove them out of their hiding to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world.
Our time in quarantine is a mirror. It is a time that both reflects the Apostolic self-quarantine and our own fears, insecurities, and concerns. Easter, I think, dawns at exactly the right time. For the only way we can confront the reality of suffering and death is with the confidence that there is victory after it all. The only way we can persevere through forty or fifty (or more!) days of doubt is if that doubt is informed by Good News. For all their questions, for all their fears, for all their doubts, the Apostles always had the words of Mary Magdalen echoing in their ears. The tomb is empty. As this Easter season begins in a time of pandemic and suffering, let those words ring in our ears, too. The tomb is empty. Let this time we spend in “hiding” lead us into the glory of a new Pentecost, when with the Apostles, inspired by the rush of the Holy Spirit and confident in the truth of Christ’s ultimate victory over sin and death, we will go back out into the world echoing Mary Magdalen’s joyful message. The tomb is empty! He is risen! Alleluia!