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Imagine it, if you can: everyone began that day just as they always had, finding their way to the market, checking in with their family and friends, trying their best to maintain the “normalcy” of their lives with the strain of existence pressing on their shoulders. The hearts of many in that small community were broken with his death. The faithful women went to the tomb to care for his body, as so many faithful had cared for the bodies of so many. Then, something strange happened.
Something happened to that small community that shifted the entire way they understood their lives, what was possible. Veils were torn in two. Stones were rolled away. That shift in the trajectory of reality has led us to gather on this day. Think about that continuous line of prayer, worship, and community that has flowed for over twenty centuries: the Communion of Saints.
For us in our time, we know what to expect when this day draws near. We know the story so well, and we know our cues within our community. We have our routines and patterns–or at least we did until this year. This year, reality has changed for us, and our perspective has shifted. Something strange has happened and we find ourselves suddenly approaching this sacred observance with a heightened sense of awareness. We are paying attention in such deeper ways–and for that, to be honest, I am most thankful. To me, it feels like Easter has regained just a bit of its original strangeness. I hope some of this added intention soaks in when we feel the urge to “return to normal.”
As Christians so entrenched in the patterns of our culture, it is easy to lose sight of the holy strangeness of what we now call “Easter,” which perhaps, if we’re honest, had become a bit rote. In no way do I discount the beauty of the liturgy, but I do wonder if we were moving along at such a speed, with such numbness and routines, even, that the significance of this day really wasn’t sinking in our souls. In reality, that day of resurrection was the absolute upending of the order of things, a breaking down–a breaking through, really, an apocalypse and an epiphany–of God’s presence into the world through the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This moment was truly strange, unheard of, and the holy strangeness of it is the source of our hope.
Even the name of the day itself is strange, when we think about it. The English word “Easter” comes from a German fertility goddess, Eostre, the goddess of the dawn and fertility. Hence how the sun rises in the East, with the dawn. In many countries, the word “Easter” is not used at all, but rather some form of the word “Pascha,” with its roots in the Jewish feast of Passover. This is where we get our “Paschal Candle” in our liturgy. With the development of Christianity as a religion, you can see how different words or names, taken from existing feasts and observances, were adapted to describe the strangeness of this resurrection event. The blossoming Christian community asked “How can we describe what has happened with the Resurrection of Jesus?” Words fail, yet our souls need to keep trying, through prayer, poetry, hymns, stories, and art.
That dynamic–struggling to adequately describe the reality yet craving to do so–living into the strangeness of it all, this feels so true to me this year.
Now don’t get me wrong, there has definitely been strangeness in some of my Easter observances. There was the year, when I was a child, when my Great Aunt Margie jumped out of the Azalea bushes in my Uncle Gip’s white long-johns with large paper ears on her head. All of the terrified children ran screaming and crying as fast as we could. Now that was strange.
But the holy strangeness we are talking about completely reorients the way we live our lives. And, why is it that such intense moments of suffering and strain so often crack open the complacency of our hearts so that we can see more fully the importance of a practice of prayer? What stirs up within us in moments when our grasping slacks off just enough that we realize we really are being held in God’s embrace?
I thought again of that wonderful image from Annie Dillard. It’s from the essay “An Expedition to the Pole” in her volume Teaching a Stone to Talk:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk. Harper and Row, 1982)
Dillard in her own way describes these moments of encounter when the holy strangeness of God washes over us and we find ourselves upended, shifted into a new perspective, our hearts opened more to an awareness of the Spirit’s indwelling presence.
So here is what is stirring up in me during this month: as I reflect more deeply on this story–taking the time I have to really delve more deeply into my practice of prayer–I discover that the holy strangeness of God is really highlighting the unhealthy strangeness of the pace of life that we experienced before. The truth of our practice of faith is that we experience disorientation from our complacent ways of living and are reoriented to “new lives of grace” as our baptismal liturgy reminds us.
So, I would ask you on this Easter Sunday: what has felt strange to you, when it comes to your prayers and reflections in these days? What has surprised you, with the Spirit’s movement in your life? What has felt upended? Yes, there is grief and anxiety and we should never simply sweep by it. But there is also something else going on, I think.
Perhaps your idea of “faith” and “religion” really did consist in just following through the motions, and now you are experiencing something else breaking through, some new whisper of life speaking through the pain.
Perhaps your awareness of God’s presence has been expanded ten-fold as you see fellow human beings embodying deep compassion as they care for others. If we want to talk about strangeness, nothing speaks more plainly than the love we are witnessing in the midst of a too-often arrogant and selfish culture. Where is that love coming from?
Perhaps something is coming alive within you. Perhaps you are coming alive again! Perhaps your understanding of prayer has moved from the periphery of your life to the center, rearranging things within your soul so that you feel that yearning to consent to God’s loving presence.
Yes, something strange happened that day, long ago. Something really strange. And thanks be to God that the strangeness continues on, inviting us into new life and hope. And love. Most definitely love.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
April 12, 2020