Self-isolating in the Upper Room
As he reflects on our isolated Easter celebrations this year, Andy Bryant realises that we need to be seeking lasting hope, not mere optimism.
I wish we took Holy Saturday more seriously - that crucial day between Good Friday and Easter Day. In churches it has only limited liturgical expression and yet it is a day full of resonance - it is a day where much of our lives are spent. It is only after experiencing the full darkness of Holy Saturday that we can begin to understand the depth of the mystery of Easter Day.
Instead, Holy Saturday becomes a day of preparation for the Easter celebration. In times past it was the day when the flower arrangers moved in and reaped their transformative magic in churches which have been bare through Lent. It is the day when all is laid up ready for the vigil that will herald the coming of Easter and the lighting of the Easter fire. And in this most unusual of years it became a day of preparation for podcasts and live streaming.
But at its heart Holy Saturday should be anything but a day of preparation. The whole point is that there is nothing to prepare for. All is over - finished. It is rather about the impossibility of facing up to an ending, the loss of hope, the not knowing what comes next.
It is an experience that any who have been caught up in tragedy or bereavement know all too well. It is the day when messages of comfort or expressions of hope seem hollow and out of place. It brings a darkness that has to be known, faced and, albeit unwillingly, embraced.
In rushing from Good Friday to Easter Day the Church feels like the insensitive friend who, in the midst of grief, babbles about time being a great healer and tells us not to cry because our loved one is now with God. Telling me the door is open when to me it feels firmly shut is to deny the reality of my pain and hurt. Come to where I am, not where you want me to be. The true friend knows they need to stay alongside in the darkness, the not knowing, the confusion and uncertainty.
The point of the resurrection story is that it came out of nothing. It is so unexpected that when Mary sees Jesus in the garden and Cleopas encounters Jesus on the road to Emmaus, they still do not recognise him. In fear of their lives they have self-isolated in the upper room.
Even when Jesus breaks through their isolation, and appears in their midst, they continue in self isolation. Their fear for their lives does not just suddenly evaporate. It is a slow gradual dawning of unlooked for hope not a sudden burst of alleluias. And when they can fully grasp the true enormity of it all then they discover that what will lie ahead for them is persecution and martyrdom - not a simple life of happy ever after. The depth of the hope they dare to proclaim is made in the reality of the sufferings they endure not in the denial of them.
Too glibly, we quote Mother Julian that all shall be well, all shall be well. Yet her ability to utter such words comes only from her deep encounter with the sufferings of Jesus and witnessing plague all around her. Perhaps more crucially Mother Julian warns that we will be stormed tossed, but she dares to proclaim we will not be overcome.
Yes, at Easter we proclaim that the tomb is empty, and that Christ has opened the gateway to eternal life, but the risen Christ still has the marks of crucifixion. Peter eats with his risen Lord but is also told that one day he will be bound and taken where he will not want to go. This is not hope for the faint-hearted.
This Easter we are all self-isolating. There is real fear abroad, many are feeling the pain of being separated from sick loved ones and many, too many, are grieving the death of loved ones. And there seems no end in sight. We do not know how many more must die, when the lockdown will be lifted, nor how. We do not know what life will look like if/when there is a return to some version of normal, nor do we know how that will happen.
The Church may have celebrated Easter, but it still feels like we are living in that Upper Room behind the locked door. Too many proclamations of “Alleluia! Christ is risen” can, if we are not careful, start to sound hollow. This is no moment for simplistic optimism. Hope, Easter hope, is deeper and more profound. Yes, we hold onto our belief that love not death has the final say in life, that death is not the end, that new life is possible, that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.
But right now we do not know if/when resurrection will come from our present plight, we do not know what it will look like or what scars it will leave us with. We feel storm tossed and are simply praying we will not be overcome. For all the chorus of alleluias it can sometimes feel that we are holding on to hope by the tips of our fingers. Like Peter, the resurrection from this situation may take us where we do not want to go.
On this Easter Sunday, as never before, I found I could only sing “Alleluia” by squeezing hard the hand of Jesus, and my hope comes in praying with all my heart that He will not let go.
Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay.com
The Revd Andrew Bryant is the Canon for Mission and Pastoral Care at Norwich Cathedral. He was previously Team Rector of Portishead, Bristol, in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, and has served in parishes in the Guildford and Lichfield Dioceses, as well as working for twelve years with Kaleidoscope Theatre, a charity promoting integration through theatre for young adults with Down’s Syndrome.
You can read Andrew's latest blog entry here and can follow him via his Twitter account @AndyBry3.
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users.