Along with every other Christian on the planet, I’m contemplating the empty tomb in the midst of a pandemic.
Before COVID-19 descended upon us, celebrating Jesus’ resurrection might have seemed like a grand, liturgical “Ta-da!” The agonizing notes of Holy Week had faded away. The resurrection was the final chord that brought all the storm and stress of the Passion to a satisfying, joyful closure.
But this is a weird Easter. We will sing “The strife is o’er” huddling in our homes, wondering how much longer this epidemic will last. The other day I thought, “It’s sort of like celebrating resurrection right in the middle of Good Friday.” And just saying that to myself brought on an “Aha!” moment.
The resurrection is not some isolated event that will happen to us after we breathe our last and leave death behind once and for all. We participate in resurrection right now in a pattern of dying and rising. We lean into it. We grow in a new kind of life by being what Paul called “in Christ.” We become a “new creation” by opening ourselves to Christ’s love. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
To be in Christ is to be in relationship with Christ. That’s not the same thing as being doctrinally correct about Christ. It’s about being changed by Christ’s love for us. Christ’s infinite love. Making space in our hearts, minds, and souls for the risen Christ to dwell in us.
Christ is infinite love. We are finite. And so there is only one way to make room for him. We have to be stretched by that love. An old, narrow, false self has to die for a new, true self to emerge. Not just once. But again and again. That’s what eternal life looks like: a process of dying and rising.
For those of you who have read my last book—A Resurrection Shaped Life—it may seem odd for me to admit to having this epiphany yet again. After all, in those pages I joined authors like Peter Enns and the late Marcus Borg in saying that, during this life, we emerge again and again from some version of Good Friday into new and larger life.
Well, you see, we don’t get our heads—much less our hearts and lives—around the resurrection all at once. Not even people like me who have a habit of writing about it. Not even Jesus’ own closest friends. Just look at John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection.
Early on the first day, Mary Magdalene approached the tomb. She was stunned to see that the large stone barring the opening had been rolled away. So, without getting any closer, she hurried back to tell the apostles.
On hearing her report, John and Peter raced to the burial site. Mary Magdalene trailed behind. John got there first but drew up short, peering into the tomb from the opening. He caught a glimpse of the dead man’s linen wrappings.
Peter didn’t hesitate. Plunging right in, he saw those linen wrappings, and he also spotted the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face. Someone had rolled it up and placed it aside. Finally, John squeezed in beside Peter. And, as the Gospel says, he believed.
Getting your head and your heart around the resurrection doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a process. John and Peter had heard Jesus talking about being raised from the dead for some time. But what Jesus had meant was only slowly hitting them.
They weren’t just clarifying their theological concepts. Jesus himself was gradually, invisibly changing them. They were becoming a new creation.
Peter and John returned to where they had been staying. But Mary Magdalene lingered alone, hoping to find Jesus’ corpse.
The risen Christ appeared to her. She took him to be the gardener, so she asked him about Jesus’ body. He spoke her name,“Mary!” She recognized him and reached out to embrace him. “Don’t hold on to me,” he said. “I haven’t ascended yet.”
That seems like an uncharacteristically cold thing to hear from Jesus. But, I invite you to try reading it like this:
“We’ve been really close, and it’s good to be with you. But I can be more to you, closer to you, than you realize right now. And you can be more truly you than you’ve ever imagined. But there’s going to be a lot of stretching and a lot of letting go involved. What do you say?”
This is a weird Easter. But then again, resurrection should always be a bit of stretch.
Jesus invites us to share his very life. Eternal life. Beginning in all the messy places we find ourselves and stretching into eternity. That’s what resurrection is: sharing the life of the risen Christ right where we are.
Sure, there’s going to be a lot of stretching and a lot of letting go. But that’s how Christ gives birth to a new creation.