Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.
At one of those small shops that specializes in quirky gifts, I perused the display of greeting cards and came across an Easter card. On the front was a depiction of the resurrected Jesus standing in front of his disciples. The caption read: “Okay, everybody, let’s get the story straight. The last thing we need is four different accounts of the Resurrection!”
It made me laugh, in the way that only religious satire can. For that’s exactly what we have in Scripture–four versions of what happened on Easter morning. They vary significantly in the details, yet are singular in proclamation: Jesus was raised from the dead.
No one, actually, sees His rising. The first witnesses appear on the scene after the event itself, and what they see at first is nothing at all–an empty tomb. Then, in a series of encounters, first to the women and then the men, Jesus appears to them–not resuscitated to carry on as before, but present in mystical, mysterious ways. First in the garden, then on the road to Emmaus, and then in an upper room where some of the disciples were hiding in fear.
“Go back to Galilee,” other messengers tell the disciples. “Go back to where you began with Him.” When they do, Jesus appears to them on the hillside and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. They see Him, talk with Him, encounter Him again and again, and each time they feel His presence, forgiveness, and empowering spirit, enabling them to live with courage and love.
It was as implausible a proposition then as it is now, and as easily refuted as anything I might say to you about why Jesus’ resurrection matters to me.
But here goes: I have seen Him, too, and felt His presence in my life–not all the time, and not without long stretches of emptiness–but often and consistently enough to give me confidence that He is real. I have experienced His grace and forgiveness in the times that I have felt least deserving of them.
I am not immune to doubt, and I struggle to believe in the face of the world’s suffering as much as anyone. Yet Jesus keeps showing up, making His presence known to me in prayer and when I read the Bible, in the countless graces of each day, and most especially in the examples of His other followers whose witness takes my breath away.
I am not interested in Christian platitudes that gloss over the anguish of the human experience when the worst happens. Thankfully, neither is Jesus. As best I can understand, His answer to that anguish isn’t to take it away (how I wish it were), but to enter into it fully and assure us that it will not have the final word. I take that promise on faith and hold onto it even when–especially when–the evidence suggests otherwise.
I was asked in a podcast interview recently what gives me hope. It’s a question not to answer lightly. What I remember saying was something like this: “Hope, for me, comes as a gift that I can’t easily explain and I can’t evoke on command. On the other hand, hope is also a spiritual practice. I need to actively seek it out, spending time with those who embody hope in the most hopeless of situations. I need to ask for it in prayer, and fill my heart and mind with what gives me hope.
It’s all too easy to be cynical, I said. To be hopeful requires effort. That’s what following Jesus looks like for me–turning my gaze toward Him, dwelling on His life and teachings, and learning to trust, as so many have before me, that He is with us and for us. It’s especially important that I turn to Him when my hope is gone. When, by grace, His consolation comes, hope returns as the gift it is, and I am given strength to carry on. I’ve learned that I can go a long way on bits of hope–and that the joy of it is real.
On Easter morning, no matter what, those of us who follow Jesus however imperfectly will rise to say in one voice: Allelujah, Christ is Risen! As the psalmist reminds us, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Or in the words of poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “Even if you are not ready for day, it cannot always be night.”
Because He lives, hope cannot die. Because He lives, so can we, with courage and love. Because He lives.