It was just over five weeks ago that we began the 40 days of Lent with Ash Wednesday services. We never could have guessed how the world would change in those four weeks. We have been confined to our homes; stores, restaurants and offices have been closed; masks, sanitizer and toilet paper cannot be found anywhere; and church services have been cancelled or moved online. What a difference a month makes.
Now here we are, approaching the most important day in the Christian year—indeed, the celebration of the most important day in the history of the world— the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it seems more and more likely that we will each celebrate Easter at home, alone or with whoever of our family lives in our house.
It is hard to imagine celebrating Easter alone. But it may be helpful to remember that most of the people who were present for the original Easter were alone too.
Take Mary Magdalene, for example. John’s Gospel tells us that she went to the tomb alone. We know from the other Gospel stories that there were other women present at least at some point, but John speaks only of Mary. John emphasizes that she was alone.
Mary had a checkered past. Jesus had cast demons out of her, and she was forever devoted to the Lord because of that. She went to the tomb alone and peeked inside. She saw that the body was not there, and she saw two angels sitting inside the tomb.
They asked why she was there, and she replied, “I’m looking for the body of the Lord.”
Neither the angels nor Mary said anything further; instead, she turned away, as if realizing that the angels had no word for her. As she turned, she saw the Lord, though she thought he was the gardener. He too asked her who she was looking for, and she asked him if he knew where the body had been moved. As he called her name, “Mary,” she recognized him instantly and fell at his feet in worship. She was alone no more.
For another example, take Peter and John (who I assume is the unidentified disciple named as the one “Jesus loved.”) They too experienced Easter alone. When Mary reported to the two of them that the tomb was empty, they both ran toward the tomb. John, being younger, arrived first and looked through the door. He did not enter. Arriving moments later, and out of breath, Peter burst into the empty tomb. Peter was taking no chances. He had missed an opportunity to be faithful to his Lord earlier, the night before the crucifixion; he wasn’t going to let that happen again.
As he surveyed the contents of the tomb, Peter saw that the grave clothes were still on the shelf, but that the face mask had been neatly folded and laid aside. Then John entered, and he realized that grave robbers would not have left the grave clothes—and they certainly would not have folded the face covering. So, John believed that Jesus had left the tomb himself. Still, there was no conversation recorded between these two; at least, nothing we know of. Each man was lost in his own world; each man was alone. And after being at the tomb, the text says they went home.
That’s pretty much how the first Easter went, with people alone in their thoughts and reflections. Even that evening, when the disciples of Jesus were gathered in the upper room, they kept the door locked because they were so afraid. You can be sure that they didn’t talk much to each other, or if they did, it was only in a whisper because the last thing they desired was to be heard by the outside world.
Finally, there were the two people Luke writes about, the two walking on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). Though there were two of them, they also were lost in their thoughts and reflections about the tragedy of the crucifixion and the strange happenings of that Sunday. They too were alone.
So maybe being alone on Easter, while it is not the norm for us, wouldn’t have been seen as unusual that first resurrection day. While we would much rather be together, maybe we can take the opportunity of being alone to worship God in quietness, in reflection, in meditation, in peace. Perhaps celebrating Easter by ourselves may not take all the joy out of the day, but rather allow us to experience its depth and mystery in a different way.
Maybe you would like to sit with your Bible, opening to one of the resurrection accounts in the Gospel, reading it slowly and putting yourself into the story, being there, hearing the sounds, seeing the sights, smelling the smells, watching the people. Let the story come alive for you in a different way. You might see Easter in a whole new light.
And when, by the grace of God, this virus has been tamed, and when we are able to gather together in worship again, then we will celebrate with joy. But if not—well, there are other ways to join in the Easter story, even alone.
This essay was first published in the Butler Church newsletter.
Jim Holm is pastor of Faith Community, an English-speaking congregation of Butler Church, as USMB congregation in southeast Fresno, California. Butler Church is comprised of four distinct congregations.