Easter is not open for business this year. Despite the repeated aspirations of an ego-maniacal president, the assertions of God’s protection by socially unconscious pastors, and the grim reaper algorithms of governing officials who want America to go back to work ASAP – despite all of that - the ineluctable invasion by an implacable RNA genome has stopped the Easter parade in its tracks.
An awful and unusual stillness muffles our days and nights. The incantation of the Easter vigil will not be sung. Nor will candles stream from churches on Holy Saturday eve. Sunrise services will not catch the dawn. The cries of Easter egg hunts will not be heard. And families will not gather around tables laden with glazed ham and all the fixings.
The sounds of silence echo beyond our homes and churches. Our industrial machine no longer hums along. TV ads flash on our screens as if from a land and time of normalcy so far, far away.
Everyone has been caught up in this ever-enlarging net of worry and woe.
It seems as if it is the silence of the grave. Go out of your house at 2 AM. The silence has now a more profound tone. It is eerily like the stillness just before a tornado roars in – a dead zone of sound, an unearthly quiet.
Easter will not be business as usual this year. Curiously this very situation allows us to tip-toe back to those ancient stories of the women visiting the tomb. Don’t stop with the gospel scenes, go back farther in time to when the custom was in full flower. The Greek rituals of women visiting the tombs of the recent dead were carried out centuries before the story of Magdala was told.
Sarcophagus of the mourning women (350 BCE)
But there is a common thread in all of them, including the tales of the early Jesus followers. Women were still trying to weave sense out of intense sorrow by a simple gesture of care – pouring oil on the grave of the lost one. In those silent moments human actions take on an incandescent element. It exposes all our weaknesses and touches us to the bone.
Easter this year will come silently. As we huddle in our little ease, we look around and begin to notice things. If we let the silence grow around us, we slowly recognize that the ties and filaments of belonging are still there
That sense of belonging brought the women of those ancient stories to the grave site. This present situation brings each of us to the poignant realization that all we hold most dear is at stake. We become acutely aware of those we love who are directly in harm’s way. The ever-increasing numbers of infected and dead circulate in our pulses as our anxiety grows. The world we regarded as normal has come to an end.
Perhaps it is time to look into the abyss of silence.
Perhaps it is time to recognize that we have been brought to the edge of things. It is a time when the silence may resound and the darkness enlighten. The ancients would say that it is an occasion of unveiling, exposing the pretensions of our world as well as possibilities of hope.
We see quite clearly how myopia infiltrated those who should have had concern for our common good. Bottom-line thinking gutters the social imagination of so many. Without a clue for solving this dilemma, the wealthy insulate themselves as much as possible with further legislation from the fate of the poor. For some time, the wealthy really have not thought there is any hope left. They already are in retreat to a secure location to keep enjoying what they possess as long as they can. The elite of this country do not bother to notice what has been really going on.
But those of us in quarantine who cannot withdraw to yachts or patrolled preserves have nothing but time and worry on our hands. We cannot resolve the terrors that permeate our lives by wishing them away. For we have, indeed, come to the edge of things.
Somehow, we are more alive now than we thought we were. For we are now hyper-sensitive to the tiniest gesture of kindness and care. We are quite moved when we hear of others looking out for the elderly who live alone. We are brought to tears when a highway officer gives a speeding doctor a sober warning and then offers her his respiratory mask. Now, we have eyes to see and ears to hear, and so we go out in the evening and salute with applause those on the front lines of this epidemic.
Many who are sheltering inside have begun a ritual of cheering for healthcare workers and other essential workers at a designated time each evening.
We have realized what truly is essential.
Trash collectors are essential, bankers not so much. Nurses and doctors are essential, financial traders not at all. We look with strange and renewed appreciation of those who huddle down with us. We find that kindness and tenderness are not unusual elements but are the critical essence of our life on this planet.
As we peer into the abyss, we realize that the seeds of the future lie in our midst. The profit designs of socio-pathological CEO’s cannot comprehend the little things. In their political intrigues the movers and shakers of the economy haven’t a clue about what brings genuine life, growth and justice. They believe that their world will continue to thrive despite all and repeat its cancerous growth. Easter for the elite has always been a demonstration of how power holds sway. They cannot imagine anything else.
But this is where the little ones come in, those of us who have gazed into the abyss, who have dared to dream that the life we live can be compassionate and caring. We see that our vision is already afoot in the thousands and thousands of humans who have extended their bodies and breath for others in this crisis. We detect intimations of a new world in the very maw of disaster. We have become nimble in our response to this crisis. We have begun, for instance, to use the internet in ways and proportions we never imagined. We are connecting despite isolation. We are touching without contact.
We are refusing to be less than human.
Easter really never was about business. It was ever and still is about hope. While this epidemic throws us all aback, we have been brought to realize that everything we usually associate with Easter has been drastically ripped away. We are left in silence, sitting at the edge of the grave.
Some will easily point out that there are no angels hanging about. No sudden interruptions that throw a different light on things. But is that so? What do we hear in this fearsome moment? What are the sounds, yes, what are the sounds of silence that shiver our spines and crack open our hearts? What realm do they open up for us all?
Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.
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