For churchgoers, Easter Day is a time of joy and celebration, usually with a thronged church, an immaculately conducted service, the fruit of weeks of preparation, and the chance to catch up with friends we haven’t seen for a while. In my Church, we are even lucky enough to have a slice or two of Fr. William’s home-made simnel cake. After the austerity of Lent and trials of Holy Week, Jesus jumps out of the papier maché Easter egg and shouts, “surprise!” It didn’t all end on Good Friday – he is risen indeed. Alleluia!
The reality of that first Easter was very different. It was a time of fear, with Jesus’ followers in hiding, hoping the crowds only slowly departing from Jerusalem after the religious festival would help them stay below the radar. The capital was the stronghold of those Christ had spent his ministry criticising. His supporters’ hopes that he was the promised Messiah had been crucified along with Christ himself. Dare they presume that the whole episode was unimportant enough that they could keep their heads low for a while, before retreating back to the Galilee when the coast cleared? Or would the apparatus of the state stumble upon them, and decide that a few more needed to die for the sake of the whole people?
And perhaps there were a few rumours spreading among those needed to briefly stick their heads above the parapet, strange stories told by women – and who could take a woman seriously? – of a man in white at an empty tomb. Rumours so strange and conflicted that even some decades later, when the stories of Jesus’ life were eventually committed to paper, nobody was sure precisely what had transpired on that morning.
The earliest of the stories to be written down, the Gospel of St. Mark, originally ended on an odd note. “Then they went out and ran away from the tomb, trembling with amazement. They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” No shout of triumph, no claim of Jesus staying with us forever, no preaching of the Gospel to the ends of the Earth, just some people running out into the dawn from an event that had been very frightening. It was of course, too strange an ending, so a few centuries later some material from the other Gospels was added to give the story an appropriately happy conclusion. But unquestionably, the original was an ending that better suited the reality of most of our lives as Christians.
This is so often how we encounter Jesus – we expect to confirm our knowledge that God is dead, and instead find that His apparent absence is because He is risen. We recognise Him not because he appears to us in clouds with thunderclaps, but because we hear rumours from those trusted least and, if we are lucky, we see the unmistakable signs that He has been in the vicinity and upended the order of things.
Those who use the name of Christ as a means of making money – and they are many – often present Jesus as spiritual Prozac, the God drug that makes us smile all the time because we have all the answers. The real encounter with the living God is unsettling and often frightening, for if it is true then keeping our heads down for fear of attracting unwelcome attention is not an option, not if we wish to follow Christ. And so we run away into the twilight, our preconceptions shattered, worrying that people will think that we are mad if we tell them what we have seen.