When Easter joy is delayed

by Colleen Gibson


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This year, for the first time in my life, I missed Mass on Holy Thursday. Rather than watching the washing of the feet, I sat in the emergency room of the local hospital with someone in need of care.

Good Friday, I walked the Via Crucis through the streets of Camden, New Jersey, reliving Jesus' journey to the cross. Bystanders watched as actors playing Roman soldiers flanked a battered Christ, and the crowd of the faithful that followed waved to the prisoners in the county jail.

As the Exsultet rang out Easter Saturday, all I could think of was standing in the poignant silence with Emma González at the March for Our Lives a week before.

The events of the holy days weren't what I had expected, and despite my best Lenten preparations, it felt that Easter, like the daffodil shoots beneath the unexpected snowfall of Easter Monday morning, hadn't yet had time to bloom.

There are some years when everything seems to go according to plan, and others when nothing seems to fall into place.

There are moments in our lives when our beings and our moods aren't in line with the liturgical year. These, I find, are some of the toughest times to have faith — when Easter waits or Advent extends or Good Friday ruminates.

In these moments, it is a challenge to reconcile what you feel with what the perceived mood of the moment is. All signs point to Easter, and yet we face the realities of events and debates surrounding gun control, immigration, nuclear proliferation, climate change and myriad other issues.

I wonder how I can contain it all: the joy, the pain, the growth and the goodness. Can I become a human liturgical calendar? Letting all that is, and will be, be present in myself, holding it all in balance and taking each day as it comes?

To holistically hold all of this, I need the gifts of honesty and authenticity. I must be honest about how I feel and what I am experiencing; to offer such honesty is to honor the authenticity of the emotions God has given me. I must feel what I am feeling, not what I wish I could feel or what I think is required by the season.

Authenticity frees us. The unbridled joy of Easter is just that: unbridled. It can only truly exist if we are free of restrictions and boundaries; if we loosen our grip on being joyful and allow the joy that is naturally ours — by virtue of our faith-filled belief — blossom in our being.

Such joy is spontaneous. When we see Peter and John run to the tomb, it is in their every footfall. When Mary Magdalene cries out "Rabboni!" we feel that joy in our bones.

As we read and hear the accounts of Easter morning, we are reawakened to the joy of the moment. The words of the first witnesses remind us of our own joy-filled resurrection moments. We remember moments when joy has flowed so naturally that all we could wish for was a savior to wrap our arms around.

As we experience Easter, or any liturgical season, we can forget that those in the scripture readings were living through the story for the first time. What is familiar to us was a new experience for them. Yearly remembrance wears thin our sense of awe, and repetition breeds familiarity.

And while familiarity can draw us deeper as we make the stories our own, it can also serve to foster a false sense of comfort with stories that are meant to challenge our perceptions and continually stretch and expand our faith.

We can imagine that all the disciples awoke Easter morning filled with clarity and receptive to the Resurrection. In reality, the events of Holy Week had worn them down. They had been tried in many ways.

Beyond mourning their dear friend and teacher, they also feared for their lives. I imagine that nothing seemed real. Everything begged the need for questioning. After all, the one they'd trusted in was gone, and with him went any semblance of hope or joy.

To turn that all around in a day is a stretch of the imagination. Somehow it seems a little more difficult than putting out some lilies and hyacinths, or lining a basket with plastic grass and sweet treats.

While the fifty days of Easter offer us the chance to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection, allowing the unmitigated joy of the season to flourish in our world and transform our hearts, I wonder if that time also gives us a hint as to the time it took for the joy of Easter to become complete for the first followers of Christ.

This delayed joy is a comfort when the calendar changes, but our sense of being doesn't necessarily change. You can't rush grace; you can only be willing to receive the gifts of the season whenever they come.

Allowing ourselves such leniency is a gift unto itself. Our lives are not dictated by a calendar, but available to the God who invites us into encounter each day. In a way, to be flexible in this manner is to model our lives and our faith on Christ's first followers — they didn't know what was coming next. 

[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as coordinator of services at the SSJ Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey.]