Since COVID entered our daily vocabulary, time has weighed heavy on many hands. Restrictions, upheavals in our routines, our usual patterns of life thrown into disarray, unforeseen challenges and unwelcome losses have shaken so much we thought was reliable.
These experiences can give us some glimpse of the upheaval the crucifixion of their Master meant to the Apostles and others who believed in Jesus. How can this be happening? What does the future hold now? Where is God in our need?
Christmas and Easter still form the backbone of the Church’s year, and the parallels are many. Mary of Magdala came to the tomb while it was still dark, after Jesus died; the shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks in the night darkness, see God’s glory shine in the heavens, after he is born. The disciples ran to the tomb, looking for the Lord taken from his burial place; the shepherds go in haste to find the Lord given to the world in his birthplace. The infant Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes; the risen Jesus leaves behind the burial cloths. The Magi follow a star and bring their gifts; Peter and John follow an anxious report of grave robbers and bring their confusion and fear.
Yet Christmas is easier for us to understand than Easter. Everyone has seen a baby — in fact, everyone has been a baby — but none of us has ever seen a person risen from death. At Christmas, the Eternal entered time: The Word through whom all things are made is made flesh, comes into his creation and brings God to our human lives. Jesus lives the same days and nights and seasons as we do; he grows tired and hungry, laughs with joy and sheds tears of sadness. The Jesus of time, the suffering Jesus, even the Jesus who dies, we can relate to from our own experiences.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time (1 Peter 1:3-5).”
But with Easter, the opposite happens: Time is drawn into eternity. While the resurrection is a real event that happened in history, the raising of Jesus leads us beyond history into the eternal life of God. Our humanity united to his is now open to the fullness of life, measured less by quantity and more accurately by quality — to be in perfect and endless union with God and all those who belong to God.
So birth and babies we know from experience, but resurrection remains a mystery we grasp only in faith. It is not a mystery so dark and obscure that we cannot imagine it, but a mystery so brilliant and overwhelming that we cannot comprehend it.
Our experience of life here is always accompanied by suffering, fear, loss, failure. The pandemic reflects so profoundly the struggles of being children of time, immersed in things that come and go, develop and then pass away. But becoming children of eternity in the risen life that Jesus prepares for us, freed forever from the imperfections to which we have adjusted, brings something entirely new. It surpasses what we have ever yet known, and we can have difficulty trusting it. Yet, every prayer, every work of mercy, every acceptance of our crosses, takes on infinite value in light of the resurrection.
Perhaps in this way also, Christmas and Easter are linked: like infants who gradually grow into an unknown world filled with questions and beauty that is all new to them, so we will need to grow into God’s own joy. Maybe this is why Jesus said: “Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
For those who saw the Risen Christ, the resurrection was just as real, just as undeniable and just as mysterious as the cross had been. Both of them really happened. With time, they came to know that the grave of Jesus was emptied, not by vengeance, but by mercy; not by hatred, but by victorious love. Easter began in emptiness, but that tomb was not robbed. It was simply left behind, a temporary pause succeeded by an endless life.
The same is offered to us, awaiting that moment when we, too, will see the risen Lord. Easter invites us with joy to pass from the things of our time to the things of God’s eternity. Perhaps the simplest but most profound summary of Easter was voiced by Pope Emeritus Benedict: as Christians, as Easter people, we do not simply remember that Jesus was; we rejoice that he is.
Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.