Do you remember? Do you remember?
The voices are hushed but brimming with excitement. It is dark with only flickering candlelight illuminating joyous faces. Of course they all remember.
By all rights, this should be a story that is told with sadness, one where sorrow should be the predominant feeling. It should be tragic and riddled with painful memories. That is not the case, however.
They can barely keep the laughter at bay. Wide smiles show how their hearts desire to break out of their chests. They are simultaneously on the brink of crying and shouting, so full are their hearts.
Do you remember? Why is this night different from all other nights?
The second question is a carryover from their Jewish roots–but it is fitting here. It is perfectly fulfilled here.
There are numerous possible narrators to the story, each holding a piece that contributes to the full picture. John is there and he tells of His last moments on the cross and the ache in his heart as he watched Him die. Mary Magdalene speaks of her sleepless night, the long Sabbath, and rushing with spices to the tomb early on the first day of the week. Peter speaks of walking into the empty tomb, marveling at the clothes that remain where the body once was placed. Each person adds another detail to a story they have told over and over again. Yet it is one of which they can never tire. It isn’t simply a story from the past but rather re-tells an encounter they had with the living God.
Saturday evening as I stood in a dark church while the Easter candle was being lit, I considered something I never have before: what would it have been like to be at the second Easter? The first Easter would have been incredible, but as I stood in the church, it was very clear that I wasn’t at the first Easter. But the second Easter? When they gather together to re-live what had happened a year ago? I could imagine that. If I closed my eyes and focused on the prayers, I could feel this uncontrollable joy welling up in my heart. Before long, I was fighting back tears and grinning like a fool in the darkness.
I had encouraged my students to delve into Holy Week and to consider the well-known story in a new light. Chances are really good that none of them remembered what I said, but I found myself taking my own advice. What if I wasn’t at Easter Vigil (like I am every year) but rather was at the first anniversary of the first Easter? They couldn’t even wait until Sunday to gather. Instead, they gather together in the darkness to hold a vigil for the Resurrection.
A lot can change in a year. One year earlier, they were wrapping their minds around the Passion, vacillating between numbness and crushing sorrow. Even in the finding of the empty tomb and the first appearances of Jesus, there were still so many questions and much confusion. A year later and they were witnesses of the Resurrection, filled with the Holy Spirit, and traveling to proclaim the Gospel. They didn’t have all of their questions answered but their mission was certain. Gathering together, their joy grew exponentially as they considered again those three sacred days.
Do you remember? Do you remember? The new followers, the ones who were not there one year earlier, listen eagerly to the story, caught up in the drama of human salvation. Even as they re-tell the Passion and Death of Jesus there is an undercurrent of joy. They enter into His death deeply, recalling where they had been during those moments of agony, but they know that He lives now. With solemnity, they trace the providence of God from the beginning. From creation to freedom from Egypt to the challenges of the prophets, they recall how God had prepared them for the fulfillment of all the old covenants. Soon they are talking about Easter Sunday, with all the little details pouring in:
“I thought He was a gardener!” Mary Magdalene recalls.
“I ran faster than Peter,” John says with a youthful wink at the Vicar of Christ.
“I didn’t go to the tomb, because I knew He had risen,” Mary, the mother of Jesus, says with a smile of remembrance.
The central point of Christianity is not about following rules or attending excessively long religious services. Christianity is about encountering the person of Jesus Christ. Everything else is aimed at fulfilling or bringing about that encounter. As I sat in Easter Sunday Mass, listening to the priest’s homily, I couldn’t help but glance around a little and see some tired, bored faces. And I wondered, “How many of these people here have never really encountered Jesus Christ?” They attend Mass because their husband or wife or parents want them to or because they feel some guilt if they should stop attending. How sad would it be if a relationship with God that is intended to be marked with joy is instead filled with simply surface level commitment.
The joy of Easter should not be mainly that we can now eat or do what we previously could not eat or do during Lent. It should be because we once again remember that Jesus Christ is the Savior we need. He died, He is risen, and that changes everything. It is not old news or historical details but is something that is ever-ancient yet ever-new. In that dark church on the eve of Easter, I thought of the joy and fulfillment that filled the hearts of the early Christians as they recalled the previous year. And I longed for that joy only to realize that it could and should be mine. We should be like the early Christians, gathering with hearts of praise to recall what the Lord has done for us.
Do you remember? Do you remember? He died, He rose, and He lives. And it continues to change my entire life.