Easter Comes Quietly

By D. Stuart Dunnan

Growing up as a chorister at the National Cathedral in Washington and studying for the priesthood at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and now happily settled at Saint James, I love a triumphant Easter High Mass with beautiful music sung by a great choir and all our favorite hymns, the pews packed with the additional Christians who come twice a year, the altar resplendent with Easter flowers, and the “Widor Toccata in F” booming from the organ, its majestic deep pedal notes shaking the floor as the bright, staccato key notes send us out into the world joyful, confident, and feeling blessed.

But our quiet Easter this year without any great celebration reminds us that the first Easter was not a triumphant one, but rather a quiet and mysterious one, leaving many questions still unanswered. The disciples were dispersed and hiding in their homes as we are now, and it was Mary Magdalene, like our health workers today, who bravely ventured into the tomb. In John’s telling of the story, she is the one who discovers that the body of Jesus is missing and runs to tell Peter and “the other disciple” who come to look, but then leave. She is the one who stays and sees the two angels and then the living Jesus himself.

But Jesus is so unassuming, so modest in his presence, that Mary thinks he is the gardener until he calls her by her name, and then she recognizes him.

This is how all the resurrection appearances work: there is no great thunderclap, no voice from heaven, no display of triumph or divinity; rather, Jesus joins his friends and patiently and gently reasserts his presence and his continuing relationship with them: walking and talking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, as depicted on our triptych here in this chapel, and appearing in the house where the disciples are hiding, pointing to his wounds: not to his power, but to his suffering and his enduring love for them.

And surely, this is how resurrection works in our lives as well: Our Lord appears to us and walks with us, and we don’t even see him until “our hearts burn within us” and we eventually realize that God indeed has been with us in the love that surrounds us, so we have nothing to fear.

And so, in faith, we pray that those who are suffering in this crisis can see the presence of God in all who care for them, and we also pray that those who have died will join with him in that life beyond what we know now: “where life is changed, not ended,” and “where there is no death, neither sorrow nor crying, but the fullness of joy” for evermore.

And we know that this crisis will someday pass from us — not dramatically and suddenly, but quietly and gradually with more available testing and newly discovered therapies to keep us out of the emergency room and ultimately a vaccine to guard us from the disease. But this will come to us like a series of spring rains and not one violent summer thunderstorm, which means that we will be tempted to miss the miracles in front of us and the angels around us, even as Christ himself walks right next to us. We will think he is the gardener and not worth noticing, so not even respond when he addresses us by name.

Some of you may remember that when I was 40, I almost died. I was suddenly and unexpectedly very ill, did not respond to two months of treatment, and ultimately required painful and dangerous surgery. My surgeon in fact asked me if I had a will. When I answered that I didn’t, he told me I needed one.

But thanks to Dr. Newman and Dr. McCormack in our own community; Dr. Lillemoe, my surgeon at Hopkins; Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Barr who kept all “unnecessary” work and all “not pressing” problems away from me; and many others who took wonderful care of me, I survived, and the first thing I did in public was preach the Easter Vigil for the Western Region of the Diocese of Maryland at St. John’s, Hagerstown.

And I remember walking into the pulpit on that dark evening, the just-lit Paschal candle flickering bravely just off to the right of me, and seeing on the faces of the faithful, as they looked up in anticipation, their joy to see me, their relief that I was alive. And I suddenly remembered that they had all prayed for me, and I was greatly moved. So, I put my text aside and spoke to them of what it means to live a resurrected life.

I have lived that life now for more than two decades now, and who knows how much longer, but I do know this: I live my life much more gratefully now, and much more purposefully, because I know in my heart that God himself has saved me and there is with him, beyond this life, a whole new life to come.

The Rev. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan is headmaster of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.


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