One of the many things I’ve been missing this Easter season is the hymns – that whole repertoire of song which signifies the move from Lent and Holy Week into resurrection joy. Yes, I can sing along to myself, or to Youtube, but it’s not the same as being part of a congregation. But I was brought up a bit short when I read the gospel for this Sunday, the Third Sunday of Easter – which is the story of the disciples’ walk to, and run back from, Emmaus.
What made me stop and think was the different experience that I had of that story in this time and in the midst of this experience. Previously – and I don’t think I’m alone – I had tended to skip to the end of the story. The disciples having listened to Jesus teaching them on the road, and seen him breaking the bread, are so overwhelmed with the news of the resurrection that they set off in the dangerous night back to Jerusalem. But the previous twenty seven verses of the reading tell a very different tale. The disciples are despondent and bewildered, trying to make sense of what has happened to them, to Jesus and to all their hopes and expectations. The life they thought they were leading, the direction they were going, seems to have come to a dead stop.
And when Jesus gets through to them what has really happened, that he has risen, it is not as if their previous hopes are also resuscitated. The life they had been living has still irrevocably gone, but the future that is now opening up before them is one in which Jesus is alive. But it takes time to change course, to start really living in the light of resurrection. When Cleopas and his companion get back to Jerusalem, they tell the other disciples – but when Jesus then appears to them they are ‘startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost’ (Lk 24:37).
So much as I love the hymn, I’m beginning to rethink its second phrase. “This joyful Eastertide, away with care and sorrow!” Well yes, but care and sorrow are not switches you can flick, so that all is suddenly joy and delight. This is a different sort of Eastertide, one in which there is tragedy and sadness, especially for those ill or bereaved. Even for those of us not personally touched by COVID-19, there is an increasing sense of foreboding. What will the future look like? One thing is certain, that it won’t be an immediate return to the days before the pandemic. For many, their personal future is uncertain, even bleak. For all of us, whevever we are in the world, there are economic and political uncertainties. This Easter is a season to live with the rest of the story, to join in with the uncertainty, the confusion, the fear even, as Jesus’ followers try to grapple with this new reality of resurrection.
Because that new reality is always our hope. We can’t flick a switch and move on into the kingdom of heaven, any more than we can decide we’ve had enough of coronavirus and get back to life as it was. But we can hold fast to the hope that lies before us, that beyond our anxiety and exhaustion and fear, Jesus is walking with us, joining us as we get on with our lives, living with us in our solitude or accompanying us in our workplace. Wherever we are, he will be.