I’m sure you’ve experienced it. The table for a festive, step-up-from-the-usual dinner. There’s a sheen of sorts beyond the candle glow, a beauty blossoming larger than the flowers arranged, a nourishment that exceeds the food prepared and served. Such was the Easter Sunday dinner table at which I’d found myself this year. The table in my home.
As I looked around the table at the five faces of people I love, I couldn’t help but take note of the roster: Aside from me, there was an unbaptized agnostic who prays, a pantheistic humanist, a somewhat-observant Muslim (we had Easter turkey as well as ham), and two mildly militant atheists. All of us were embraced by an air of genuine gratitude for the vaccinations that enabled us to be in each others’ presence.
Fulfilling my usual role as the introvertiest introvert in the group, I began to muse quietly on the quirkiness of this gathering on the day set aside to celebrate the raising of Jesus from the dead. As the lone explicitly Christian person in attendance, I took comfort in the certainty that this wasn’t the first, last, or only religiously untidy table that had come together on an Easter Sunday.
Beginning with the Evangelists’ accounts, the presentation of the Resurrection itself was a bit untidy. All four agree that Jesus died, was put in a tomb, and then somehow was not in that tomb any longer. Mark’s original/shorter ending concludes with terrified women who said nothing about this. The illogic of this was likely evident early on, and so some effort was made to tidy up Mark’s ending. Matthew is more of a dramatist, with an earthquake and a lightning-bright angel (and a dash of antisemitism) that the others missed. Luke and John agree a bit more with each other, and so the resurrected Christ takes meals and makes apparitions happen; in John he manages to do two chapters’ worth of dialogues and theologizing. Scholars have delved into all of this, but the point remains that there was a scramble from day one to recount and interpret the event, but what remained was still something of a disorganized mess. We run the risk of overlooking this due to the way that our lectionarizing and liturgicizing of these passages gives them a veneer of orderliness.
I’m guessing that in those first jumbled days after the crucifixion and resurrection there were lots of meal tables with crews more motley than the one seated at mine this Easter Sunday. We don’t know, for example, whose house it was in Emmaus that Cleopas invited Jesus to, and have no way of knowing if only Cleopas and the other disciple knew Jesus in the breaking of the bread, or if everyone present—followers of Jesus or not—received the revelation, as well as the vanishing act that followed. There were likely lots of table gatherings on lots of Sundays (remember that for the first Christians Sunday was a workday) as it began to emerge as the commemoration of the resurrection. Two or three or more may have been gathered, but likely not in the name of Jesus, with his followers in the minority, even perhaps lone followers
in the gathering, as I was this year.
Maybe our real problem with grasping the topsy-turviness of the resurrection accounts is that we look at them as the final chapters of the gospels, and therefore we think that they are endings. In Spirit and truth, what the evangelists were attempting to describe wasn’t an ending, but a beginning. We struggle to find a closing, when what we should really look for is yet another opening, a new start.
My inner liturgist’s yearning for an unattainable perfection this Easter also looked at the table and noted the asparagus that had blanched a minute or two longer than it should have; one or two of the spring flowers had already begun to droop. Worst of all, the candles weren’t burning evenly! I fear that it can sometimes be our liturgical quest for perfection that blocks the way of the good celebration, that impedes our progress as disciples. Hallel Yah! Means “praise God” and not “praise all the details I implemented correctly.”
It is tempting to quote Matthew’s Jesus “where two or three are gathered” and conveniently skate over “in my name.” But it would take theological/ecclesial gymnastics far beyond my capability to say that the six of us at that table were gathered “in Christ’s name” To be honestly blunt, it’s most likely that the name of Christ was uttered that evening when it was discovered that the carrots had not heated thoroughly.
At this point, it’s also tempting to write sentimentally that I know God looked down at that definitely diverse gathering at my Easter table and smiled. Or perhaps God was looking down and scowling directly at me for not latching onto the opportunity—Easter Sunday of all days!—to evangelize. Maybe God just looked and shrugged: “I’ve seen worse; I’ve seen better.” Overall, it’s tempting to want a tidy explanation and a logical ending. I have new sympathy for the evangelists, and I suspect that there were far more beginnings than endings in my Easter evening dinner, and sometimes—in our lives and in our ministries—we just need to shrug and be content with that.