The Empty Tomb
This year’s spring holidays feel… incomplete. At our Passover seder this past week, some of us in my family’s Zoom call ended with the traditional “next year in Jerusalem,” an expression of hope that next year’s Passover would realize a greater peace, a greater fulfillment.
Some of us, though, interjected a new phrase: “Next year in person! Next year together!”
This year, the seder felt incomplete. Our haggadah (the text used to tell the story of Passover and set the order of service) has been edited time and time again, kitbashed over the years from this source and that, and shortened, of late, to reflect the attention spans and hunger of the younger generation. But every year, it explicitly states that “the goal of the seder is for us, the participants (Jewish or not Jewish), to feel as if we here are being freed from the land of Egypt.”
I wondered, as the seder began, how I could feel this freedom and peace with the shadow of coronavirus hanging over all our celebrations. Usually, as we sing the closing prayer, “Oseh shalom,” a prayer for peace, I feel it. A quietness. A sense of something holy drawing near. The night is for a moment transformed.
But this year, the feeling wasn’t the same. I felt unsettled. How could we anticipate something so seemingly simple as peace, when something as violent as a virus is tearing through our lives, our traditions, our loves?
Cleaning off the table, I wondered, why hadn’t we re-written our haggadah to better reflect the times we’re living in, or to give it the emotional resonance that would fit these pandemic days, rather than leaving us feeling hollowed out, ill at ease, not at peace, and definitely not as if “next year in Jerusalem” was the right thing to hope for?
Hollowed out. Now it is Easter, the spring holiday of my childhood. Easter is my family’s secondary spring holiday, an afterthought in my interfaith household which is balanced out by my husband’s love of Passover and by the jubilance of Christmas in our December celebrations. After all, the resurrection of Christ and the promise it holds is a funny thing to explain to our interfaith/Jewish children, so Easter in my house is about bunnies, candy, and colored eggs. At my liberal Unitarian Universalist church, it’s about the hope of resurrection and rebirth out of the darkness and despair of winter, the darkness of the cave.
Today, though, rebirth feels as strange as peace did just a few days ago at Passover. The grief of the pandemic keeps me stuck, still, in the moment of the Israelites’ enslavement and the moments of Good Friday and the darkness of the tomb.
Peace and resurrection feel hollow when so many are dying. Dying because their bodies have been ravaged by a disease for which there is yet no cure. Dying in spirit because they live alone and it’s been days since since they last felt the touch of another human’s hand or hug. Dying because depression is becoming harder to stave off as the changes to routine and regularity work their insidious ways into the recesses of the brain. Dying inside, slowly, from a fading paycheck and the question of how to find their next meal.
I felt surprised, then, when I woke up Easter morning and wanted communion—traditional bread and wine with a capital “C”—to be part of my Easter celebration. My post-Christian church doesn’t do this type of communion; too many members have too many difficult emotions about, so instead we turn at other times to other symbols.
Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if I could just touch something that feels holy, that feels as if it has transcended the difficulties of these times, and offers the promise that we scared and fragmented people can get there too?
I don’t think of Easter this way, though, as easy grace. I don’t actually think of communion this way, either. At best, communion is about connection and community: connection to the divine, and connection to each other. Communion isn’t something I can imagine doing alone; it’s root is the same as in the word “community”—and here I find the harder grace behind my sudden longing.
As the Unitarian Universalist congregation of which I’m part gathered on YouTube for our Easter service, a chat window opened, full of greetings from familiar names. “Happy Easter!” everyone said, and suddenly I felt the tenderest bit of connection.
At the end of our Zoom seder earlier this week, just before the fourth cup of wine, we read the annual reminder that our liberation is not complete while some remain enslaved—whether that bondage be a captivity of the body, the soul, the mind, or the spirit. Like the wine glass that a couple breaks at the end of a Jewish wedding, it’s a reminder that the ultimate hope of peace and wholeness is not here yet; it’s a peace still to come.
This morning, I think about this message: there’s a peace still to come. A wholeness still to come. The tomb is empty, so I must look elsewhere. When I look, though, I see it. I see communities coming together. People reaching out across distances of time and space to be together. Friends or family who may not have spoken in months and years trying to bridge the distance of both time and space. Skies clearing after decades of pollution. New ways of being together springing into being.
These are small glimmers. No one knows what the skies will look like when cities return to work; no one knows, yet, how our Zoomed seders and Easter celebrations may linger in the years to come. Next year in Jerusalem. Next year in person. The tomb may be empty, but that means we must look elsewhere, not in the darkness, but out towards the light.
Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at emilyrmace.com and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.