The Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto interviews Dr. Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, about the story of Easter in a new light due to this COVID-19 moment in time.
Many clergy may be reading this, and it feels like we are ministering to what you have called, “a community of affliction” right now. That image is really sticking with me: a community of affliction, headed towards the cross and the resurrection. I'm wondering about Easter morning when a bunch of Christians are gathered around their screens and devices in their homes for worship:
What do you hope they and we hear? What Easter message?
What message about the resurrection?
Kate: For so many years, we have used Lent to play at death. We go through the motions. And now we're not playing. We're not going to feel Easter in the same way. I mean, most of us won't, because we're not messing around anymore. And so I think we just have to do what the early church did, which is we say something like,
“Hey, did you see what happened?”
And then we just ask each other,
“Show me . . . were there any witnesses?”
Then we look, and we ask for hope. We trade little secrets of what hope feels like, and we do that until it feels “real-er” and “real-er” and “real-er”. I know I just made up a word! More and more real. But we do it until we find it. We're searching until we get there, and we trade with one another. We trade the little glimpses that we see because we're not going to see it for a while. I think that's our job.
It's just that the kingdom of God is so . . . sneaky. I mean, when I was really, really sick, I used to feel really angry about it. I was, like, God, I know you’re here and everything, but, like, not quite enough.
And then, a year later, I can see daffodils popping up. And I think, oh, you're already here. So in times of deep despair, I think that's when we need one another to act as witnesses. So we know what to look for.
Eric: It’s striking to me that in this moment, when we're supposed to be physically distant, this is the moment we most need to bear witness to one another to the resurrection. In the middle of so much loss, so much illness, and so much death.
Eric: When we think about the story of Easter, the story that we hear year after year, I wonder if there are aspects of that story that we might see in a new light due to this moment in time:
What small details will loom large in this moment? What neglected characters might come to the fore?
Kate: Can I ask you that question first? What do you think about? I promise I'll answer, but I really do want to know your answer.
Eric: First, I wonder if we'll notice the length of the days. I think often Good Friday to Sunday feels fast because we're preparing, and we’ve got family and we're doing all that stuff, right?
Eric: And now I wonder if the time between Good Friday and Easter will feel different this time. In this moment, there are days that feel like weeks and weekends that feel like a month. So, maybe the three days in the tomb will feel different now.
I’m reminded that the disciples on the road to Emmaus say something like, “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” Had hoped. That hope was gone. And it was three days of darkness and loss that brought them to that moment. So I wonder if we'll know a little more what it feels like to not know that Sunday is coming.
Kate (chuckling): I'm so sorry that I'm like a garbage American religion historian, and I forget the biblical text. But isn’t there a phrase “while it was yet dark?” Is that the phrase?
Eric: Yes, when Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb?
Kate: I like your answer then. I think we will be thinking about Easter as a story of “while it was yet dark.”
Eric: That's really good.
Kate: We’re good. We love this story.
Eric: Yeah, it's really powerful.
Kate: And we will fumble around, and we won't recognize Jesus from the gardener. We won’t. The things that look beautiful will not be beautiful to us. The feeling that we won't know what is what – what will sparkle. You know, like when the light hits it, you get a little glimpse of the thing that's beautiful. And then you spend the rest of your life trying not to forget that. And I think that when things are really the worst, and you see these gorgeous moments of people — nurses, first responders, people sheltering homeless people — saving each other. Now, that is the time when I understand that there's a thing that is good and beautiful.
We might miss it. If we're not looking for Easter.
Eric: I wonder too. I think for a long time I was holding on to this hope that, you know, whenever we get back we're going to have like second Easter, no matter what Sunday it is.
But more and more it seems clear that it's not going to be a moment – but a trickle. That there will be these stages of going back to a place that won't be what it was but whatever the new normal is going to be, we'll slowly go back to that. And I wonder if that's what Easter felt like for those first disciples. That it wasn't just this moment, “Jesus is with us. We get it. We're celebrating.” But that Jesus had to keep coming back. He had to keep appearing for forty days. And even then, the community had to figure out, “Wait, what do we do now?
Kate: I think it's kind of magical that we are going to have the least sentimental, least pastel Easter in living memory. I think that might be good for us.
From all of us at Church Anew:
During global pandemic and global crisis. This least sentimental and least pastel Easter in living memory. May this Easter bless you and those you serve in new ways:May you wonder about that first Easter.
May you notice the length of the days between Good Friday and Sunday.
May you see daffodils popping.
May you trade little secrets of what hope looks like.
May you know and celebrate Jesus is with us!
And be communities of faith figuring out, “Wait, what do we do now?”
Dr. Kate Bowler is an associate professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School. Her first book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, received praise as the first history of the movement based on divine promises of health, wealth, and happiness. In 2015, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35. In her viral New York Times op-ed, she wrote about the irony of being an expert in health, wealth and happiness while being ill. Her subsequent memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I’ve loved), tells the story of her struggle to understand the personal and intellectual dimensions of the American belief that all tragedies are tests of character.