The other Easter

Image: Rafanavector
Published March 31, 2023

On the first Easter morning no one was singing Alleluia. Not for hours. The atmosphere in the room where Jesus’ disciples and others were huddled “for fear” was charged with confusion. The shout that initially rose to the lips of Jesus’ followers was not “Jesus is risen,” but that the body of Jesus was missing!

They have taken him out of the tomb,
and we do not know where they have laid him. (John 20:2)

Let’s allow the text to take us there.When the women return from the tomb with the news they have found the grave open and Jesus’ body gone, and that an angel (or angels) have spoken to them saying “he is risen,” (Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:5) their words are received with stony rejection. Luke reports, “Their words seemed to the disciples to be an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24:11)

Peter and John race to the tomb to verify what the women reported. They return to the others and announce they “found it just as the women had said [the tomb open and the body gone] but him, they did not see.” (Luke 24:22,24)

Mary Magdalene is given an experience in the “garden” near the empty tomb, perhaps ineffable yet vividly described in John’s gospel. (John 20:11-18) But for the others, distraught by news of a ransacked tomb and Jesus’ body missing, the situation is erupting into chaos.

Luke tells us two of them get up and walk out. One of them is named Cleopas, and the other, according to early church tradition, is Mary; “Mary the wife of Clopas” is named (John 19:25) among the three women who stood at Jesus’ crucifixion, and is clearly a member of the inner circle. (We know they were both there that Easter morning, because later, that afternoon, Cleopas will tell someone in detail about what happened from the early hours.) Yet now they’re walking away, downcast, confused and headed for home.

This is not the usual story proclaimed Easter morning (though it is all there in the scriptures). The Easter liturgies of the Church commence with the shout, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” The scene of chaos that gripped the early hours of the first Easter is rarely acknowledged on Easter Day and has, for centuries, been shuffled off to the Sunday after Easter.

Why might it be important to tell the whole story of Easter from the start? Consider this.

People don’t walk away from the church easily. Nor did Mary and Cleopas walk away easily that morning. What they loved, served, followed and believed had been ripped away from them. From their own lips we hear of their crushed dreams. “We had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel.” “We had hoped.” We thought. We anticipated. It seemed like …

When people leave the church today it can sometimes be because the church they belonged to no longer exists. They no longer feel they have a place in it. “We had hoped. We thought. We believed.” Such people are sometimes those who have faithfully served among the inner circle. They have contributed greatly, were supportive, hung in, but then reached a point where they could no longer bear what was taking place and had to get away.

Beyond Jerusalem a figure draws alongside Mary and Cleopas. He leans in and gently asks, “What are you talking about?” They stop, as if not knowing how to respond or where to begin. Cleopas snaps back, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened there this weekend?” It is not a particularly kind response. The stranger responds, “No, tell me.” And they begin to pour out their story. Even in the Scriptures the story they tell makes for a long passage.

Churches sometimes discount those who leave their ranks. There can be the projection of blame that it is “their fault” or “their problem.” But there is actually much to be gained by the kind of truth-telling and unburdening we overhear on the road to Emmaus. For every disappointed and exhausted Christian who has walked away from their church there is an important story to be told, heard and understood.

As the stranger walks with Mary and Cleopas, He listens. They describe what had been hopeful and had carried them along. They recite the traumatizing events, their dashed hopes and sorrow even up to the early hours of that day. It is a profound pastoral moment of intimacy and trust as they walk along the dusty cartway.

But then, the stranger begins to speak. With methodical care he begins to unravel their bundled account, drawing links to their sacred story of the ages. Far from dismissing or diminishing their agonizing experience, the stranger presents these experiences as necessary to the fashioning of a new reality of God, already upon them.

The result ignites a surge of restored hope. Their faith takes new form as never before understood. They later claim, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32) And when the stranger appears to part company for the longer route to the coast, they plead, “Stay with us, for it is almost evening, and the day is now nearly over.” (Luke 24:29)

For Mary and Cleopas, the moment of recognition takes place when they sit with their companion at table. He takes bread, breaks it and gives thanks, as is the first action of any meal for observant Jews. But as he takes the bread, they see before them his hands and the print of nails. Then, with elated clarity and certainty, they know the presence of Jesus is with them. With joy they race back to the city as the sun sets behind them and burst in on the others shouting their good news.

What do we learn from this?

  • To pay attention to those who are hurting, especially if they have decided to pull away from the fellowship of the church. To go and see them. To listen to their pain, as Jesus did on the road leading away from Jerusalem.
  • To expect that even if one might offer heart-warming reasons for them to remain in the fellowship of faith, it may not change their decision to leave. Mary and Cleopas claimed the scriptures were wonderfully opened to them, but it did not change their course. They kept walking away.
  • That the choice to leave or stay is always theirs to make. And even though they may be fed up with the church or hurt by it, something else might flicker within them at the very point of parting—a whispered “Jesus, stay with us.”
  • That it can take an enormous amount of disappointment and confusion to undo someone’s attachment to an earlier experience of Jesus—but the void of that loss can also create the conditions for a new journey to be undertaken, where in time, a new revelation of God, greater than ever imagined, might be given and embraced.
    Christians on the route to the next form of their faith may find solace in the whole story of the first Easter.

Christians on the route to the next form of their faith may find solace in the whole story of the first Easter.


  • Richard LeSueur

    Canon Richard LeSueur was formerly interim dean of and a lecturer at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. He is currently the producer and principal host of The Fifth Gospel: Sacred Story, Sacred Land, an online video series in production.

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