taking the words of Jesus seriously

Easter 2020 came and went with churches closed amid the worsening pandemic. Pastors and
worship teams took crash courses in creating videos and streaming live broadcasts. Instead of
fancy hats and pastel clothes, we wore sweatpants and donned bed-head hair as we watched the
Sunday service online from our living rooms. Instead of celebrating with trumpets and organs
and the Hallelujah Chorus, we worshipped in stillness and solitude. It was a new type of Easter,
like the first one where Mary approached the tomb—quiet, anxious, and lonely, but eventually
washed with joy. We discovered that Easter still happens when the trappings are stripped away.
Somehow it felt more authentic with the juxtaposition of despair and joy. The churches, like that
tomb, were empty.

As we approached Easter 2021, it felt like the lentiest of Lents. We survived the election, but the
anxiety of it hung so heavy for so long. Mixed with the rising death toll and human tragedy of
the pandemic, it was a challenge to cope. We waited and waited for the election count. We
waited for the court cases. We waited for the election certification. It was a long time to wait
while breathing through masks. Nothing felt normal–like looking through the wrong
prescription eyeglasses. We rubbed our eyes while watching the TV on January 6, not believing
what we saw. We held our breath. The government prevailed, but the country looks different
now. Fragile and distorted.

My friends were and still are hurting. They live with people and love people who believe the big
lie that led our country to this brink. There is a wide schism here that doesn’t seem repairable.
There is no trust. The isolation of the pandemic amplified the divide. The momentary catharsis of
the inauguration was short-lived. The rhetoric and the thinly veiled threats of violence continued.
It doesn’t seem possible to heal. Our vision is still blurry, and our country is unrecognizable. It is
still hard to breathe.


I started a new job during the pandemic, moved to a new city, and dropped my only daughter off
for her first year at college with a supply of masks. I left my church and friends behind to start
this new chapter. Shortly thereafter, my dad tells me he has cancer, but a year goes by before I
can see my parents. My husband stayed behind to sell our house and so, in between visits, I lived
alone, logging long hours of work as I adjusted to a new position. And I waited. Waited for this
pandemic to lift so that I could meet people in this new place, so that I could find a church to
attend, so that I could sing in a choir again, so that I could sell my house and be reunited with my
husband. Together, we all waited our turn for a life-giving vaccine. Now, two years later, we
wait for the January 6 commission to investigate the insurrection and for justice to be served.
Another election looms. A war has erupted. And we wait still for this pandemic to subside. I am
tired of waiting. We all are. Still, I am so fortunate. I know this deep in my skin and it adds guilt
to the weight of everything else.

The two-year anniversary of the start of this pandemic looms. It has been almost three years
since I have attended an Easter service, but it is the Tenebrae service I think about. Our church
has a stunning Tenebrae service on Maundy Thursday. Very few people go to it on a weekday
night, but our choir is there always, dressed in black and singing the heavy minor keys of Lenten
music. Together, we strip the altar piece by piece as the scripture of the crucifixion is read. As
the service progresses, the sun sets outside and casts long shadows on the pews through the
stained glass. The candles are extinguished, the cross covered in black cloth, the Bible removed,
the lights dimmed. We leave in silence and in the dark and then we wait for Easter morning.
Tenebrae is about the miserable wait.


I have craved this service. I need to see the symbolic stripping away of all that is comfortable to
fully embrace and accept the sorrow of all that has been lost. I need to see and to feel the
darkness descend over us. I need to feel the helplessness of loss and the weight of the silence that
begs to be broken. I crave this for some reason, this opportunity to mourn with my church family
sitting silently beside me.

My phone flashes me a photo memory from Easter 2020 and it jolts me. The picture is of my
daughter standing next to the cross outside our church. My daughter and I had driven to the
locked church to decorate the cross with flowers. She was remarkably agreeable to my
suggestion to do this, as any outing during the lockdown phase of the pandemic was welcome.
Normally, the cross stands at the front of the sanctuary and everyone brings flowers from their
yard to decorate it. It is our tradition every Easter, and families gather after the service to take
photos by the cross fully covered in the contributed blooms. The cross was empty that morning
with no flowers adorning it, though someone had replaced the black cloth of Good Friday with
the white drape of Easter. We poked our few dozen roses through the wire mesh around the cross
and I took my daughter’s picture. She smiled brightly, even though she was ending her senior
year of high school with a disappointing whimper. I could tell it weighed on her. But she stood
next to the cross that we bejeweled like a sequined iPhone case and smiled. Easter had come, and
the Light returned.

The cross in my picture looks simultaneously pathetic and lovely. The roses were in full bloom
and the white cloth blows gently in the breeze, but two dozen roses didn’t come close to fully
adorning it and the ugly wire support mesh was plainly visible. Still, it was something. A gesture
towards normalcy and a defiance of not caving to the despair. I wondered all day if anyone else
added their flowers. I need to name the darkness:
broken relationships, domestic terrorism, cancer, COVID-19, lost jobs, conspiracy theories,
closed chapters, loneliness, exhaustion, full hospitals, 800,000 dead, authoritarianism, and now a
frightening new war. But afterwards, it will be time to put on some flowers and to wear them
defiantly as an invitation for others to do the same. To say boldly that we reject this darkness and
to interweave our colorful, disparate blooms to cover the barren and scarred landscape with this
layer of floral hope. It is a group effort to create this community bouquet that announces the
Light has returned. We are Easter people. We know that the Light shines in the darkness, and the
darkness will not overcome it.

About The Author


PJ Riggs is a professor of Chemistry who occasionally thinks, preaches, and writes about contemporary social issues through a lens of progressive Christian theology. She is an empty-nest parent and an avid musician grateful for her spouse of 27-years who puts up with all of it.

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