My body woke me up at grey sunrise this morning, and I immediately registered heavy dread in the pit of my stomach. Easter morning. But this wasn’t the familiar heaviness brought on by remembrance of Jesus’ horrific crucifixion.
As I tried to set my thoughts aside and sink back into the temporary reprieve of sleep, my stomach continued to churn. I have to go to church today. I have to sit in a pew with leg-bouncing anxiety. I have to slap on a face of makeup and hope my bright lipstick distracts too many people from noticing my vacant, drifting eyes above it.
I tried the well-worn fork in the path of my thoughts to redirect them. Easter isn’t about church and pastors and starched shirts and happy smiles; it’s about a grey sunrise that revealed heartbroken women making their way through the jarring contrast of a flowering garden to a familiar cold dead stone covering a tomb. It’s about Jesus.
And there was a thought that finally calmed my roiling stomach. Those women’s emotions were familiar to me. Their experience didn’t conflict painfully with what I felt, like a pastel Easter service with its lilies and church smiles did.
Those women felt sorrow and death and disillusionment. They had been rejected by the religious leaders of their day who taught them wrongly about a “God” who did not care about or know them. They had lived in the fringes of society because the religious leaders of their day would not look them in the eyes, would not welcome them into the temple, could not cast out their demons or forgive their sin. And those religious leaders had taught them that their God would treat them the same way.
But in spite of all that, these women had met Jesus.
Jesus did not wound them in the name of religion, or worse, in the name of God. He had recognized their sin and brokenness and healed them. Accepted them. Loved them unconditionally. Stood between them and their accusers.
As the gray morning lifted and brightened through my bedroom window, I remembered again the unerring peace Jesus brought those women. In their darkest moments when their faith felt dead and hollow, Jesus had been there. When his dear friend Mary anointed him with oil a week before his death, he silenced her accusers and told them generations would remember her faith. When his body was later wrapped for the tomb, her perfume might still have been there, faintly noticeable underneath the horrific smells of torture, blood, and sweat. When his mother Mary was alone and grieving at the foot of the cross, Jesus gasped out for his dear friend to love and care for her like he would his own mother. And when another Mary, one of his most devoted followers, sobbed insensibly in that flowery garden in the gray Sunday dawn, she felt some of the emotions I still often feel. Abandoned. Conflicted. Hopeless. Alone. Unloved. She felt like her faith had betrayed her.
On that morning, no priest or religious leader came to her in her brokenness. The men who’d claimed to believe just as fiercely as she did were huddled together for safety somewhere far away, and she WAS alone with her grief and lament.
Except she wasn’t alone. Jesus met her in that garden. He called out HER name so that when she couldn’t recognize anything through her tears, she could know he was with her still, again, never to leave her this time.
Even when she returned and the men did not believe her, even when she endured fear and persecution at the hands of the religious leaders, even when she could no longer feel Jesus’ familiar touch in the days to come, Mary would never forget how Jesus called her by name and comforted her in the garden.
So for those of you who fell asleep last night anxious about being in church today, if you woke up like me, sick to your stomach this Easter morning before you even knew why, remember Jesus in the garden. If religion has hurt you, if you carry shame spiritual leaders have put on you, if your church trauma keeps you at home or keeps you disassociated if you are at church, remember Jesus. HE is not the same as church who has hurt you. Those leaders did not act in his stead, and they didn’t reflect his character in the way they harmed you.
In fact, when Jesus was perhaps his most angry in the gospels, it was because he found people abusing his temple—using it for profit and keeping people out who should have been welcomed in. When he turned over their tables, spilled their money, and chased them with whips, the people asked him what sign of authority he had to show for doing such things. “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it back up,” he said. He was talking about the temple of his Body.
Friends, the church is not a building. It’s not religious leaders who have used or abused or abandoned you. It’s Jesus himself. And when his body, or his image and his character are destroyed for us, even if the religious leaders were the ones who distorted him for us—remember that he rose again and lives still as the same gentle shepherd we read about in the gospels. HE is the one who will meet you in the garden. And his true church—the people who truly make up the Body of the church today—are the ones who will meet you in your tears on those greyest dawns when you feel the most broken.