At the end of February, I caught a cold. I didn’t have a cough or a fever, but I had a runny nose and felt exhausted, and out of an abundance of caution, I got tested for COVID-19. As I said, it was just a cold; the results came back negative the next morning. However, I still had to self-isolate until 24 hours after I was symptom-free. That’s the thing about being sick: you don’t usually get better all of a sudden. Instead, your symptoms start to improve gradually, until one morning you wake up and decide that you’re well enough to go back to life as normal. I suspect that this is how the pandemic will end. There will be no magical day when a switch is thrown, and everything goes instantly back to normal.
This is what worries me when I hear people compare the end of the pandemic to Easter. Yes, we all need the hope of resurrection and new life. Yes, when this is all over, there will be much to celebrate. But even when alert levels are over, many will be uncomfortable gathering in large groups. Our lives and habits will have been so disrupted by the changes of the last year (and more) that it is far too naive to imagine a day when bishops can lift all the restrictions and the churches are miraculously filled again in all their glory. To compare that kind of scene to Easter is not just to be unprepared for what a full reopening will look like, but also to miss the point of the first stories of Easter.
“These people are both cheering and weeping at the building of a new temple…”
As the Gospels tell it, the Easter story is full of confusion, of women so afraid because of what they had seen that they’re afraid to tell anyone. It’s a story of not believing Mary Magdalene and having to go see for yourself. It’s a story of hiding away behind locked doors because you’re afraid that you might be the next to end up on a cross like Jesus. But into all of those stories of fear and doubt comes Jesus, to reassure us that he has not left us, and that he is strengthening us for important work.
When I imagine the reopening of churches after the pandemic, I think of the story of the laying of the new foundation of the Temple in the Book of Ezra:
‘But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.’ (Ezra 3.12–13)
Some will be overjoyed to be back in community again. Others will remember the way things used to be (that favourite Anglican trap!) and long for bygone days that may never return. It can be easy to lose hope in the face of such mixed reviews, but remember the Easter hope that is there, even in Ezra’s time. These people are both cheering and weeping at the building of a new temple—the sign of God’s presence in the midst of the community. That is what we celebrate at Easter: the presence of a God who is always with us, who breaks into our stories of fear and doubt, and strengthens us for the work ahead of us.
Rebuilding the Temple was not an end in itself. Neither was seeing Jesus alive after the Resurrection. They were important next steps towards the bigger purpose. Rebuilding the Temple allowed the people of Israel to return to their work of being God’s people in the midst of the world—a kingdom of priests through which all the nations would be blessed. Seeing Jesus allowed the first disciples to return to their work of proclaiming the Good News that in Jesus, God was finally putting the world to rights. Returning to our churches will allow us to return to our work of mission—of being God’s people in the world, of sharing the Good News of the Resurrection, and of letting the world know that the Kingdom of God is already breaking into the world, right in the midst of us.