In a calendar of firsts, Easter without Rob surprised me as the hardest “first” to mark. Quarantined Lent was unsettlingly calm, and Easter’s pain snuck up on me and knocked me flat. I wasn’t prepared for how hard this Easter would be. This past Sunday, it wasn’t the holiday traditions I missed, though we used to have some fabulous ones. It wasn’t even being forced to stay home from church because of coronavirus. The hardest part of Easter this year was Jesus’ empty tomb.
When I was a little girl, I trusted Jesus as my Savior. The story of his death and resurrection is one I know by heart. For almost four decades, I have sung and memorized and praised and prayed these gospel truths. I affirm the historicity of the cross. I have studied the resurrection accounts. I believe the story of the empty tomb.
But I am convinced now that I never understood the sheer audacity of Jesus’ claims and promises until the day I stood at the fresh grave of the one I loved. When my shadow fell across the soil that would cover his body, when I witnessed first hand death’s heartbreaking finality. When, with every ounce of my being, I cried out for the grave to open up and bring Rob back to me. It was then and every day since that Jesus has come to me and said, “Who do you say I am?”
This Easter I wanted to rejoice with abandon. I wanted to stand on the promises of Jesus and lift my eyes in unadulterated hope of eternal triumph. But this Easter all I could do was weep for all that yet remains unfinished. For the curse that is defeated now and not yet. For my beloved husband who still lies asleep in Christ. On Easter, I stood at a tomb longing for Rob to come out. But his grave in that sunny cemetery field remains unchanged. Only Jesus’ tomb is empty.
There was a time when I would have questioned, “Only? Isn’t Jesus’ resurrection enough?” But since Rob died, I have realized that the empty tomb was never meant to fully satisfy my longings. “[The Resurrection] is the beginning of the New Creation,” writes C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles. “A new chapter in cosmic history has opened.” Easter then is not an end but a start, Jesus’ death and resurrection the inauguration of the new kingdom. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” writes the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. Jesus’ resurrection is just the beginning; all creation still waits in eager expectation. It is natural then that the empty tomb would leave me wanting more.
I confess, I am impatient. And mourning. I don’t want just an empty tomb 2,000 years ago. I want resurrection, new creation now. Jesus’ victory over sin, death and the devil has sealed my pardon; but I still wait for all to be made new. I long for that day so much it hurts. I want God’s timing to hurry up. I want redemption now. Jesus’ resurrection has whet my appetite. That’s what firstfruits do. He has called me to trust his promises in the face of death these last nine months, and every day I have prayed, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” This year’s Easter spoke a dramatic not yet. So far, only one tomb is empty.
When Paul writes to the Corinthian church about Christ as the firstfruits, he uses a word that appears only once in the New Testament — τάγματι (tagmati) — “order.” “So also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” This word “order” is unlike similar words throughout Paul’s epistles. It does not imply the orderliness of a calendar or military ranks, but instead calls the reader to envision a higher level of orderliness — divine intention and omniscient plan. An order that is not within my control, details to which I am not privy. Responding to the Corinthians’ questions about the resurrection of the dead, Paul tells the church, resurrection indeed is coming. All in τάγματι— God’s good, wise, mysterious, all-knowing time.
Each year, we celebrate Easter still holding our breath. We stand beside the empty tomb, and — if we are honest with ourselves — it isn’t enough. Jesus’ resurrection — the firstfruits — has whet our appetites. We are longing for more. We long for the day when Christ, the Lover of our souls, will come in glory. We eagerly await the day when the dead in Christ will rise and so shall we ever be with the Lord. And each Easter, until Jesus comes again, we are asked to trust a divine plan of which we only see the beginning.
This Easter, I wanted more empty tombs. However, God in his wisdom and good time has, so far, only given me one — the most important firstfruits one. And he has asked me to trust him — to trust his plan, his order, his timing even when I do not understand it. And so, with a tearstained face, I stand beside the empty tomb this Eastertide and claim Paul’s words as my own. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Take heart, my soul, resurrection and redemption are yet to come.