It's Easter next week. Two days ago my husband and I spent the day cleaning up the yard: dirt piles, rocks, and leaves on the lawn and in all the flower beds. Our yard consists of two lots, both covered with trees - scrub oaks that scatter acorns and leaves all fall, and pines that drop their needles into thick piles - so the workload in the spring is heavy and monotonous. My husband finally got rid of the giant dirt pile that's taken over our patio since last summer, when we dug out window wells to remodel our basement. For months, the boys would climb the dirt pile, finding cool rocks and throwing them all over the patio or burying toys and then scavenging for them with beach shovels. Their friends would walk the pointed ridge of the dirt pile like a tightrope, and scoot down on their bottoms, leaving a little bum trail. Little Cooper took to eating some of that dirt, using the same beach shovels as spoons. But ever since the window wells were finished and our indoor remodeling started coming to a close, that dirt pile has just needed to go. Covered in snow for months, I forgot about it - it was just another contour of white out our bedroom window - but now, fully exposed, it's a blight to our backyard. We wanted to clean things up for Easter, for an egg hunt, and it was finally good weather. It was time.
I've thought about timing this morning as I write this. For months, this last chapter of Matthew has hung around my head like a little cloud. I had no idea what to say about it. I wanted to be didactic and profound, to get it just right, because this is the final chapter for Matthew. And what happens is a pretty big deal.
According to Matthew, Mary Magdelene and "the other Mary" come back to the sepulchre after their Sabbath and outside it, sitting on a stone, they find an angel who tells them Jesus is gone. This is the sum of everything Jesus has taught and would require the sum of all the faith his believers had shown so far. But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself moving into defense rather than celebration. After all, you either believe Jesus was really the Son of God or you don't. You either believe he came back to life, or you don't. I have no empirical evidence to convince anyone of what I believe. But, really, they don't either.
But something stood out to me. Matthew says that Mary Magdelene and "the other Mary" left "with fear and great joy." That those two emotions co-exist makes perfect sense to me. In order to find that great joy, we generally have to step out into the fear. And, in this life, they often remain together. Fear comes because something great is at stake, something we don't want to lose. And joy generally comes when we find or see or begin to comprehend that what is most precious to us is, in fact, ours or, really, that we are part of it, since it's often bigger than what we can hold or "own." It's the yes and yes and yes where we feared the no. Sometimes we carry both the yes and the no in our hands, trembling. That's how I see the Marys, traveling back to the disciples to bring them the news, news so outrageous, so fantastic they won't believe them.
Timing can be everything in this too. There are times in my life when I've been more willing to risk the fear to get to the joy. I was better at it when I was young, maybe best when I was just coming into that phase of life when the freshness of everything - the physical world, boys, my own internal life - was at its peak. At just this time, in my first summer of college, I moved up to West Yellowstone, Montana with my four best friends.
We all worked at Eagle's Store, and most days we spent making malts at the old soda fountain or selling t-shirts and trinkets or fitting cowboy boots for the flocks of tourists that came through town on their way to see the magnificence of Yellowstone. We were stuck indoors those long hours while it seemed everyone else was out fishing on the river or hiking through meadows of wildflowers or sauntering down the streets of town, lingering in the doorway of souvenir shops, money in their pockets and a Dairy Queen blizzard in their hand.
Life for us really started after dark. We'd race back to our cabins from work, change into our swimsuits, grab the one towel we'd packed for the summer, and pile into a red Chevy Cavalier and a silver Geo Storm with a few of the boys from Jacklin's Fly Shop. And we'd drive past the empty park ranger station and on into the park. We’d wind along near the Madison River until we came to the small canyon drive that shot off from the main road. And at the bottom of the cliffs that framed and hemmed in the Firehole river, we parked, stepped out into the night - no sound but the slamming of car doors, the music of the river, and our own laughter - and climbed the rocks to a ledge. Twenty feet? Thirty feet? How high were we up in that moonlight above the river? And what about those nights when the moon had waned into a thin sideways smile? All that darkness around us and a long drop below.
Our friend Nick would sit on a large rock below us and shine a flashlight onto the river. One by one we would step out onto the edge and focus on a light that, in Nick's hands, jerked a little over the moving water. The darkness all around and one small circle of light.
Sometimes I feel like, in order to defend our own faith, we hold ourselves at gunpoint. Give me the evidence, we often tell ourselves. More often I find that my faith returns when I've let go. But it's not as if it's all sunny and obvious when I do. It's still work, often harder work. And the light is just enough to get back to a place I can hold onto. And then it starts over again.
He is not here.
For he is risen.
With fear and great joy.
We would climb to the top and leap. Yes, there was a light, but by the time we reached the bottom, it held us only for a moment and was gone again. Instead, we swam in the dark, sometimes against a strong current. The thrill of that falling we still carry in our bones, and the moment of standing under a starry sky, the river water dripping off of us and our breath returning in excited gasps. That was just as real as the darkness around us. And the wonderful thing is not that we did this at all, but that we did it again and again. That we still do.