“Jesus,” she said. “And the cross.”
“That’s right,” I said. “What is it about Jesus that makes Easter special?”
“Because he got dead.”
“And then what?”
In fairness, it was Maundy Thursday and not Easter Sunday, so chances are good that are church has not been teaching her the end of the story yet. An appropriate liturgical move, I suppose, but perhaps not the best narration for a five-year-old’s understanding.
“He didn’t stay dead,” I tried to hint to her. But that’s a crazy thing to say and she looked at me accordingly. “He came back to life,” I tried to explain. Then I started to worry about whether this would get twisted in her literal brain, the ways that she already doesn’t understand death to be permanent. “They buried him, but he arose from the dead.” Which seemed equally ridiculous, because “arose from the dead” is such a high-church phrase that the only way to make it not sound silly is for it to be sung by a choir.
“Daddy, did he make himself dead?” she asked.
“No,” I said slowly. This is harder than I anticipated, I thought. “No, other people killed him.”
My brain started racing to figure out how to answer the next logical question – “Why?” – but it didn’t come.
“So they buried him,” I continued. “But three days later, the tomb was empty.”
She cocked her head in that beautiful inquisitive way she has. “You mean his grave?”
“Yes!” I said. “There was no body in it, because Jesus was alive.”
“How could anyone tell?”
“They put him in a cave,” I started. Then I was hit with the inspiration of using the resource materials our church uses my tithe dollars to buy, and I pulled out a worksheet she’d brought home from church. “See?” I said, pointing to a picture she’d colored of the empty tomb. “They buried Jesus in this cave and rolled it up with a stone. But three days later they came back, and the stone was moved and the grave was empty! Jesus wasn’t dead, he was alive!”
Recognition moved through her eyes, and her face lit up with a smile. “Oh!” she suddenly exclaimed. “And that’s why we celebrate!”
“That’s right,” I said. “We don’t celebrate that he died, we celebrate – ”
“That he didn’t stay dead!” she interrupted me.
“That’s right. We celebrate that he’s alive.”
I started to wonder if she could understand this, but then she said: “He’s alive all around us, everywhere we go.”
“Yes, he is.” So she does understand, I guess, as much as any of us.
I grew up in a tradition that skipped straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. I didn’t attend any Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services until I was in seminary. But for a church that seemed to skip right over the violent tragedies of Holy Week, our theology seemed to focus an awful lot on Jesus’ death. “Died for our sins” and “shed his blood for me” were phrases that got thrown around an awful lot, so anyone would be forgiven for deducing that we celebrate Jesus’ death. But that’s not what Easter is about for me, and that’s not what I think the Christian faith should celebrate.
Then again, it is what the world around us seems to exalt in. Unarmed black men are killed by police. Militants slaughter university students, or cartoonists, or marathon enthusiasts. A pilot flew a plane into a mountain. Some psychopath went on an HBO television special and basically admitted to murdering people. So anyone could be forgiven for deducing that this world celebrates death.
But not my God. And not me.
Life persists and thrives and grows all around us. I see my daughter put things together in her head. She can spell “cat” and she can beat me at Crazy Eights and she can color pictures of the empty tomb and stay inside the lines. She builds and creates and imagines. Everywhere she goes, she sees life: butterflies, or the full moon, or colorful rocks, or clouds that look like things. She sees death, too; she’s smart and it’s unavoidable. There will be plenty of crosses for her to encounter in this world. But there will also be empty tombs.
I pray that this weekend you are filled with your celebration of life. May your face light up with rejoicing when you, too, recognize the mystery and abundance of aliveness all around you.