One of the things I like best about my husband is his way of prefacing the neutral, or the plain disappointing, with the words ‘but the good news is…’ There is always good news to be discovered if you look hard enough, for him at least, and that is something I love about him. But make no mistake about it, he is not an incurable optimist. He is a realist, not given to constantly affirming the positive in the best of all possible worlds.
I have always felt that optimism, when I encounter it in others, and when I resort to it myself, is fundamentally dishonest. To be merely optimistic about life is to start from a place that we have to invent for ourselves before we can begin to actually live from it. And when we do try to live from it we very often find that it rests on rather shaky foundations.
The season that we have now entered, the season of Eastertide, is not a reward for optimistic persistence in the face of troubles and difficulties, or even of death itself.
If we consider the great Easter moment, it does not promise very much. The empty tomb which has presumably been robbed, is, if anything, an emphatic signal that death is indeed final and that endings are often far from happy. The grief of the woman who discovers it is profound and raw. It does not take much imagination to empathise with it.
But what is extraordinary, I find, about this story, is that it does not take any imagination at all to understand and experience what happens next, when she hears her name called by a man who she presumes to be the gardener. There is something so ordinary about this moment and, in the light of what follows, it is probably one of the only moments in the bible when we can actually laugh, if we engage with it fully. We can laugh at the ordinary almost colliding with the extraordinary. It is a truly funny moment, when you think about it.
Like all really funny moments in life, they are best when there is more than one person laughing at them. Humour is a collective thing. It is prompted by a shared experience, or perhaps a shared memory. There is something of the absurd in them, although this is often too subtle to record accurately. The juxtaposition of impossibles is usually what makes for the absurd; a woman and her friends come to anoint a dead man. They wonder how they’ll get in to the tomb (had they not asked themselves this before?), but find it empty, with two outlandish looking strangers crouched inside (they are exceptionally tall) telling them the obvious, that the man is not here, and then a conversation with the gardener who turns out to be .. well, we know who he is.
But what does the woman who has stayed behind to grieve actually experience in the moment of this encounter? A mixture of incredulity and fear would be an understatement – or perhaps an overstatement. It would be to say too much about something that defies description. Perhaps we can only do justice to the moment by laughing with the two of them. Because the moment of recognition would have been marked with laughter and, not surprisingly, with a desire to hug, but that is forbidden, as it is in these hugless times. It is forbidden because, the woman is told, he has not yet gone to his father, who is now her father too.
So hugging is forbidden in this particular moment because there needs to be another encounter, one which encompasses and consummates every kind of love that will ever be known, on earth or in heaven itself. It is the loving embrace of the Father with the Son.
In a sense, that is to look ahead to the end of all things, the end of the Salvation Story, as we understand the word to mean, and we are not there yet. We remain, for the foreseeable future in this now moment of joyful encounter. We remain with the laughter. And that leaves us with yet more of a mystery, that somehow with all the mess and pain that we might be enduring in the moment of reading this, there is underneath it all a deep laughter, something that refuses to be defeated by cynicism, hatred or despair. Some will dismiss it as pious whimsy, others will call it mere optimism. I would call it faith.