Holiness in Emptiness #CopingWithCOVID19

Resurrection Eggs; My Grandma Jessie in the 1920s, and with me in 1968.

I teach primary and my #1 job is to make those kids feel loved. Which is tough right now. We cannot meet, they are too young to Zoom or text, and thus I have had to stretch to find ways to connect. Last week I turned to my old Easter standby, Resurrection Eggs. If you’ve never heard of these, you takes 12 plastic eggs and put items in them that are symbolic of the last week of the Savior’s life (along with an accompanying scripture reference). Items might include a piece of bread to represent the Last Supper, a nail to symbolize crucifixion, white fabric as the symbol of His body being wrapped and placed in the tomb. You can do whatever you want in eggs 1-11. But the last egg, #12, is special because it represents the resurrection. I make sure that final egg is the prettiest one. You can’t really overstate the importance of Life Eternal. One needs glitter for that. The whole exercise is a perfect blend of Valley Girl and English major.

I remember the first time I shared Resurrection Eggs with my own kids. I was so excited for my youngest to open #12, which has nothing inside. I stared at her face, eager to see her make the connection between an empty egg and an empty tomb. She opened it. Nothing. She shook it. The little strip of paper with Matthew 28:5-8 on it fell to the floor. Still nothing. She held two pieces of sparkly plastic in her hands and looked so confused. “Get it? It’s empty because Jesus left the tomb. He conquered death!” one of my older kids explained. But that child holding the hollow egg was in a state of deep anticappointment, where you have built something up, believe something wonderful is coming, and then are totally let down (my sister coined this phrase after several sucky New Years Eves in the 80s).  My 8 year old smiled tentatively and I probably assuaged her with a Peep, eager for her to be happy and for me to feel like a Good Mormon Mom.

This year as I put the items and scripture strips in the eggs, I thought about the darkness and pain associated with the time leading up to Easter as I never have before. With the corona pandemic, there are days I feel I am living in a dystopian YA novel where we have all volunteered as tributes. My high school senior will have no prom, no graduation, and will be lucky to attend college in person by fall. My husband and I have both had work disappear and are scrambling to piece things together. My 87-year-old mother can’t seem to grasp that social distancing means you can’t invite your neighbor in, even if that seems “terribly rude,” and going to the post office to buy commemorative stamps is not essential. She thinks I’m being overprotective, but I feel like I am stationed on the front lines for her life. Daily I battle a combination of restlessness, hyper vigilance, and dread. I know this cannot go on forever, and yet that knowledge does little to comfort my heart.

When placing the small piece of paper into the shimmering egg, I grasped that while emptiness is a symbol of the empty tomb, of resurrection and life, there is so much pain in its hollowness. I reread John 20:11-13 and I know why Mary wept when she found the Lord’s body gone. Even a dead Jesus was better than no Jesus. Emptiness is loss and heartbreak. Emptiness is despair and uncertainty. I have miscarried four times. And even when I saw no heartbeat on the ultrasounds, as long as there was a body inside my womb, I somehow had hope of a child. Sealing each egg, I know I have been cavalier in my love of that last, most beautiful egg.  I have only seen it as hallowed, instead of hollowed.

I have sat with that hollowness for the past month and allowed myself to grieve the things I have lost. I have taken the advice of a friend and refused to let anyone “Easter the crap out of my Lent.” It is easy to tell ourselves that our pain is somehow lesser or not valid because “it could be worse.” But life is not a suffering contest where only those with the most dire circumstances are entitled to their pain. Pain is pain. Loss is loss. When Jesus finally gets to Mary and Martha after Lazarus has died, they are devastated. Does Jesus try to console them by saying, “Dry your eyes, sisters! His death doesn’t matter because I’m about to reverse all that!” No. Jesus wept. He wept because they wept and that is what our baptismal covenants require of us.

When the empty tomb feels more like a promise and less like a breach, I take solace in the communal nature of this pain. I am not alone in my suffering. Every mask I see is a sign of solidarity. When the neighbors turn their backs to each other as they pass in the grocery aisle we are protecting each other and I am grateful. The Passover teaches us there is power in our communal suffering.  I try to remember that empty things can be filled with hope and life. That Easter’s promise is not being spared death, but is an assurance of rebirth in some form.  That in Matthew 28:8 the Marys leave the empty “sepulchre with fear and great joy;” the two feelings can occupy the same space: holiness in emptiness.

On Thursday I went to my mother’s and we spent 8 hours working on a book about her mother’s life, a project that has languished for a few years. Grandma Jessie was born on Easter Sunday in 1903 and would be 117 today. Something about the Easter birthday ignited a fire in my mom and her sister. This good woman died when I was two and I don’t know much about her. The few photos we have together have faded beyond repair. My Grandpa Oscar however, was the Sun, eclipsing everyone in his orbit. His stories are burned into my soul like a brand. But Jessie was a Star, whose light must be sought in the dark night sky.

On Friday we worked for 10 hours, breaking our Good Friday fast with chile verde burritos and Diet Cherry Cokes, apparently two of Jessie’s favorite things. My mother tells me to go home, to rest. But I cannot stop weaving together the disparate pieces of her life. Each story brings new understanding, new dimensions. At midnight, exhausted and wired, we agree we have a version we can live with. My mother holds the printed pages to her chest and starts to cry. “I never thought we’d finish,” she confesses. “Now when I die, I can face Mother. This book will keep her alive for her posterity.” Then I start to cry, because this ephemeral ancestor is real to me now, made of flesh and blood.

Our work has resurrected my grandmother. A hollow part of my heart fills with love and hope.

Happy birthday, Jessie. And Happy Easter to all.

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5 Responses

  1. EmilyCC says:

    This is the Easter tribute I needed. Weaving Grandma Jessie’s life story on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is a beautiful image to hold.

  2. tjohn says:

    Thank you, Heather. Sometimes Easter Sunday seems so wonderful and yet so abstract. It really helps me to connect it to my soul when someone is able to connect it to the here and now, like you just did. I think writing the stories of our parents and grandparents definitely connects the past to the future.

  3. Chiaroscuro says:

    It is easy to tell ourselves that our pain is somehow lesser or not valid because “it could be worse.”
    just what i needed to hear <3

  4. Ellen Patton says:

    Wow this is beautiful, said from one Valley Girl to another.

  5. Diana says:

    Beautiful Heather – thank you!

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