On Easter Sunday, everyone looks sharp. The pastor in his crisp blue shirt and somber eyes walks across the stage three times. I know this because I am counting each solitary step. Normally I like him, because he yells. He looks at the perfect Christians with their shiny hair and their doll-like smiles and their composed hands and tells them to stop looking so damn cool. He leaps around the microphone, spittle flying, and points fingers at those who point fingers, and tells us money is expendable and love is not. I like him because out of five churches in five years, only he makes me feel like I have a chance at redemption.
Today he is not yelling. His voice is soft and hushed, something in it reminding me of the stealthy creep through old museums. Sweat is seeping through my armpits and already I am struggling to draw breath in this heavy stillness.
“You can choose to believe that Jesus was not really dead,” he says. “You may be convinced the Romans stole the body of Jesus from the tomb. The whole thing could have been a hoax.”
He pauses, holding out his hands open.
“Nevertheless, the fact is that the tomb, when the stone was rolled away before Peter that morning, was empty.” A kind of sweet, lush serenity slips onto his face. Suddenly, under blue and violet stage lights, my yelling pastor is radiant.
“Empty,” he repeats.
The congregation sighs. I am supposed to contemplate the ramifications of a tomb without its inhabitant, the case the missing body, an Agatha Christie mystery, but I can’t. I find my thoughts wandering instead to Peter, the self- professed devotee, the self-condemned betrayer.
Did he drop behind the others on Sunday morning, as they ran desperately for answer? As the great gray stone began to roll away, did he begin to secretly hope for no body to be found? Did he stare at the soiled, empty linen sheets, left behind, and feel a pulse of unfettered joy? Or was there a part of small, small ugly voice, whispering, surely not, surely not? Was he stricken by helpless shame, as the moist, escaping smell of that cavernous space rolled over him? Peter stands still before an empty tomb, hours before he gathers twelve restless men, years before he would proclaim to large crowds that God had beaten death. I wonder if he too, under the weight of that silence, bows his head to pray. I am so sorry. I am so ashamed.
Perhaps not. Perhaps in front of the tomb, he is thinking of Friday, only two days ago, how could it be? Three men hang in a limp line, nailed by the palm to heavy wood. They have been beaten; the raw, open flesh is coagulating thickly, caked dark red. It is high noon, and the sun bakes them.
Perhaps Peter is thinking of himself shrinking into the gathering crowd, fearing he will be recognized. He does not want to die. King! King! The crowd jeers at the hanging man. Save yourself! The Son of God licks his lips. He says nothing.
A woman in the crowd elbows Peter, squints at him from under her shawl. Hey, I remember you, she says, don’t you know this guy?
Peter turns away, his gorge rising.
No, not really, he says.
The rooster crows, Peter sees. Jesus dies, the heavy stone sticks before it rolls into place.
After the service, donuts and coffee are offered outside on tablecloths of thick crimson. I shudder a little at the color choice. A man I don’t know with greying hair and crumbs on his lips offers me a plate. He is kind, and attempts to engage me in polite conversation. Am I a student? Did I like the sermon? It takes the last of my energy to excuse myself politely. I hover alone on the steps of church, husked out, limp, paper plate gripped in one sweaty hand. The empty tomb, the missing Son, must I alone determine its meaning? Before me, people are scattering in their suits and sundresses, some shielding their eyes against the sudden light, some with their arms around each other, some going home after this back to bed for nap, some who are good people with good intentions, some who are good people with bad intentions.
Near the doors, I spot some Duke students chatting to each other. I pass them in the cafeteria on campus, sometimes. They haven’t seen me yet, won’t see me, when I finally bear it no longer and walk away.
Sometimes it hurts so much to be here, God, I cry. Why am I still here?
My dear, He says back gently, the tomb is still empty.