The message of Easter is very simple. When something dies, bury it. Then walk away, let it be. The Bible says three days—let it be for three days. That’s how long Jesus was in the tomb. That’s how long Jonah was buried in the belly of the sea monster. “Three days” is biblical language for just a little longer than you thought . . . just one day more than you can stand. When something dies, bury it. Then wait those three days.
Resurrection day finally comes and what do you get? The same thing the women get in the biblical account: a dark emptiness. Nothing to hold onto. Then we can rage against the loss, or we can let it go. Trust that if we look deep enough and long enough, the darkness becomes radiant; trust that the emptiness in fact holds everything eternal. It’s so hard to make this leap. It’s like walking on thin air. It’s like falling… up.
Four Aprils ago a friend called me. “I have to tell you what happened this morning.” She went on to tell this ordinary yet remarkable story.
That morning a crimson cardinal had crashed into her window. She looked out and saw him lying on a flat rock. It was one of those cold mornings we had a few weeks ago—raw. If he was alive, she couldn’t leave him there to freeze to death. So she went out and picked him up, held him in her cupped hands—just sat there for almost forty minutes. Holding him, warming him. Praying for him, she said, and for someone she knew, lying in a hospital bed, who needed to live. The cardinal was alive, but motionless. She’d open her hands to see if he was ready to fly. No. He lay there.
So she took him inside and called the Greenwich Audubon Society, who gave her the name of a wildlife rehabilitator named Meredith. And Meredith said, “If this bird is going to live, it will never happen in your hands.” In other words, it’s a wonderful thing to hold and warm this bird, but after forty long minutes, you have to let it go. But how?
Meredith said, “Put it in a small box.” And I thought, “Wow, this is a burial.” But it gets even better. Meredith says, “You have him in that little box?” Yes. “Now take him into the bathroom,” she says, “and turn off all the lights and put the box into the bathtub.” And then I thought, Oh, my God, can we get a more powerful baptismal symbol? We have to bury this creature under the water!
Meredith said, you want to put this bird in a dark place where it can simply recoup—if it’s got a chance to live. And you want to put this bird in a small space, where, if he comes to life and starts to fly he can’t hurt himself. She said, “You put him in a little box, and lay him in the bathtub, and you turn off all the lights, and,” she said, “you open the bathroom window.” And then you leave. And shut the door behind you. You leave . . . for those “three days.”
My friend said she waited, then she had to go to work. When she got to work, her cell phone rang. It was her husband. The box buried in the bathtub was vacant. The bathroom was empty. Just an open window and a curtain fluttering in the morning breeze.
It’s just like the resurrection story: all you get is a dark, empty room. And yet, for my friend, that’s enough. No one saw this little avian resurrection, but the emptiness, the darkness is somehow beautiful. Perfect.
Not every bird rises to fly again. I know that. Sometimes we bury them in the back yard. It’s a mystery—life and death—which just means we can’t control it, can’t “make it happen.” All we can do is to take our hands off and let it go. That’s hard. Letting go feels like dying. But I know in my bones that the pattern of resurrection is universal.
Death comes, comes every day in a thousand little losses. And yet whatever we bury and leave for three days always rises again. We cannot see it happen. It’s as if we cannot see the picture, only the photographic negative. Only the dark place it used to occupy. But somehow, if we let it be, the darkness turns luminous—it’s still dark, it’s just a luminous darkness now. The emptiness has the clean smell of eternity all about it.