But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
– Luke 24:1-12
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“He went home, amazed…”
Yesterday, the Gospel lesson for Easter Sunday from Luke traced the emotional journey of some of Jesus’ friends early on the first Easter morning.
- The women went to the tomb prepared to deal with death.
- Finding the stone rolled away, and the tomb empty, they were perplexed as to what had happened.
- Confronted by “two men in dazzling clothes” who announced the good news of the resurrection, they became terrified and fell to the ground in fear.
- When the women rushed back and told the apostles and others, the disciples did not believe their report.
- After running to the site and seeing the empty tomb for himself, Peter went home, amazed.
This was the first year I fully celebrated the Three Days (Triduum) and Easter Sunday with a congregation, and I felt something of this emotional journey as I never have before.
Thursday evening, we had a lovely Maundy Thursday service. By nature, this night is a time of mixed feelings. The meal we shared together brought joy. The practice of washing feet reminded us of our loving connection with our sisters and brothers. We had less formal music that night: piano, guitars, violins, and percussion, along with an ensemble of singers that led folk-style and contemporary hymns. Our youth put on a chancel drama reenacting the Last Supper, the footwashing and Jesus’ teaching in the Upper Room. In the midst of our intimate fellowship, however, there was an sense of foreboding that erupted into word suddenly when, at the end of the service, a reader stood up and recited the words of Psalm 88:
O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
As we silently reflected on this sorrowful lament, the pastor cleared the Table, removed its cloth, and put away all symbols of celebration. We arose in silence and went into the night.
The mood on Good Friday evening, of course, was somber. A simple service had been prepared, built around Heinrich Schütz’s “Die sieben Worte Jesu Christe am Kreuz.” To open, a hymn was sung, followed by prayer and an introductory homily by the pastor on the Seven Words. Then we moved into a pattern in which we alternated sections of the choral piece, the reading of the Seven Words, silence, chimes marking the Words, and prayers. The sanctuary was quiet, attentive, and reverent. The singing of Jesus’ words in German along with the pipe organ and violins was deeply expressive and moving.
We had journeyed as far as Calvary.
On Saturday we gathered outside around a fire in the cool of the evening for the Easter Vigil. We stood in front of the church and at sunset our pastor called us to a spirit of hope and expectation, lighting our candles from the fire and leading us into the dark sanctuary in procession. Lightened only by our candles, we found our seats and were called to worship. Again, we followed a simple repetitive pattern. The story of the First Testament was read from key passages, each followed by a sung psalm of response with cantor and congregation, followed by prayer. As the night deepened and we heard our family story recited, the light grew brighter. And then it was time to mark new birth. The entire congregation gathered around the font as a family brought their infant child to be baptized. After the rite, our pastor took a branch and sprinkled us all with water to remind us of our baptism, our passing from darkness to light in Christ. By then, the lights of the sanctuary were burning bright, and we sang hymns of resurrection and life in honor of Jesus, our risen Lord, giving thanks for his victory and our salvation. Gladly we came to the Table and shared the Feast together.
At the Lamb’s high feast we sing
Praise to our victorious king
Who has washed us in the tide
Flowing from his wounded side.
Easter triumph, Easter joy
This alone can sin destroy!
From sin’s pow’r, Lord, set us free
Newborn souls in you to be.
– Latin Hymn, 17th century
Translated by Robert Campbell
After the service, the congregation came together for fellowship, complete with wine, champagne, sweets, fruits, breads and cheeses. The mood was festive, the conversations lively, smiles and laughter pervasive.
And then came Easter Sunday. Rather than being a single day to mark Jesus’ resurrection, I found myself experiencing the morning as the culmination of a journey. We arrived to share in the Easter brunch of pastries, fruit, and boiled eggs. The fellowship hall was packed with people wearing brighter colors, introducing congregation members to members of their families, delighting in the children, welcoming old friends not seen in awhile. The service was filled with solid celebratory hymns accompanied by pipe organ, brass, and choir. The altar was bedecked with lilies and spring flowers in bright pastel colors. It took much longer to commune all the people; the sanctuary was full. We exited in peace, set free to serve the risen Lord. We embraced and left to share special meals with our families, having celebrated Christ, having also remembered in prayer those who yet hunger and thirst and long for new birth.
I felt a bit like Peter. I went home, amazed.
A journey had ended. A new journey begun.
An Easter people had been born anew, raised to walk in newness of life.
It’s Easter Monday.