A Quiet, Personal Easter
If there is ever a day when the church goes all out, it’s on Easter Sunday. And this is as it should be. From the earliest days of the church, the Sunday of the resurrection has been the primary festive occasion of the church. The resurrection is the very reason we worship on Sundays, and in church tradition, every Sunday is to be treated as a “little Easter.” So, when we get to Easter Sunday itself, churches and communities around the world tend to pull out all the stops.
On Easter Sunday in Sicily, they celebrate with a parade called “Kiss Kiss.” The parade has two processions. In one a statue of the Risen Christ is carried and the other carries a statue of the Virgin Mary, clad in black and in mourning. They go around the streets until the two processions meet. The Virgin’s black cloak is torn away to reveal brilliantly colored clothes and her statue is held out to plant two kisses on Jesus. At that moment, bands start playing, church bells ring, and fireworks are set off in celebration.
In Florence, Italy, a decorated wagon is dragged through the streets by white oxen until it reaches the cathedral, and when the Gloria is sung inside, the Archbishop sends a dove-shaped rocket into the cart, igniting a large fireworks display.
Eggs are a prominent part of Easter celebrations. Of course, here, many of us color eggs, hide them, and have Easter egg hunts for the children. Sometimes those can get pretty crazy. I was part of a church once that had an Easter egg hunt for the kids on Saturday that included the spectacle of flying in the Easter Bunny in a helicopter.
In Germany, eggs are not hidden, but displayed in trees along the streets. Thousands of richly decorated eggs festoon the town. In Bulgaria, people don’t hide their eggs — they have egg fights! Whoever ends the game with an unbroken egg is the winner who will have success in the coming year. In a small town in the south of France, each year in the town square they prepare a giant omelet with 4,500 eggs and feed 1,000 people.
One of America’s great cultural celebrations since the late 1800s has been New York City’s Easter Parade.
This is the one Irving Berlin wrote a song about:
In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,
You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter Parade.
I’ll be all in clover and when they look you over,
I’ll be the proudest fellow in the Easter Parade.
In this parade, women wear elaborate fashions and hats and magnificent flower displays adorn the streets and churches.
Some of the megachurches in the U.S. have gone a little crazy in recent years, trying to attract people to come to their Easter services. Some of them give away cars, vacations, electronics, free gas and groceries, and gift cards.
Some of the megachurches in the U.S. have gone a little crazy in recent years, trying to attract people to come to their Easter services. It’s all a bit over the top and pretty silly in some cases. Some of them go so far as to give away cars, vacations, electronics, free gas and groceries, and gift cards to lucky church-attenders.
Others use pop culture themes to try and get more people in the seats. In one recent year, I saw a church that had a Star Wars theme, complete with costumes and videos and Star Wars related messages and activities. Another approach has tried to build upon the popularity of zombie movies and TV shows such as The Walking Dead, using themes from these, I suppose, to illustrate certain themes about life beyond death.
Other churches take a more traditional approach, with elaborate pageants, plays, and choral productions. Big churches like to go even bigger on Easter.
These are just a few examples, but they all serve to make the point that there is something about Easter that demands festivity and celebration. Even if we don’t go crazy, many of us buy new clothes and take family pictures with everyone dressed in their Easter finery. (Pictures that most of us regret years later!) We gather together. We feast. It’s a great holiday of celebration.
Combined with the return of color and warmth and the revival of life in nature in the springtime, and after the somber reminders of Lent and Holy Week, Easter explodes with color and sound and food and festive gatherings. The music of Easter has always been exuberant and upbeat and bright, with trumpets and brass and choirs singing the Hallelujah Chorus. It’s a day to let loose, to go big, to laugh and sing and dance with joy and enthusiasm. The sun has overcome the darkness! Death has been defeated! The power of the grave has been broken! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
All this is as it should be. But it is interesting to compare all this rejoicing and revelry with the relatively quiet events of that first Easter Sunday morning that we read about in the Bible. In the Gospels, Easter and the resurrection is experienced in quiet, personal, and even intimate ways.
The angels who announce that he is risen do not fill the skies as they did at his birth. The glory of the Lord does not shine down from heaven, dropping the disciples to their knees. Nor does the risen Christ himself appear in splendor and majesty. Rather, when he appears he comes quietly, personally. There are several times, in fact, when his friends do not even recognize him when he stands right in front of them. Jesus unexpectedly enters the rooms where they have gathered, bringing a quiet, reassuring word of peace. He walks with them down the road. He teaches them from the scriptures. He breaks bread with them at the table. He has breakfast with them on the shores of the lake. He has private conversations with many of them. He has them touch him to assure them he is not a vision or a spirit.
I think it is appropriate for us to mark Easter and Jesus’ resurrection with festivity and colorful celebration. But I don’t ever want to forget the quiet, personal, intimate, and reassuring way the risen Christ comes to us.
One of the best resurrection stories to remind us of this is the account of Mary Magdelene in the garden in John 20. Let me read it to you from the New Living Translation:
Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in. She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her.
“Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”
She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?”
She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”
“Mary!” Jesus said.
She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”).
John’s Gospel loves to focus on individuals and the encounters Jesus has with them. This is one of most poignant and tender. Mary had come to the tomb earlier, had found the stone rolled away, and had left to tell Peter and John. After they checked things out, Mary returned to the tomb and was standing outside weeping. Her grief at losing Jesus was now compounded by the fact that his body was missing. The one she had come to honor and remember was no longer there, and she must have felt a profound sense of sadness, fear, and confusion.
Gathering her courage, she peeked into the cave. But instead of an unoccupied tomb, she saw two persons dressed in white. John tells us they were angels. They asked Mary why she was crying. They were not asking for information. They were gently trying to get her to see beyond her tears. Something had happened that she could not yet imagine. All she knows at that moment is that Jesus’ body is gone and the only explanation she can muster is that someone must have moved him.
Then, she becomes aware of another person in the garden. She supposes at that time in the morning that it must be the caretaker of the cemetery. He speaks, and again the question comes to her: “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
It occurs to her that maybe this caretaker had been ordered to move the body for some reason. So she appeals to him, “I am ready to take the body into my care if need be; just let me know where he is.” The Bible tells us that Mary of Magdala was one of a group of women who supported Jesus’ ministry financially, so she had the means to take care of this if it was needed.
At that moment, the stranger speaks her name. “Mary.” And the light broke through. It was Jesus, the same Jesus who had said, “I call my sheep by name and my sheep hear my voice.” Nothing could be mistaken for that voice which spoke Mary’s name. It was the same Jesus who had healed her of a severe condition, who had delivered her from the power of evil, who had turned her life completely around, and whom she had followed faithfully ever since.
Immediately she fell at his feet and cried out in breathless wonder, “Teacher!”
And that, my friends, is Easter.
Easter is when the living Christ comes to me in the darkness and lets me know I’m not alone.
Easter is when I discover Jesus is with me, even when I cannot see him standing there, right in front of me.
Easter is when Jesus meets me right here, in the midst of my confusion, my doubts, my fears, and questions. When nothing seems right. When life doesn’t make sense. When I’m numb and dumfounded and can’t figure it out.
Easter is when the living Savior speaks my name and I know it’s going to be alright.
Easter is when I begin to get a glimpse that even death and hell and the power of the grave is no match for the relentless life and love of God.
When I’m so preoccupied that even angels cannot get my attention, when I can’t see anything clearly through the haze of my tears, when I keep repeating the same questions over and over again and can’t seem to fathom a way out of my quandary, Jesus speaks to me in a familiar way and suddenly I don’t need to know all the answers. It is enough to know that he is here, that he is with me, that I am loved. That is Easter.
So, decorate with all the flowers you want. Dress up in the finest clothes you can afford. Hide the eggs and set the kids free to find them. Raise your glasses and feast together at the table. Sound the trumpets. Cue the choir. Have a parade. It is appropriate for us to mark Jesus’ resurrection with festivity and colorful celebration.
But I don’t ever want to forget the quiet, personal, intimate, and reassuring way the risen Christ comes to us.
These things I have spoken to you, that in the living Lord Jesus Christ you may have peace.
In the world you will have trouble, but take courage — he has overcome the world.