Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Is Here to Stay

It’s no small irony that the defining event of Christianity is celebrated by many, if not most, people only briefly. Easter is commonly brushed off in a single day, even in one hour. Easter Sunday comes and goes like a breeze, and that’s that.

The observance of Easter seems to be getting short shrift when compared to the lengthy buildup of Lent. In that forty-day (not counting Sundays) season, we follow the journey of Jesus to the cross and grave—and then comes the wondrous and wonderful message, “He is risen!” Awe and Joy and Singing God’s praise on Easter Sunday—and Monday it’s back to business as usual.

This approach to Easter, of course, ignores the fact that Easter is not a day but a season that begins on Easter Sunday and continues for seven full weeks winding up with Pentecost. This kind of neglect of Easter celebration is, to say the least, problematic.

For one thing, such a downsizing of Easter throws the Christian Year all out of balance.

Lent is what you might call a “dark” season. It usually begins in the grayness of winter when the days are short and cold. Lent has shadows also because it’s a time of penitence and repentance, sacrifice and discipline. Lent is work, and it can be hard work.

The biblical story of Lent is a difficult one as well. Jesus endures and survives wily temptations and moves through a drama that includes rejection, betrayal, abandonment, brutality and an agonizing death. And that’s where Lent leaves us, with an aching sorrow about our Lord, our world, ourselves.

So, if only one day of rejoicing is called forth in answer to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the response is woefully inadequate. If we leave it that way, then the tragedies of Lent are unrelieved and tend to swamp the joy of the resurrection.

It must be clear, however, that we’re not looking for the “happy ending” that makes everything come out all right at the end. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not that happy ending but a new beginning—and that’s when the fresh life Jesus promised begins for each one of us. We do not grasp the meaning of that new life in a single day or hour. It takes time to let Easter penetrate our souls and find expression in everyday living.

That’s why there is a seven-week Season of Easter. The lectionary readings highlight the dimensions of what is in store. Instead of Old Testament readings about the people of God before Jesus, now we have readings from the Acts of the Apostles proclaiming the faith of the first followers of the Risen Christ. The Gospel lessons tell stories of doubting and faith, for Thomas and the two others on their way to Emmaus, and they rehearse the promises of Jesus about his presence with those he loves beyond all time.

The long Easter Season also gives us time to continue those disciplines we established during Lent—whether they were sacrifices or commitments, giving of ourselves in one way or another in the name of Jesus Christ. Easter people live that way all the time, not just for a season. Being disciples means that we are learners—we learn the way of Jesus, and we acknowledge his living presence as he teaches and leads us.

Nevertheless, it is devilishly easy to scale back Easter. So what might we do to emphasize Easter and make sure it’s here to stay?

Renewal of baptismal commitments is one way to remind ourselves whose we are, and whom we will serve. The Book of Common Worship (1993) offers a “renewal of the Baptismal Covenant for a Congregation” that fills the bill here.

Offerings throughout Easter could include specific commitments by people to carry out ministries within the congregation and to the community.

Additional study opportunities might be presented for times other than Sunday morning, not only for Bible study, but for serious scrutiny of issues of justice and peace around the world and around the corner.

A congregation might be brazen enough to have evening prayer at least once a week through the Season of Easter, bringing the concerns of real life to share with one another and offer to God.

Easter, after all, is the basis of our faith, and the foundation of Christian worship. During the Season of Easter we rejoice in all God’s blessings given in Jesus Christ who has died, but now is risen. This sets the theme for all our worship throughout the year when every Sunday is Easter Sunday.

What happens in your congregation to emphasize Easter as the longest and most important season of the church year?

1 comment:

  1. We of the Western church are the inheritors of a stunted calendar. We have succumbed to a penitential preoccupation of which there were hints as early as Gregory the Great, but they really only took hold in the second millennium. That is when the crucifix became prominent, and the rigors of Lent were really developed. It was not always so.

    In the early church and in most of the first millennium there was a remarkable balance between the suffering and death of the Messiah and the resurrection and new life It started with a one week emphasis, the Holy Week before Pascha, and the Bright Week after Pascha. The Eastern Orthodox churches still celebrate Bright Week that ends on the Eighth Day, the Sunday that the Western church tends to call “low sunday” (It doesn’t deserve to be capitalized!) The Western Church at least has the Twelve Days of Christmas to remind us that there was once a time of rejoicing in the ecstasy of the Incarnation. But we don’t even have a vestige of Bright Week, when the Orthodox Churches celebrate the Divine Liturgy every day, culminating in Bright Sunday, or Sunday in White. In the West, in most of the second millennium, the penitential and emphasis on the death of Christ took center stage.

    Even the Eastern Churches are slipping. Upon checking the churches around Princeton, NJ, most have the Divine Liturgy only on the Monday after Pascha. It is only when we get to the New York and Philadelphia areas that we find the every morning Divine Liturgy, usually from 6:30 – 8:00 a.m. The faithful folks in that tradition come together to rejoice in the resurrection and receive the Bread and the Cup every morning that week. And they do come! Considering that the book of Acts, that is read in its entirety at the Paschal Vigil, usually with the Divine Liturgy celebrated after midnight of Paschal eve, the church then embarks on the exposition of the explosion of expansion of the Christian Church in the Acts of the Holy Spirit throughout the Great Fifty Days.

    We have lost the remarkable symmetry of Forty Days – Holy Week – PASCHA – Bright Week – Fifty Days. And the only vestige of Bright Week is that the Western Church (Roman Catholic) still has on the books, the designation of “Dominica in Albis,” Sunday in White, but there are probably only a couple priests in a hundred that pay any attention to that, and we Protestants don’t have the foggiest idea what it is. And Acts 20:26 is so specific, that it was on the eighth day, with all of its connotations of the day after the days of creation, the eschaton, the bliss of eternity, the culmination of God’s divine plan for all creation, that we reach Dominica in Albis, St. Thomas Sunday, the theme of the eighth day. (Even the “eighth day” symbolism is lost with the NRSV translation of that verse!)

    Our question is, could we recover this tradition as we consider liturgical renewal in the Western Church? Could we make that an aim of the third millennium?

    Arlo D. Duba


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