When Easter Became More than a Service
At some point in my mid-twenties, I got disenchanted with the predictable Easter Sunday ritual. It just didn’t make sense to me: one Sunday, things were relatively normal; the next Sunday, the crowd doubled in size, we focused on the resurrection of Jesus, everyone was dressed in pastel-colored outfits, and afterward, we did an Easter egg hunt. I’m not trying to be offensive, but I just felt like it was a cultural ritual that had lost its original focus (at least it had for me).
It was an evangelistic opportunity, they said. Easter is one of the two times a year that normally unwilling people come to church services. That’s true, but I wanted Easter to be meaningful for more than the fact that it was a crowd magnet. And then a few years ago, for the first time, it became a lot more for me.
Not Party Time
I go to an Anglican church in Washington, D.C., which is a major departure for a guy who was raised with a blend of charismatic and Baptist upbringing. When I first started attending my church, some of my friends back home assumed I had become some kind of quasi-Catholic who embraced all the formalities of high church culture: for example, the reading of prayers, infant baptism, and the liturgical calendar. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
I resisted all of it, and there was no time of year I resisted it more vigorously than in the 40 days leading up to Easter, otherwise known as Lent in the Anglican and Catholic traditions. Where I grew up in south Mississippi, my evangelical brethren and I saw Lent as a time when the booze-drinking Catholics from Louisiana sobered up for a few weeks after getting trashed at Mardi Gras. We looked upon Lent with disdain – we were sober all year long, we didn’t need a break from alcohol.
Then I moved to DC and fell in with this lovely lot of Anglicans who had a totally different approach to Lent. It was a time of daily, focused contemplation of the sacrifice of Jesus. The songs were more serious during this time; the sermons were a brooding walk through Gethsemane; and people fasted in order to connect with Jesus, who fasted and prayed for us during His time on earth. Quite frankly, the whole thing started to feel rather depressing and heavy after a while – especially by the time we hit Holy Week.
Easter Comes to Life
During the Maundy Thursday service, there was the solemn foot washing, and at the end of the dimly-lit Good Friday service, everyone left the building in silence. The darkness of Holy Week only intensified during the three-hour Saturday evening service (called the Easter Vigil), which used artwork, music, and drama to take us all the way from Genesis to the cross. And then the lights went out, and we all sat in silence.
I still remember my first Easter Vigil as I sat in the dark with hundreds of people, quietly contemplating the despair the disciples must have felt. All of the drama and symbolism of the Lenten season caught up with me as I pondered the loss of Jesus and I found myself taken in by the symbolism. Sitting there in the dark, I felt the longing: I desperately want to celebrate Jesus being alive again.
That’s when I nearly jumped from my seat in shock – someone banged on the back door of the church building. And through the door walked my pastor, holding a lantern, and yelled, “Christ is risen!”
The crowd sprang to its feet and shouted, “The Lord is risen indeed!” And with that, light flooded the room, and my pastor proceeded into the room, which erupted with music as women and children came dancing down the aisles in festive clothing. Many in the crowd had bells they began to ring; and everyone else pulled out their keys, shook them, and shouted at the top of their lungs with praise.
After those 40 days of Lent, the weighty symbolism of the Holy Week services, and the intensity of the Saturday evening service, Easter came alive for me in a way it never had. Easter wasn’t the event – Jesus’ resurrection was the event. I was celebrating it anew.