Reimagining Easter Among Empty Pews
Of all the seasons for our people to be sheltering in place, why the pinnacle of the church year? If summiting this festival wasn’t challenging enough for pastors now we must find ways to proclaim an empty tomb to empty pews! But before we resign ourselves to merely “salvaging Easter” this year, I wonder… could the unique circumstances of our cultural crisis actually allow for one of the most memorable and authentic celebrations of “He is Risen!” ever?
Through music, liturgy and proclamation worship seeks to escort worshipers into the story, to have them kneel alongside the shepherds at Christmas and hear the Spirit’s rush at Pentecost. But even in “usual” times we have struggled to authentically communicate the first Easter.
Our worship is spectacular and our crowds are ginormous.
The first Easter was a private affair attended only by a few forlorn women with pretty low expectations.
We pull out all the stops (literally). Our processions are impressive and the music rattles the rafters.
With the exception of Matthew’s earthquake, Easter was quiet, occurring almost in secret.
We are joyful and expectant.
The first witnesses were frightened and taken by surprise.
Preachers are compelled to impress the crowds with their “best stuff” mining the familiar story for some homiletical gem that no one in Christendom has ever noticed and to woo visitors to return again before Christmas.
First Easter Sermon? “I have seen the Lord!” Period.
But perhaps most significant, our celebrations take place in a completely decked out sanctuary or the perfect spot for witnessing a sunrise.
The locale of the first Easter?
After proclaiming, “Do not be afraid” and “He is risen!” Do you recall the angel’s next words to the first Easter visitors? Neither did I. “The Lord is traveling.” (My paraphrase.) “…indeed, he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” (Matthew’s version 28:7).
Sit with that message for a moment.
Jesus’ entire ministry was carried out publicly and climaxed with his death in the power center of the religious universe. But as soon as he was resurrected, the Lord slinked off to the “burbs” and requested that his disciples join him there. The women left the tomb to deliver the angel’s message apparently motoring at a pretty good pace (or Jesus wasn’t) because they overtook the risen Lord who greeted them and repeated the same instructions. “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
The preferred location for the first Easter? Galilee. Often referred to in Jesus’ day as “good for nothing,” Galilee seems a rather unimpressive place to launch a resurrection movement….except…this is where Jesus first engaged many of his “brothers” and the place they grew up, learned their trades, went to school, raised their children, played golf, planted gardens…lived life. In sending the disciples to Galilee Jesus was taking the resurrection “home” and unleashing its power in the midst of everyday life.
But frightened by the Jews lurking outside or in disbelief of the women’s reports inside (or both), the disciples fail to comply with Jesus’ travel instructions and shelter in place behind locked doors in Jerusalem. Jesus had to enact “Plan B” and walk through walls in order to reach and then deploy the new Easter people.
Each year as I descend the seasonal summit I wrestle with the same post-Easter anxiety. I trust that the masses have been inspired by the worship and appreciative of all we labor that goes into providing it, but I have to wonder how much traction the resurrection manages in their lives come Easter Monday and how much of the message is left in the sanctuary atop the mountain?
Cyber worship is no one’s preference for this Easter. Yet could our people, who are sheltered in place, frightened about the dangers awaiting them outside, the uncertainty of their futures, the ever diminishing likelihood that they will return to “life as it used to be,” be particularly available this year for “Worship Plan B”? Despite its delivery challenges and the fact it lacks its usual spectacle, could worshiping through walls help usher our folks into the Easter story and avail them to the power of the resurrection in a new way? Authentically? In Galilee?
By Rev. Joe Crowther | Consultant | Kairos and Associates | firstname.lastname@example.org
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