Easter 2019: a different kind of sameness
“I hope you’ve had a nice Easter,” the waiter said to a customer, sitting with his family at a nearby table.
“Oh, it’s not really different than any other day for us,” the man replied.
My fork stopped in mid-air, as I took a moment to process this unexpected response. Having spent the past three days filling my mind and heart and soul with Easter stories, songs and greetings, I was expecting something more like, “He is risen! Alleluia!”
I can’t imagine Easter being like “any other day.” Having grown up in a Christian church, for me Easter has always been a highlight of the church year, complete with Easter lilies, ham dinners and new spring clothes. I can still picture our family sitting together in the pew on Easter Sunday morning, dressed to the nines in pastel colors, bows and bonnets. I can hear my little brother belting out his favorite Easter hymn, “Up from the grave, He arose!!”
The significance of Holy Week has grown as my faith has matured. From the meaningful meals shared with my church family on Maundy Thursday, to the dark and somber mood of Good Friday; from the hopeful watching of the Easter Vigil, to the grand finale on Easter morning.
For me, the holy days of this week are not like other days. They are set apart. And this past weekend, they managed to be even more unique as we observed them in new and different ways.
We have several special family celebrations in April, and occasionally, when the full moon comes later in the calendar year, Easter falls into the mix. This year was one of those years, with Good Friday and Easter sandwiched right between Chloe’s birthday (on Maundy Thursday), and Jared’s (on Easter Monday). Since our older kids weren’t planning to come home for the holiday, we decided to take a road trip up to Minnesota to visit Chloe, and to hear her choir perform. While we were disappointed to have to miss our own church’s wonderful Holy Week services, it seemed this year’s Easter holiday was destined to be different.
We arrived on St. Olaf’s campus on the afternoon of Good Friday. Since we had a few hours before Chloe’s evening performance, we got some “business” out of the way. We dumped a suitcase-full of her spring clothes in her dorm room, and reloaded it with the winter clothes she wanted us to bring home. (In conversations with other parents over the weekend, we learned we weren’t the only parents assigned the task of migrating clothing from home to school, and back home.) Then we acknowledged Chloe’s birthday with some cards, gifts, and a quick dinner out, before getting her back to campus in time for her final rehearsal.
As the sun was beginning to set, we entered the beautiful Boe Memorial Chapel. The cross, covered in a black veil was carried to the front of the chancel as the service began. The light which poured in through the stained-glass windows around us, slowly dissipated into darkness, as the Cantorei choir presented Bach’s St. John’s Passion. The oratorio tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion through song, in Bach’s native German language (translated in our programs so we could follow along). The choral pieces and the soloists were all exceptional, and moving. It was a long program, nearly two hours, and the amount of work the musicians had put into it was evident. It was a sacred and reverent start to our Holy Week services.
After a relaxing Saturday morning, we stepped outside into the sunshine, and were enveloped by warm breeze. We spent our afternoon doing a little shopping, but every time we stepped outside, there was the uncontrollable urge to look up to the sky and soak in the sunshine. With temps in the high 70’s for the first time all year, we couldn’t stop exclaiming “What a beautiful day!”
Again at sunset, we made our way back to Boe chapel. This time, we would participate in the Easter Vigil service. Whereas Friday night was spent mostly watching and listening, with a couple songs for us to join in on, this service was very engaging throughout. We gathered with the crowd outside on the steps of the chapel around a small pot of burning coals. The Christ candle was lit from the coals, and then led the processional into the sanctuary, where the flame was passed around to each of us as we held our own small Christ-lights. The sanctuary was dark, except for the glow of the candles.
The service proceeded with five scripture readings recalling the story of salvation: beginning with Creation, and moving on to the crossing of the Red Sea, the promise of salvation for all in Isaiah, the valley of dry bones, and the story of the fiery furnace (presented in a light-hearted, dramatic way with audience participation). Interspersed with the readings were traditional hymns, most of which were familiar to us. Others, probably familiar to the Lutherans in the crowd but new to us, kept us on our toes as we followed along with the words and music. My favorite was the old spiritual “When Israel was in Egypt’s Land.” As the massive pipe organ hammered out a marvelous accompaniment, you could almost hear the Israelites tromping through the Red Sea on dry ground, spewing up dust in the Egyptian’s faces. It was very impressive!
About an hour into the service, the tone changed from dark and somber, to light and celebratory, as the story of the empty tomb was read. The congregation began singing the “Gloria,” as the vestments at the front of the church were quickly changed to white, and the black veil was removed from the cross where it had been since Friday night’s service. Then, came the biggest surprise of all.
Two cannons on either side of the sanctuary shot brightly-colored streamers over the whole congregation! Curly strands of pink, orange, yellow, green and blue rained down on our heads and shoulders, and covered the benches and floor of the sanctuary. Everyone, young and old alike, gazed in wonder with eyes turned upward and smiles beaming. It brought to mind the absolute joy and surprise the women must have felt when they found Jesus’ tomb empty on that morning of the third day.
The whole service was a stunning reminder of the transition from death to life, as we remembered our baptism, and celebrated holy communion. As we came forward for the bread and wine, the choir sang “My Dancing Day,” helping us recall again the sacrifice of our Lord for His true love, the church.
Our third and final Easter worship experience was on Sunday morning. We made the short drive to Emmaus Church, where Chloe usually attends. A much less formal service with a praise band that totally “rocked it out,” reminded me that true worship can take many forms. I could feel the Spirit moving as we sang a mix of contemporary songs with the praise team, and traditional hymns accompanied by a small brass band. As we sang “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” it was easy to imagine our voices blending with Christians around the world. As the pastor prayed for the people in Sri Lanka, we were reminded once again of the broken world in which we live, and our great need for a Savior.
During the offering, one of the young band members sang “Ain’t No Grave.” It brought to mind loved ones who have gone before us, and I was comforted as the whole praise team joined in, repeating these lines in full harmony: “Ain't no grave gonna’ hold my body down; Oh, and if You walked out of the grave, I'm walking too.” As the soulful gospel song filled the rafters, the promise of life after death that we celebrate on Easter morning was brought home.
As I recall the moving worship services we witnessed this weekend, my thoughts return to the man in the restaurant with no Easter in his life. I think of many others in our world who are searching for the answers to life’s big questions. My heart aches for them, as the Holy Spirit longs for them.
This Easter weekend I was reminded that no matter how different Easter Sunday is from any other day, or how different one year is from the next, or how different one congregation or worship style is from another; there is still a comforting sameness.
The same promises are proclaimed from year to year, in Christian churches around the world; from Bach to Johnny Cash; from “high church” music to spirituals, gospel and rock. The story is the same. The gift is the same. The promises we receive on Easter morning are the same.
And they’re the same promises we’ll wake up to on Monday, and Tuesday, and every other “ordinary” day throughout the year. “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”