Pastor’s Perspective. . .
It should not surprise us that Easter suffers in comparison to Christmas. The secularized version of Easter has not translated well into the digital age. The Easter basket is not a sufficient delivery system for our gift giving appetites and the boiled egg pales in comparison to the candy cane. Once Reese’s came up with the Christmas tree version of their peanut butter egg, there was nothing that Easter had that Christmas couldn’t match in a secularized world.
Easter suffers from a particularly messy back-story. The story of Easter includes, betrayal, abandonment, a full on scourging, and a public execution; none of which translate well into whimsical family fare. These aspects of the story may explain why Charles Schulz’ Easter special (It’s The Easter Beagle Charlie Brown) contains none of the cultural or spiritual resonance of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. One can quote the birth narrative from the gospel of Luke at Christmas time and still get an airing on broadcast television, the Passion narratives just don’t connect as well with a mass audience.
The world, and even many of us in the Church, would like to ignore the blood of Christ and the sacrifice of Calvary. We seek to gloss over the bloody story of the crucifixion of Jesus, and metaphorically move from the birth of the Christ child to his glorious resurrection without the threat of Herod or the Cross of Rome. Some Churches simply skip the crucifixion of Jesus entirely and move directly from Palm Sunday to Easter, without ever truly meditating on the death of Jesus on Good Friday. When I left the Catholic Church as a youngster, I heard my Protestant friends rail against the presence of Jesus on the Crucifixes and Crosses displayed in Catholic and Orthodox Churches around the world. Now thirty plus years later I must question whether our empty crosses truly tell the story of God’s triumph over death or simply keep us from acknowledging the real cost of that triumph; the suffering and death of God’s son.
We instinctively turn away from the Cross of Jesus Christ. By doing so we allow ourselves the ability to frame Easter as we choose. We can focus on the rebirth of all life and the seasonal changes of Spring, while ignoring the true meaning of Jesus’ parable of the seed that must be buried in the ground in order that it might bring forth life. We allow ourselves the pleasures of life, without ever confronting the wages of sin and the inevitability of death.
The gospels, however, do not allow us to easily turn the Easter story into a meditation on the rites of Spring or the renewal of the earth through seasonal changes. The gospels place the story of Jesus into a real-world context of danger and violence. The sword and the cross are an ever present reality in the story of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The gospel narratives betray the truth to those of us who prefer the baby Jesus to the Rabbi who took up His cross and died on a hill called Golgotha. The Christmas story is sparsely told in the gospels and is completely ignored by both Mark and John. In contrast over a third of the gospel narratives focus specifically on the last week of Jesus’ life. The same gospel writers who do not name the Inn Keeper who offer Joseph and Mary a place in the stables specifically name the man who is called from the crowd to help Jesus carry his cross. The writers who never give us the names or even the number of Me Magi who travel from the East to visit the Christ child feel compelled to share with specificity the two men who petition Rome for the right to retrieve the body of their slain Messiah for burial. The details of the story betray the importance that the authors placed in this particular moment of history.
In the same way, Paul, Peter, and John do not write letters reminding the new-born Church of the glory of the Savior’s birth. Instead they continually and persistently emphasize the death and resurrection of the suffering servant. The Apocalypse does not envision Jesus as the lamb who was born of a virgin, but as the Lamb who was slain. The universal symbol of the Church was never the sign of the stable, nor was it a crown and a scepter, nor even the empty tomb. Instead we have inherited the Cross as the sign of our faith and the crown that we remember is one woven in thorns. The scepter that Jesus experiences is a police baton used to pummel the King of Kings.
Regardless of the importance of the moment to the Church, we must acknowledge that Easter does not hold the universal appeal of the birth of the promised child. Easter contends against the assumptions of the world. Easter reminds us that we are not as good as we aspire to be. It tells us that evil and death are not aberrations in our world. It reminds us that, regardless of what history might say, it was not the Romans or the Jews who truly crucified Jesus the Christ. We are the ones who crucified Christ and it was for ME that Jesus died.
Most of us KNOW this. Why then do we attempt to turn away from the story? Why do we cover it over with visions of Easter Bunnies and jelly beans? Why do so many Christians want to remove Jesus from the Cross during the celebration of Easter and yet find no problem keeping him in the crèche at Christmas?
Paul wrote in the decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus that the Cross of Christ is both offensive and foolishness to the world. It still is. No matter how hard we try to tame the story or celebrate the empty tomb, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection still makes us… well… feel bad. It forces us to embrace both death and grief. It forces us to recognize that we are not worthy, that we are sinners in need of God’s grace, that it was our sin that caused Jesus to take up His cross, that as the old preacher once put it, “we drove the nails.”
Easter has always been, and will always be, a hard sell for the world around us. Perhaps that is the point. Christmas is attractive. It is about light and joy and glory. Angels sing and shepherds dance. Easter is far more sober affair. Easter forces us to reckon with the darkness and sweat it out with the Lord at Gethsemane. Easter forces us to take a ringside seat as God allows evil to take a few hard rights and jolting lefts at the defenseless Son of God. Christmas causes the heavens to open with light and song, while Easter is a series of earthquakes that split the earth and eventually open the tomb itself.
We rarely respond well to a story that portrays us as the villain. That does not make the story any less true. It is not our responsibility to determine how the world receives the story. It is simply our job to tell it. Over and over again. To share it as the scriptures reveal it to us. To present the deep love of God expressed in the life and sacrificial death of Jesus, the Son of God. To share the grace of God that allows that sacrifice and the blood of Jesus to cover the sins of all who would repent and accept the Lordship of Christ. To tell the story of the glory of God revealed in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day.
So tell it we shall. Please join us as we tell the old, old story once again this year in our many Holy Week services.