Regardless of our spiritual background, few Americans are totally unfamiliar with the events commemorated during Easter. Perhaps it is this widespread familiarity that threatens to detract from the depth of the celebration. In an article published in Christianity Today, John Witte Jr. contrasts the circumstances of the birth of Christ with the accounts of his death and resurrection. Where prophets, angels, wise men and shepherds are all a part of God’s proclamation of his son’s birth, the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection seem positively subdued. Aside from the violence of the temple veil being torn (Matthew 27:51) and a little angelic assistance with removing the stone from the tomb (Matthew 28:2), Christ’s resurrection requires additional proof as Mary Magdalene mistakes her risen Lord for a gardener, the disciples huddled in the upper room believe that he is a ghost and only the miracle of a full net causes Peter to recognize his Lord. Even today, two thousand years after that first Easter morning, we might be well served to look more deeply into the celebrations that mark the Easter season to experience afresh the magnitude of the familiar dates, actions and words.
Ash Wednesday occurs forty days before Passover and is the first day of Lent. Named for the ashes placed on celebrants’ foreheads as a symbol of contrition and repentance, this year it was March 9. The ashes are often created using the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and are left to wear off naturally. For many denominations and individuals, Lent is a period of corporate and individual reflection and repentance in preparation for the events of Holy Week. The forty days echo both the time Jesus spent being tempted in the wilderness as well as the forty days Moses spent with God on Mount Sinai after the raising of the golden calf. Many Protestants consider the observation of Lent to be a matter of choice not obligation with their fast of choice including denial of a favorite food or drink or the inclusion of acts of charity or benevolence.
“When Christ entered into Jerusalem the people spread garments in the way; when He enters into our hearts, we pull off our own righteousness, and not only lay it under Christ’s feet but even trample upon it ourselves,”-Augustus Toplady, writer of the hymn Rock of Ages
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the week immediately preceding Easter. It celebrates the triumphal entry of Jesus in Jerusalem as recorded in all four of the gospels. The rowdy response of the crowds as Jesus rides in on a donkey is often contrasted with the stark loneliness of Christ’s impending crucifixion. Many scholars consider Jesus’ entry the fulfillment of the prophecy found in Zechariah 9:9 (NLT). It reads: “Rejoice, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey.” It is not many days before the very public celebration gives way to the intimacy of Passover in the upper room.
“Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in spring-time,”- Martin Luther, German priest and philosopher who initiated the Protestant Reformation
Although many scholars believe that Maundy is taken from the Middle English derivation of the Latin mandatum, the first word in the statement by Jesus in the gospel of John where he explains his washing of the disciples’ feet, others believe it came from alms or maundsor baskets. What is not disputed is that it marks the celebration of Passover by Christ with his disciples and the revelation of Judas’ betrayal. As Friday and Golgotha draw closer, every word and every action seems to take on a poignancy. The concept of the servant leader as Jesus bends to wash the disciples’ feet, communion and the whisper of his impending resurrection all mark this celebration.
“And he departed from our sight that we might return to our heart, and there find Him. For He departed, and behold, he is here,”- St. Augustine, theologian and philosopher influential in development of Western Christianity
Naked, harassed, sentenced to die on trumped up charges – What could be good about the death of Christ? Some scholars suggest that good is an Old English synonym for holy while others believe that it is a corruption of the word God. Many Christians find goodness in Christ’s final atoning death for the sins of mankind. Good Friday services often examine the last words of Christ and their enduring implication for modern believers.
Whether you choose to celebrate the first rays of dawn appearing over the horizon at a beach or as they filter through the stained glass of a cathedral, by methodically traveling through the events leading up to that first Easter Sunday, each event has the potential to take on a more personal meaning. Perhaps this year you heard afresh the shouts of spectacle in Christ’s entry into Jerusalem or tasted the bitterness of Judas’ betrayal. Maybe you were brought to your feet in protest at the outright unfairness of Pilates’ accusations or bent nearly double with despair as dreams of freedom died with Christ.
Perhaps the intrigue of Easter is that beyond all the scholarly debate of the historical Jesus and the wide spectrum of traditions denominations have practiced throughout the centuries, Easter can be summed up in the words of a nine-year old child. When asked the meaning of Easter, Lissey succinctly responds, “Easter makes me want to yell because I’m so happy. Last year I found an empty Easter egg and it reminded me that the tomb is empty. The joy starts in my stomach so that by the time it gets to my mouth it just explodes. Jesus is Alive!” Theologians couldn’t have put it any better. Check out how a few local churches celebrate this amazing day: