Finding our whole story in Easter
by: Anne Smith, pastor at Southpoint
When I grew up, I went to a little Baptist church that had only two liturgical days on the calendar: Christmas and Easter. Even as a child, this seemed strange to me. Suddenly, it would be Easter! We’d dress up, hunt for our Easter baskets, have a bunch of lilies around the cross, sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!”, be told that Jesus died to save us from our sins so that we could have eternal life, and then, next week, everything would be back to normal.
Increasingly, I find a wider, deeper meaning by living Easter from within the unfolding story of the liturgical calendar, which mirrors the life of Christ. We prepare for resurrection during Lent, we celebrate resurrection on Easter Sunday, and we practice resurrection during the season of Easter, which extends to Pentecost. Holy Week holds this all together. During Holy Week, we witness and watch the movements of Jesus as he makes his final journey to the cross. His passion reveals the full measure of God’s love, and his resurrection reveals the full measure of God’s power.
Love proves stronger than hate, mercy stronger than judgement, forgiveness stronger than vengeance. The worst agency of the Evil One, death, becomes the agent of redemption. In this eucatastrophe, this sudden turning from sorrow to joy, there is room for the full breadth of my story.
Growing up, my sister was chronically ill. As I watched her suffer, I was comforted by this image of who God suffers with us on the cross. But, thankfully, the story does not end there.
In Tolkein’s essay, On Fairy Stories, he uses the word “eucatastrophe”. It’s a term he coined to describe a sudden turning from what looks like imminent failure to joy breaking in from nowhere, changing everything. When I first heard of eucatastrophe, I thought, “That’s Easter!” This turning began with the incarnation as Jesus entered fully into our humanity and became well acquainted with the grief that wounds and breaks us. The full manifestation of this solidarity happens on the cross. Yet into that suffering broke the resurrection. Joy pierced suffering, seemingly out of nowhere. Eucatastrophe.
As my sorrow is drawn into Jesus’ sorrow, I find comfort and belonging. As Jesus draws my life into his resurrected life, I find healing and life. Christ shares in my suffering, and I share in his resurrected life. Living the Easter story means embracing this tension between the suffering Christ and the victorious Christ. A year ago, just after Easter, two members of our church family died. So this year as we remember, I’m grateful for this story which holds both joy and sorrow, death and resurrection, yet is, at its heart, a story of eucatastrophe.
The sudden turn
The Gospels contain a series of resurrection accounts where Jesus appears to a variety of folk. People are surprised, of course, but more importantly Jesus’ appearance shifts their story. They don’t know yet that he’s alive. They’re in despair, grief, confusion, and crippling doubt. They’re puzzling about how it ended up so wrong when it had seemed so right. Then Jesus appears to them – eucatastrophe, the sudden turning! Thomas turns from skepticism to faith, Mary’s grief is instantly changed to joy, and on the road to Emmaus the disciple’s confusion becomes clarity. I love this. I find great hope in this unique dynamic of Easter morning.
These “turnings” are very powerful for me, both as a person, and as a pastor. Jesus draws near when we are in the worst straights, when our storyline has been blown to pieces. He joins us in our pain, picks up our shattered story, and begins to walk us in a new direction.
As a pastor, I’ve seen many people go through turns like these. Things are going well, we feel God’s presence, we are full of faith. And then dramatically, it changes. Some circumstance changes that shakes all of life. We feel how I imagine the disciples were feeling: confusion and despair, thinking, did we get duped by this guy who we thought was the Messiah? Where is God? Is God real? Into this darkness, Jesus somehow appears, pulling us into a new storyline. It might not be the same direction, but it’s a redeemed story that continues on.
Easter in community
At Southpoint, our celebration of Easter really begins on Palm Sunday. I get up early and cut cedar branches from the trees on Kingfisher Farm. Later, as folk gather outside, we pass out cedar branches, wooden blocks for banging, and long ribbons on sticks. We process into the sanctuary together, singing songs, beating blocks, waving our branches—we make a ruckus to celebrate the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem!
Then on Good Friday, we lay out a path of sorrow at Kingfisher Farm. The stations of the cross are tucked away in the forest and farmland, so folk walk the stations of the cross surrounded by cedar trees. There is a meditative space to sit and reflect on images of the crucifixion. In the room is a large cross, and all who gather are invited to place a hand print in red on the cross before leaving, symbolizing our own betrayal of Christ, as well as our fellowship with him in his suffering.
On Easter morning, we gather again for worship. The service begins as we cry out together, “Christ is Risen!! He is Risen Indeed!!!’ We begin to sing, and as we sing, children and adults bring the flowers and greens they have picked from gardens to the wire bound cross at the front of the church. We fill the cross to overflowing with flowers and greens. It is a messy, gorgeous display of abundance springing forth from the scarcity of the cross. We sing songs, proclaim the story, sing more songs, share communion – the broken body of Christ which has become the feast of resurrection life.
Observing Easter is inherently communal. It’s hard for me to conceive of it any other way. I feel like something intrinsic to the Gospel gets left out when we are too individualistic. Especially Easter. It was a social thing. It was instantly spread and shared and wrestled with, together. Mary immediately ran to tell the disciples, and they ran back and told people—it just feels that there needs to be a spilling over into one another’s lives to contain it, because it’s too big to be kept individual.
Together we are remembering the story, we are reliving the story. It is the story that unites us as Christians. So to tell it, live it, remember it, celebrate it together, with Christians of different stripes all over the world… That is powerful.
We proclaim this not just as a story from the past, but as the story of our present reality, and the story of our future hope. The story of redemption that holds all creation. Living it out as an individual is all good and well, but Easter was and always shall be a communal reality, not an individual affair. To celebrate as a people deepens the practice of resurrection.