Since I posted about Lent two weeks ago, some of you have been asking how else we can commemorate Easter, the Christian celebration of the Resurrection. I mentioned that it is my personal agenda to increase all hype around the Easter holiday because it is excruciatingly under-celebrated in Christian circles, even though it happens to be our most important holiday! Here are a few ideas for thoughtful celebration.
1. Do a 40-day fast. (Lent, obviously.)
Tradition states that Lent is normally a time for prayer, repentance of sins, mortifying the flesh, and self-denial. Putting oneself in this state better prepares the believer to receive the Easter message with joy. (Note that Lent is actually 46 days long from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Therefore, if you choose to practice the Episcopalian way, you do not fast on the six Sundays because each Sunday is recognized as a celebration of the Resurrection.) I cannot recommend this practice enough. One learns so much about oneself. Regular, regimented discipline is simply life-giving. Denying yourself a simple pleasure or a selfish pursuit for 40 days is the basic idea.
2. If you can, read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church during the 40-day Lenten period.
It is quite possible that your life will change, but that is just a risk you’ll have to take. In the book, Wright doesn’t so much present new topics as he reminds us what we’ve always known according to the Bible, but have sometimes let contemporary society drown out. What happens, for example, after you die? There is a bodily resurrection, and Wright explains why this is so important and how that changes how we live here on Earth. Wright’s explanation of the meaning of the Resurrection (both to the early church and the pagan society at the time) is thorough and fascinating. He also explains its import for us today living on earth life. In some ways, it’s as if Wright notices that Christians seem to miss the LIVING ON EARTH part. Perhaps he is perplexed by separatist Christians jamming fingers in their ears, determined they’re “not listening” to the world, seeking only to “endure” this life until they get to the real one, heaven. Wright complicates this, determined to explore the mystery of “Why are we here?” and he does so by “rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church.” By the end of the book, one begins seriously examining the notion of God’s intention to redeem all creation back to Himself and, against all odds, His inviting us to join Him in that work. Certainly, it’s a book best read around Easter time.
3. Listen to Handel’s Messiah in its entirety.
(If you are lucky, see if you can perform it with a local choir!) I will never forget my freshman year of college in which I practiced the choral selections of Handel’s work all winter long before performing alongside classmates, a community choir, and Wichita soloists in a spring-time performance. Handel set music to entirely Scriptural texts, and his grasp of the Christian message is profound, demonstrated through his text-painting. My connection to this work means that every time I read John 1:29, Isaiah 53:4-5, Matthew 27:43, I Corinthians 15:21, 55, and Revelations 5:12, my Bible comes alive with orchestral strains.
4. Commemorate Palm Sunday.
If you’re like me, you’ll notice that not all churches make a big to-do of this one, but I think we can do better. As a child, our church had a children’s choir, and the director somehow managed to coax all of us to brightly sing, “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna to the son of David! Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna! This is Jesus!” Part of the performance which I especially enjoyed was that each child was given a real live palm branch to wave. (Growing up in Ohio, this was probably the closest I ever got to the Middle East.) I remembering handling my branch with great care as I waved it triumphantly in our little march down the center church aisle.
5. This may seem superficial, but decorate your house with touches of spring.
Put away that fuzzy winter-colored blanket and those dark red placements. Set out fresh flowers. Buy tulips, harvest forsythia, and note the new buds on the trees out front. Color hard-boiled eggs with the kids. Eat Peeps, chocolate bunnies, and those peanut butter eggs (unless you gave up sweets for Lent, that is!). These are obviously silly little seasonal things, but they remind us (especially the younger ones of us) that something special is happening, that time is passing, and that this time, as it were, has something to do with new life.
6. Attend a Good Friday service.
Better yet, organize and perform a Good Friday service for your church. In the moving around that I’ve done, I’ve been hard-pressed to find Anabaptist churches that hold these special Friday evening services. Yet as a child, the Good Friday service was an important part of my Easter experience. Many times our church included drama in the service, a simple acting out of narrated Scripture. No, it wasn’t Sight & Sound quality. We understood that Mr. Hoover wasn’t actually Jesus, and they actually weren’t nailing his hand into the cross (but those real-life carpenters dressed as soldiers sure made it look like it!) But as 10-year-olds, we were struck by the “beatings” Jesus received. We asked, “Did they really do that to Jesus?” We sang the hymns “Lead Me to Calvary,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and the spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” (but never the last verse on Good Friday!). I heard of one church that ends their Good Friday service with dimmed lights and a solemn tone, and church-goers leave quietly in order that they can contemplate the solemnity of the crucifixion.
7. If you’re the brave, curious type, attend a liturgical service.
Have you ever visited a Greek Orthodox church? Twice I’ve attended a Greek Orthodox church for Easter services, and let me tell you, it is a party! When I lived in Kansas, my friend’s brother dragged us along to this Greek Orthodox Easter service that began at 11:00 p.m. the eve of Easter. When we entered the St. George Cathedral, the lights were low, and the service began, with all the a cappella music in a minor key. Around midnight, we began an outdoor candlelit procession around the perimeter of the church, led by a priest. As we arrived back to the front of the church, the priest knocked on the large wooden doors, quoting from Psalm 24, “Lift up your heads, you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!” A voice from within quoted back, “Who is this King of glory?” The priest replied, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle! Lift up your heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!” The voice responded, “Who is he, this King of glory?” The priest: “The Lord Almighty—he is the King of glory!” We were now inside the church, early on Easter morning. The lights shone brightly, and ancient texts were now being sung in a major key. The service lasted for several more hours, after which we were ushered into a lively fellowship hall where Greek food, wine, and conviviality flowed freely. I fondly remember this experience, and I’ve attended other Orthodox services since then. (Or rather, I’ve tried to. There was that one year that my friends and I showed up the eve of Easter at 11:00 p.m. at St. Andrew Greek Orthodox in South Bend, IN, only to discover that the Orthodox church is on an entirely different calendar, and their Easter service wasn’t for another week!) This year, I will be attending Catholic services at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec!
8. Attend a sunrise service.
(Though, perhaps, not recommended the same year that you choose to stay up all night going to church and making Greek Orthodox friends. But it’s totally possible!) As a young girl, and even today, nothing is more exciting than waking up at the crack of dawn, carefully donning a new Easter dress, and creeping out at dark to silently watch the sun rise above the trees and quietly consider the meaning of the Resurrection. If your church does not offer a sunrise service, CREATE YOUR OWN. It is not that hard to find some friends, read some Scripture, and sing a few hymns. I remember one Kansas Easter tip-toeing in tiny dressy flats over frozen mud-clods in a barren field to a spread of blankets where sleepy Mennonite youth girls welcomed me with a steaming mug of chai as the sun wavered through low clouds. Scripture, songs, and cold sun.
9. Eat an Easter breakfast with friends.
Preferably at church, right after your sunrise service. It’s wonderful. In fact, Jesus and the disciples ate together on the beach after the Resurrection (see John 21).
10. Last but not least, wear new clothes.
I distinctly remember my grandma sending us new dresses every Easter. (Three of us sisters got the exact same one, mind you.) Nothing was more exciting than wearing that fresh new dress and donning white sandals for the first time of the season (even though it was always entirely too cold!) I don’t intend to recommend a materialistic embodiment of an inner celebration, but it does make sense that if we are ever to look our best, it should probably be on the most important Christian holiday, when we celebrate a physical, bodily resurrection of our Lord. And since it is the Resurrection that allows us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as it were, I think that there would be nothing wrong in polishing up those leather shoes, ironing a crisp cotton shirt, busting out those pastel florals, and receiving this holiday (that is, holy day) with pure joy.
Now let’s go celebrate!