Thursday, April 8, 2010

Celebrating Easter

Some non-religious readers may wonder how Christians celebrate this most important of holidays. Of course, the secular celebration of Easter involves baskets of pastel packaged candy including chocolate bunnies, and hiding dyed eggs. As far as I know, that has nothing to do with Easter. Indeed, some Christians forego those activities altogether due to their pagan, non-Christian roots.

For many folks who believe in Christ but are not active in a faith community, Easter is one of the only times all year that they go to church. Some congregations have special services on Easter Sunday. Some have services on Good Friday too. Still others have special celebrations through out Holy Week, i.e., the week between Palm Sunday and Easter.

In some churches, the Thursday before Easter is a particularly important day. It is called Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday. It is the day we remember the Last Supper, when Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples. In the Gospel of John, after the meal, Jesus displays an act of great humility and love by washing the feet of his disciples, and instructing them to the same for one another. Afterwards Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot and arrested. At Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday services, these events are remembered and often reenacted.

Members of the congregation may wash the feet of others in the congregation. It is often a little awkward and can frankly be embarrassing for people to be in their bare feet in church and to have others come into physical contact with such a vulnerable, unattractive part of our anatomy. But oddly enough, it can also be a very moving ritual. As our pastor explained her understanding of Jesus's washing of his disciples feet, he was not just giving an example of humble servitude. Instead, he was showing us to love one another deeply, to take care of one another, and to be open to the love and care from others who make up the Body of Christ. As our pastor explained, Jesus wanted us to love each other so tenderly to be an example to the rest of the world.

At Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday services, communion is often shared to remember Jesus's Last Supper with his disciples. Communion in many Christian traditions is a very meaningful ceremony.

Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday services sometimes end with a stripping of the sanctuary to remove all adornments and to extinguish lights and candles. The congregation is left to imagine the emptiness and darkness that the disciples must have experienced when their beloved Jesus was arrested and taken from them. They must have been terrified, not knowing what would happen to Jesus or if the authorities would come for the rest of them as well. At our church this year, the service ended in silence--no music, no farewell greeting. We just filed out in semi-darkness, many of us moved to tears to think of the emptiness we would feel if Jesus were not in our lives.

On Good Friday, Christians remember with heavy hearts the crucifixion of Jesus. It is a heart-breaking day. Churches that have Good Friday services often read the passion story from the Gospels. We remember the physical agony Jesus suffered, as well as the humiliation and the abandonment. We mourn for his suffering, and we relate to the sorrow of his friends and family members who were powerless to help him.

After the emotionally draining experience of Thursday and Friday, Easter is a jubilant reward. We remember Mary Magdalene's confusion that Jesus's tomb was empty; she thinks someone has stolen his body. But then she encounters the risen Jesus, though she initially does not recognize him and mistakes him for a gardener. She runs to tell the disciples. Jesus lives among his friends for a period, not as a ghost but with a body. He walks and eats with his friends. He even makes them breakfast at one point. The suffering of several days ago is past and it is a time for rejoicing. Churches are often filled with decorations and flowers. Special, joyful songs are sung. It is the high point of the liturgical year.

John 21:12
Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

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