Today is the day after Easter. I am exhausted, to say the least. That is because I led eleven worship services last week. Why so many? Because for Christians Holy Week – the week leading up to Easter – is the heart of what the Christian faith is all about. The good thing is that I did not have to preach at all of those worship services (only at seven of the eleven) because most of the worship services during holy week are experiential. I like that. Educators have done studies about learning and retention, and it turns out that people only retain a small percentage of what they hear, a slightly higher percentage of what they read or see, and a much higher percentage of what they actually participate in or experience. Think about your own life. Think for example about when you travel to a new place. I always research the place I will visit. But it is one thing to read about something in a book, and look at photographs and maps. It is a completely different thing to actually travel to the place and experience it. Only after experiencing a place, do you truly know it. So at our church we try to make holy week as experiential as possible. (See Post “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Holy Week”)
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and comes to fulfillment on Easter day. “Easter” in the biblical language of Greek, is “Pasca,” which is the Greek word for Passover. Over the years I have grown to love the Easter Vigil, which is held the night before Easter. In some churches their Easter Vigil lasts the entire night, ending with the sunrise on Easter morning. At our church we do the short version of the Easter Vigil. It lasts around ninety minutes. We start outside the front door of the church, cars zooming by, wondering what is going on. We light a “New Fire.” I get some Eagle Scouts (really good at lighting campfires:) to start our fire. We get a new Pascal (Christ) candle, which is the huge, ornate candle you see when you go into a lot of Christian churches. We light our Christ candle, which we have not lit throughout the entire forty days of Lent, and we chant “Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.” We pray, that “On this holy night, as Jesus”passed over” from death to Life, so may we his followers, also “pass over” from death to new life in Christ. One Holy Saturday, right before our Vigil, I visited the home of a beloved friend and member of our church community named Mary. Mary had fought a valiant battle with cancer, and was drawing near to the end of her battle. She was at home, under hospice care, and her family was keeping their own vigil. I loved this woman fiercely. She was, and always will continue to be, an inspiration to me in my own life of faith. She was a true matriarch of faith for me and our entire community. On that Holy Saturday, Mary was no longer conscious. She lay on a hospital bed set up in her living room. I held her hand, and prayed, and read the Easter Gospel according to John (John 20). In John’s Gospel it is Mary Magdalene who goes to the tomb of Jesus alone that first Easter morning. She is very distraught when she finds the tomb of her beloved friend Jesus empty. Through her tears, she asks the blurry vision of a man she supposes to be the gardener, where they have put Jesus’ body. The man speaks her name, “Mary,” and she knows it is Jesus! As I read this part of the Gospel to my beloved friend, also named Mary, my unconscious friend squeezed my hand at the sound of her name! I will never forget this experience. For me it was my beloved friend assuring me that I should not be afraid for her, that she was “passing over” with Christ on this holy night, from death to new life. When I got to church a short time later, and prayed the prayer at our vigil, “On this holy night, as Jesus “passed over” from death to new life, may we also “pass over” from death to new life in Christ,” this prayer took on a whole new meaning for me. Now, each and every time I celebrate our Easter vigil, I remember my beloved friend, Mary, who literally “passed over with Christ” into new and eternal Life that Easter. But I also reflect on what Easter means in my own life, and invite you to reflect on what it means in your life, and the things we need to die to in our lives, in order to pass over to new life with Christ.
Historically, Holy Saturday is the day when new converts to the Christian faith are baptized. Today, around the world, new Christians are baptized on Holy Saturday. Adult baptisms are very powerful to witness because there truly is that dimension of dying with Christ to their old way of life, and rising with Christ to a whole new way of life.
The most famous bible passage used for adult baptisms (and also, interestingly, used for funerals), is from Saint Pauls’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 6, verses 4-6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him by baptism, into death, SO THAT as Christ was raised from the dead to the glory (brilliant dazzling light) of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Christ in a death like his, surely we will be united with Christ in a resurrection like his!”
In other words, just as Christ “passed over” from death to life, so also do we! The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all about you and me through the power of Christ dying to our old way of life and rising to a whole new way of life in Christ. No matter what your past, in Christ you are offered a completely new beginning, a completely new life! At every Easter Vigil, as we witness adult baptisms, we remember and renew our own baptisms.
Easter is not something that only happened 2000 years ago. Easter is an invitation to you and to me to die to our old ways, and to say “yes” to a new beginning in Christ. This Holy Saturday a friend of mine is celebrating her third anniversary of being sober. Talk about a new beginning! I remember when I met her three years ago, when she decided to give up drinking, and asked for God’s help. This Easter, what is it you need to die to in order to live a new and abundant life?
Five years ago when my mother died, someone recommended a book, Proof of Heaven, by Doctor Eben Alexander. Although I hate the corny title, I do like the book. It gave me great comfort after my mother died. This year, just before Easter, I re-read it, because my father recently died, and I needed some comfort once again. Eben Alexander is a neuroscientist, who has taught at Harvard Medical School (no slouch!) He also is a brain surgeon, who specializes in brain tumors and brain traumas. In this book he confesses that he was never really a person of faith or an active church-goer. He was one of those Christmas and Easter church attendees. Throughout his career of operating on people’s brains, there were numerous occasions when his patients, during their recoveries, would tell him that they had had an experience of death, but then had “passed over” back to life, new life. Every time they had told him this, he had patted them patronizingly on the arm and said, “That’s nice.” He never believed any of it. Then when he was 52 years old, he contracted an extremely rare form of E.Coli bacterial meningitis, and was in a deep coma for one week. In deep coma he experienced a state of consciousness beyond anything he could have ever imagined. He confessed that words fall grossly short of describing the intensity and magnitude of this experience. He uses images from music, like a glorious symphony! He uses images of brilliant, dazzling radiant Light. Most of all, he uses images of a profound Love which undergirds all things, a sense that he personally is loved beyond anything he could ever have imagined, and so are we all. His lack of faith prior to this experience, he claims, is “living proof” of the validity of his experience. If you have lost someone you love, I encourage you to read this book. I pray that it brings you comfort, as it did to me.
The most remarkable thing to me is that this experience changed the way Eben Alexander lives his life. In other words, his “death” raised him to that “newness of life” Saint Paul wrote about. His experience of divine Love completely changed the way he lives his life. He invites us to live in this newness of life also.
During Lent this year we did a Video series called “Animate Faith.” It featured seven “Post-Modern, Post-Christian “Emerging” Christian speakers. The one that struck our group the most was a young man named Shane Hipps. He spoke about “salvation,” which is one of those “churchy” words which even most church people cannot define. I always define salvation as “God’s saving love.” This is the same thing as what some people call “the kingdom or reign of God” or “eternal life.” Many Christians think of “salvation” or “the kingdom of God” or “eternal life” as something we receive when we die. I think of it as a way of life we are invited to live right now. When we say “Yes” to God, when we live our lives open to God who comes to us through all things, through everything we experience, and through everyone we encounter, that is living eternal life right now. I liked Shane Hipps’ presentation because that is how he thinks of it as well. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is among you and within you.” Jesus also said, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” John 17:3 Saint Paul also confirms that salvation or eternal life is now: “Behold today is the acceptable time; behold today is the day of your salvation (that is, of your experiencing God’s saving love for you).” 2 Corinthians 6:2
Invitations to this new way of life are everywhere. Holy Saturday morning I went to a yoga class. At the end of the class, during the closing meditation, the teacher played a song. It was a new version of a song I remembered from long ago, by the Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn, “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” The words are:
Sun’s up, uh huh…it’s okay; the world survived into another day.
And I’m thinking about eternity; some kind of ecstasy’s got a hold on me!
My favorite verse is:
Walls windows trees , waves coming through
You be in me and I’ll be in you
Together in eternity
Some kind of ecstasy’s got a hold on me!
Bruce Cockburn is a brilliant poet and lyricist, whose lyrics are replete with biblical imagery. He is inviting us to live in this amazing new, ecstatic way of life! In my own imagery, I invite you to live your life as the spiritual adventure that it is. When we do this, as Rabbi Heschal says, “All of life is sacred!”
Good Friday, after our stations of the cross walk, I went back to the church to set up our sanctuary for our Holy Saturday Easter Vigil. Two women and I transformed our altar space, stripped bare the night before, into a place of vibrant color and beauty. Over a hundred Easter plants, of various shapes and sizes and hues, cascaded down both sides of our altar and filled the chancel (space near the altar). Fragrance, color, beauty filled the space.
Downstairs, two women, members of our church who started a Swedish baked goods business, were baking Swedish coffee breads for Easter, and the scent of sweet breads filled the hall. A husband and teenage daughter of one of the women helped us decorators break down all of the boxes in which the plants had arrived. Across the street my secretary worked feverishly to complete all of the Easter bulletins (programs). Two brand new people to our community helped fold and collate all of these bulletins. In another building our youth director and several teenagers stuffed eggs for our children’s Easter Egg hunt the next day.
Good Friday morning a mother of five had served up a community meal for the members of our church community, including all of the hungry folks who come to our Christ’s Cupboard Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry. Patricia, a woman who works part time in our church office, was on the front lawn in front of our Oceans of Grace Outreach building, changing the message on our church sign, announcing the times of our Saturday Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday worship. Patricia is one of those “salt of the earth” people whose pure heart reveals a glimpse of God’s light to me. Patricia does every task with her whole being, as her offering to God. I saw her and all of these others, just doing their thing, and sharing their time and their gifts, as their offerings to God. As a pastor, I sighed, and gave thanks, because this is “God made flesh” for me: humble, ordinary people, working together in small but consistent ways to bring something beautiful and sacred and new to life. This is Easter. This is new life. This is resurrection. To see God’s face shining through each and every one of us, giving our simple gifts to each other as our offering to God.
Albert Einstein said, “There are two ways to live our lives. One way is to live as though nothing is a miracle. The other is to live as though everything is a miracle.” It is Easter, it is the resurrection, when we choose to live this other way.
This Easter Day, may you see God in all you encounter, and may you reflect God to all you encounter!