Reimagining the Easter Season

April 6th, 2020
This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

In a Facebook post on March 25, 2020, Old Testament scholar William P. Brown[1] posted these words relating to Easter:

As for an alleged “American Resurrection” on Easter marked by physically gathered celebrations, I suggest this. Let us make this Easter profoundly memorable by celebrating the “empty tomb,” by letting our sacred gathering places remain empty as testimony that lives are being saved in doing so. The empty tomb, after all, marked the beginning of the Resurrection. Let’s linger over it this year; let's revel in it. … Let us follow the science as we follow Christ from the cross to the empty tomb that is emptied of death.

Brown’s Facebook reflection brings a very real and relevant perspective to this year’s Easter celebration. Our social and religious norm is to mark this celebration with weekend’s festivities filled with people gathering, communal liturgies, and sanctuaries filled with families on Resurrection Sunday. But this year, there is nothing socially or religiously normal about the Easter season; we are in a global crisis. This year we are separated, socially distanced. Not by choice, but for the sake of saving lives. Therefore, pastors and worship leaders everywhere are pushed to reimagine how we mark this Easter season, with congregants in their home. How do we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

As Dr. William Brown would suggest, we celebrate the empty tomb. When churches across the country will be empty, we mark the Easter season by remembering the powerful message of the empty tomb. The empty tomb represents life; it is the message that our risen Savior defeats the worse death imaginable, and lives. It is the salvation message that speaks life in our Christian faith. In the same manner, may our empty churches speak to our care for life as an exercise of the very faith.

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It is important to reimagine this Easter season in light of the empty tomb in order to help us imagine our efforts to stay at home, and socially distance ourselves during the COVID-19 pandemic as an act of faith. Our caring for our lives and the lives of others is an act of holy justice. Our churches are empty in this season so we might live! This is the reality in our Easter season, and a reality in our lives in this unprecedented time. Yes, Easter will be different, but there is nothing about this time in the history of our lives that is the same. We are in unique and unfamiliar times in humanity, and our faith practices must reflect these times.

Many worship services have moved to online streaming and will continue to do so for a while, including the Easter season. Even in this format, there are a number of considerations I would like to offer to mark our way of being in Eastertide.

  • Make Honest Space for Lament. It is important during these COVID-19 times that we make space for lament. Let us not rush to abandon the lament of Good Friday to rush into the joy of Resurrection Sunday. Be intentional about holding both the joy and the sadness in tension this year as we move through the Easter Vigil and into Resurrection Sunday. Create short videos of devotion moments to share through the entire Eastertide season, not just on Sundays. Let these videos be scriptures readings, prayers, musical moments (if possible), and let them create space for both lament and joy, while also reminding of God’s strength, power and love.
  • Sing New Songs. There has been a beautiful new hymn written for this time by Carol Winfrey Gillette entitled, This Easter Celebration[2], that speaks to our current experience. As you think of songs to sing and share with the congregation, share this one, or another one that might not be in the typical Eastertide rotation, but is appropriate for our time. Send the song lyrics to your congregations via email and encourage them to sing in their homes. Invite them to rest in the songs, focus on the lyrics, and make meaning in the music.   
  • Preach with Transparency and Relevance. Preaching during this pandemic is crucial. It requires a level of transparency from preachers. In this time, connect with what is real; be transparent and relevant. Be honest about your own struggle with this new Eastertide in which we are living, while also remembering that Jesus Christ is still triumphant, and the resurrection is still the center of our celebration; we are just imagining it anew. Remember that we are on the journey with our congregations. We are all in this together. Now more than ever, we need to feel connected, like the preacher knows and understands our experience. This is the time for particularity in preaching, something that is familiar in some preaching contexts. Speak to the realities of humanity. Don’t be afraid to address the inequities and injustices we see in this time and read them through the light of the resurrection. What does and empty tomb on Easter say to our present humanity? How does it challenge us to live into God’s love, justice and humility? How does it invite us into being a new church for this new age? Preach the importance of the empty tomb; the significance of the power of life found in the empty tomb and relate that power to the power of life found in our staying home, in us caring enough for one another, and finding new ways to connect. That is the resurrection power we celebrate in COVID-19.
  • Rest in the Resurrection. Finally, I want to suggest that we rest in the resurrection; in the power of the empty tomb. Let there be an experience of peace in knowing that God is still in control. Explore this liturgically. Offer scriptures and insight of hope in God’s divine power over death. Through our virtual connection, offer a message and moments of being still and resting in the hope of God’s power, knowing that even in this season, life will prevail; resurrection means life … the empty tomb means life, and our empty churches are a sign of life-care and preservation.

Yes, Eastertide is a communal celebration, one that we will celebrate physically apart, but spiritually connected. Blessings to each of us as we lead in this liturgical season, and may we lead from the empty tomb, from the power of the resurrection of our Lord.

[1] William P. Brown is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.

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