I don’t get sunrise services on Easter morning.
When I look back over my life of church stuff, I can’t remember a sunrise service that I liked. I never wanted to get out of bed. The weather was never all that great. I was always desperately hungry by the end of them. Everything was supposed to be all happy and cheery, but I wasn’t.
So, I didn’t do them when I became a pastor. But I still had to deal with traditional Easter morning services. And something bothered me about them. They were the same routine every single year. The Easter lilies and the Easter dresses, the vocal choir and the bell choir — it was the same old song and dance each year. And yes, even the songs were the same. And no, we didn’t dance.
How is it that Easter has become the most predictable Sunday of the year? It’s crazy! The actual Easter that got everything going was far from predictable. So, I started changing things up.
One year, during the seven weeks of Lent leading up to Easter, we draped the massive stained glass windows in our traditional Presbyterian church building with long black curtains. The sanctuary that was so wonderfully bathed in light became dreary and funereal. After one week of it that way, we all longed for the curtains to go and the light to return. So, when they were still up on Easter morning and not a lily was in sight, one of the elderly women of the church, Thelma Johnson, came up to me and said, “Do I need to go to a different church? One that celebrates Easter?”
“Just be patient,” I said.
Soon after, the service started and I proclaimed, “Christ has risen!”
At that moment, all of the curtains fell from the windows and the light flooded in. Children poured from the back of the sanctuary, bearing dozens of lilies to the front. And from the balconies, bells and chimes rang out wildly with joy. Light and life had returned to us with a burst that caught us all off guard, even those of us who knew what was coming, and our faces were covered with unexpected tears.
A couple years later, I visited the funeral home two blocks from the church building and made an odd request. “May I borrow a casket?” And since the church had given them plenty of business, they were glad to comply. On Good Friday morning, they brought an empty coffin and set it up in the sanctuary.
It had a profound effect on worshipers at our Good Friday service and overnight prayer vigil afterward. We’ve grown so accustomed to crosses, after centuries of turning them into jewelry and into logos for churches and Christian organizations. We’ve so trivialized the cross that it no longer has much of an impact on us, no matter how we drape it in black or whatever we do to it. But a coffin brings out a deeply visceral reaction in people. We don’t see them nearly as often and when we do we’re either watching a horror movie or dealing with personal tragedy. People appreciated the impact it had on them as we remembered the death of Jesus.
But they didn’t appreciate it when it was still there on Easter morning. Even worse than the black curtains of a couple years before, the coffin offended them. This was definitely not an Easter thing.
But isn’t it? Isn’t Easter about a tomb being empty? (I checked the coffin and it was definitely empty.) And wasn’t the original Easter a day full of perplexity? Think about it.
A group of women went to the tomb to care for the only halfway prepared body of Jesus, but it was gone. Gone! Tears were shed. Could it have been grave robbers? But dazzling angels appeared and spoke words that were stunning, causing the women to hurry away in fear.
John and Peter ran to the tomb. Peter entered in and found it empty, confirming what the women had told them. John believed, but to what extent? This is not what they had expected.
A pair of travelers were on their way to Emmaus. But they could hardly think straight, hearts shrouded with grief and minds clouded with the morning’s stories. It’s no wonder they didn’t notice that Jesus himself was their traveling companion. They certainly didn’t expect him to be on the road with them. And so they recognized him too late, only after he’d gone, causing them to hightail it back to Jerusalem, where they gathered with the eleven remaining disciples.
The confused stories must’ve been flying when Jesus appeared. We’re told that “They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost” (Luke 24:37). It’s only when Jesus began to speak to them that their fright was turned into joy and amazement.
But even then, they were amazed. Even though Jesus had predicted his resurrection on numerous occasions, there was nothing predictable about the actual event.
From the unpredictability of the Easter event, I take Wendell Berry’s advice to do likewise: “So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. … Practice resurrection.”
Instead of turning the resurrection of Jesus into the most predictable and boring story and celebration we’ve got, let it disturb you. Let it rock your boat so much that you fall overboard. Let it soak you like an unexpected Spring shower. Let it leap from the shadows and startle you. Let it do this to you by becoming as unpredictable as it is itself. Practice resurrection.
If we recover the unpredictability of Easter, we will discover its power all over again.