Christ in Gethsemane (Michael O’Brien)
I love the Easter season and I’m always sad when it ends. I love the hot cross buns, the music, I love the way that Sydney slows down, I love the autumn weather breaking through the maple tree leaves….the chocolate. Most of all however I love the way that the whole of the Christian community celebrates the one thing that unites us. That old story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here are some things that stood out to me personally but also as a church leader this Easter season.
Christians are primarily followers of a story
Sometimes we tend to reduce the gospel down to a few sets of propositions. The implication is that all we need to do is to believe in these four or five points that spell out the truths of Christianity and we are on track with the basics of our religion.However Easter reminds me that rather than a people who believe in propositions we are a people who believe in a wonderful story. We are a people who believe that truth is a person. At Easter we rehearse the story of Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, we proclaim the death of Jesus on Good Friday, we dance at the resurrection on Easter Sunday. As we tell this story in creative and fresh ways, contextualised for our localities in which we live, we are being witnesses to the story that has been entrusted to us. Moreover as we tell the same story again and again every year, we invite others to join with us on our adventure. As we proclaim the events leading up to the resurrection of Jesus together we point to the author of this story and people become aware that this God invites we human beings to participate in his greater story. And the fact is that it is more powerful when we do this together. Evangelicals I think still react too strongly to any kind of communal storytelling which uses symbols to engage people with God. Perhaps it’s time to get over our over Reformation outrage? The fact is that when we practice Lent or hold a Tenebrae service, when we lift up a cross on Good Friday or peer through a stained glass window on resurrection Sunday, God works through these symbols to help us to encounter him afresh. Telling the story together at the same time with other Christians around the world is powerful. In an age where all routines and rituals are criticized, our Easter practices are routines which God works through to tell his story to our world.
Embrace the darkness
This year was the first year that I experienced a Tenebrae service. I didn’t really go with any expectations and we kept it very simple at our church. Candles, scripture readings and silence. That’s all. What stood out to me was the darkness of Easter. I was surprised because I had not felt that before. Sure Good Friday services are very somber occasions but this ‘Service of the Shadows’ focused my attention on the pain, the agony, the loneliness and the darkness of Easter. This occurred to me in a very non sensationalist way. I was not trying to conjure up feelings, we had no depictions of the gruesome scenes that you would for example see in The Passion of the Christ film. But just through the readings of Scripture revealing the dejection, darkness and silence of Christ before the night of his crucifixion, the sacred moment came to me quite unexpectedly. Why don’t we experience more of that in Easter gatherings? Are we afraid of the darkness? Have we sanitized Easter as well as Jesus? For me this night had the effect of making Sunday more joyful but it also helped me to appreciate what Jesus went through as a human being. Why do we gloss over the desolation of Easter? Would that be the equivalent of turning to Jesus on the cross and saying ‘Cheer up, you’ll be up and about in three days’? Of course we are not in the same position as the disciples. We know what happens! We live in the light of the resurrection always, even on a Good Friday. But it struck me that something is missing in our experience of Easter if we don’t go into the depths of the darkness of Jesus’ experience.
I found this Easter that a lot of art that I was engaging with helped me to see the darkness and light of Easter. This Painting by Millie Smith for me was the only one that I could find that expressed the feelings of Good Friday. Leave it up to abstract art to express what words cannot. For me it looks like the tears of God in heaven cause the clouds to smudge as the blood of God on earth blends into the wood of the cross. Everything is a mess and it’s as though the onlooker is watching through their own tear stained eyes.
The joy of the resurrection stood out for me in this sculpture Christ Rising by Frederick Hart. What I love about this was Christ’s posture. It looks like the posture of his crucifixion however that horrible moment is replaced by a posture which looks like he has abandoned himself to his Father in worship. The continuity of the crucifixion and the resurrection come through here for me. That’s a hard thing to convey in art.
We had some live performance art at our church where artist Samuel J Keem portrayed the life of Jesus through mixing paint on a canvas on the floor. The paint symbolised Christ’s birth and then his death on the cross. The finished product was a painting of the joyful risen Jesus. Sam told me the smile on Jesus’ face is to convey that Jesus is saying ‘I will be back’.
I saw so many creative displays in churches this Easter. God spoke to me through all that art.
The Easter story reveals the special role that women played in Jesus life.
Over and over almost anything that I read to do with Easter, people were emphasizing the role that women played as the first witnesses of the resurrection. This brought so much joy to me as I saw more people begin to take seriously how crucial this deceptively minor detail is. When Mary stood in that garden weeping over the death and disappearance of Jesus, she weeps in a garden. When she sees Jesus she calls him ‘My teacher’ like any good disciple would do. Could Jesus be referring to the garden of Eden fallen from grace but now redeemed through his love? Is this Jesus hinting that he is making all things new? Jesus then commissions Mary to tell the others and she becomes ‘apostle to the apostles’ on that day. Over and over I heard God say to me this Easter that he values and loves women
Tossing and Turning over Attractional versus Missional
Easter and Christmas are times when our church puts on major attractional events. I had to wrestle with this as our church moves towards embracing a more missional outlook. Would these attractional events work? Are we focusing on the wrong thing? God definitely showed our team his sense of humour in one instance. We had decided to get a big sign to place near our church which advertised our Easter egg hunt open to all the community. The sign was big, it was flashy…we love signs at our church. That day at our team meeting we continued to read The Missional Quest by Brisco and Ford and we read ‘The point is that the vast majority of de churches and unchurched people are not looking for the things of the church. Most don’t even know your church building is located where it is. It makes no difference if you change the times of your meetings, purchase a new sign of change the name of the church- they simply are not in the market for a church…such changes will not light a fire under the seat of those not interested in church. They won’t wake up on a Sunday morning and suddenly say, “hey I think we should go to that church down the street that just got a new sign”‘(p78). Very funny God. We laughed and thought through what we were actually doing by putting up a sign. We ended up having a great discussion around this issue.
In the end we came to the conclusion that attractional on its own does not work. If all of our resources go into signs and other promotions to get people to ‘come to us’ then we have failed. What is important is relationship. We didn’t get a lot of people from the community coming to our event though some did. The ones who did come however came mostly because we have built relationship with them over the years. At our unit where we as a church have our offices we have neighbors who engage in various types of businesses. Over the last three years we have gone to them twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. We have given out goodies and asked them if we could help them in any way. Sometimes people asked for help, other times we had amazing theological discussions, once we prayed with a few people reducing them to tears because they felt cared for. After three years we decided to hold a BBQ at our office and invite them to us. They all came! Sure it was an attractional event but it worked because we had build up relationship with them by ‘going to them’ over the last three years. Attractional only works with a massive missional focus.
Hope you also had a wonderful Easter this year.