A pastor friend lamented this week, “All our Easter plans are shot. We are gutted—our entire vision and hard work are down the drain!” Another colleague said to me that he openly wept on a staff Zoom call when he finally gave in to the realization that there was no way, given social distancing rules, to pull off the normal joys of Holy Week.“This is unthinkable,” he said. “It’s worse than the Cubs not playing baseball!” Many leaders I am talking to fear that Easter 2020 will whimper into a non-event, into an anticlimax that does not seem at all like Easter.
This year we face a reality check. Kids standing shoulder to shoulder waving palms on Palm Sunday? That could get you arrested. Maundy Thursday foot washing? Are you kidding? Walking the stations of the cross or pinning a note of one’s sin to a cross on Good Friday? Nope. Saturday Vigil or Holy Saturday activities? No way. And then there is Easter, where the lament comes to its deepest, most profound level.
This year we are something like our ancient exiled relatives who, with lovely memories of Jerusalem in mind, exclaimed, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. … How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:1, 4). Today, the lamenting refrain from working pastors goes something like this: “On Slack we sat and wept when we remembered Easter last year. … How can we sing the classic songs of resurrection and preach the classic Easter passages in a foreign place called ‘online’?”
The songs of Zion glorified Yahweh’s presence in the city of Jerusalem. But those songs seemed emotionally and spiritually distant and disconnected from the point of view of exile. In a similar way, a normal Easter is out of reach this year. On Easter Sunday morning, most of us will be housebound, sheltering in place when everything in our being will yearn to break free from our tight confinement and isolation to join Jesus in his freedom. Our hearts will cry for accustomed sanctuaries, familiar people, and family dinners. Leaders and our people will wonder, even if we can’t put precise words to it, How does loss, pain, confusion, and lament work on the one day of the year when we focus sharply on celebration?
Here are four ideas for how to navigate an Easter in exile.
What story are we in: the pain of virus and economic catastrophe or the Easter one? Must we choose? Christians do not privilege the spiritual over the material so much that the material does not matter. Two things are simultaneously true. First, Jesus has risen from the dead and it changes everything about the material world: its origin, how it is superintended, and how it will come to fulfill God’s purposes. Second, America now has the highest numbers of COVID-19 victims in the world. This is a stark, undeniable fact regarding physical bodies. This year we celebrate in the context of deep lament.
You can do it. You can walk and chew gum at the same time. Perhaps you have never had to lament-celebrate on Easter before, so it feels foreign. It is foreign. Embrace that truth. God is in liminal, foreign times.
Don’t just celebrate resurrection; practice it. Pull the eschatological power of resurrection into the pain of pandemic. Work with your team so that with emotional, spiritual, and intellectual honesty you can “keep it real” Easter morning. Process real pain within the promise Easter guarantees: “I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ … [in which God] ‘will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’” (Rev. 21:1–4).
In Northern Italy, 60 priests have died from Coronavirus. How do their churches celebrate Easter? What if 60 pastors had died the last few weeks in your city or state? Historically, Easter in wartime meant that loved ones were not just sheltering in place but were far away with lethal danger nearby. There has often been fighting and killing on Easter day. We get to celebrate Easter this year because, through the hardest things humanity has to ever had to experience, the church finds a way to keep the chain of Easter unbroken.
I am hearing from clergy that last Sunday more people tuned in online than usually attend church in person. Easter 2020 may not have your hoped-for aesthetics, but it can be a gospel moment that keeps the Easter message intact for the generations to come. By keeping Easter alive this year amid all our disappointments, you will accomplish something you can cherish forever.
Pass Easter Peace
“The peace of the Lord be with you.”
“And also with you .”
Those common words used in liturgical worship are challenged when we pastors are working ourselves into exhaustion while our phones anxiously scream the latest dire predictions. Who knows what is going to happen in the next few weeks? But it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that we could have many dazed or stunned people in our online congregations this Easter. I interact with loads of pastors, and those conversations lead me to bet on something: You are thinking your best thoughts, summoning the best creativity from your team, and praying your most fervent prayers in the hopes of staving off anticlimax while channeling the victory of God over the dark gloom and sorrow that overshadow your city in this pandemic.
As you should. There is nothing wrong with diligent, focused, passionate work. But along with effort, I want to invite you, as citizens of God’s kingdom, to relax. See if you can cultivate some times where you are less tense, moments that are less dense, softer. Create wider margins. Shoot for simplicity. As The Message has Jesus saying,
What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. (Luke 12:29–31)
What if this Easter there is an invitation from God to focus on the peace that marked some of the first words of the resurrected Jesus: “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36). Peace is an attribute of God, seen in the risen Christ. It is woven into God’s intention for humanity and is therefore possible and powerful—a potent way to live and lead for the good of others.
A difference-making aspect of practicing resurrection is to practice peace. When you cultivate peace in your heart and help others do the same, you are leading well. You are giving God’s people an amplified appreciation for the peace implicit in resurrection. Can you find peace in the coming weeks in order to embody and pass peace on Easter?
Communicate a Missional Imagination
In recent days, many of you have heard the story of 72-year-old Don Giuseppe Berardelli. We can safely bet that he, as a senior Roman Catholic priest, spent his life in mediation of, and seeking alignment to, the sacred heart of Jesus. In Holy Week, we focus especially on the heart of Jesus, who in his death lived out the truth that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). And in his resurrection he defeated sin, the Devil, the principalities and powers, and death itself.
Giuseppe so cherished the other-focused heart of Jesus—and so prized the reformation of his own life into Christlikeness—that when the moment came, desperately sick with COVID-19, Giuseppe overflowed with Christlikeness by giving up his ventilator so a younger person could live. Giuseppe’s act is an evocative and imaginative model for the missional moment provided to us during Easter this year. Acts of selfless generosity and sacrifice are popping up by the millions across America. In your congregation, breathe life into that hope. Fan it into flame. Celebrate how such acts are proof of the living Jesus in the church.
Pastors and preachers are always aware of audience and context. When you can’t have the special sermon, decorations, music, and musicians, when you can’t flower the cross or tease about the people who only come on Easter, the normal Easter story seems overshadowed. In actuality, the historical fact and ongoing power of the Resurrection overshadow everything and give every person, place, and time its true meaning. Even Easter 2020.
As you think about how to work on those four ideas for Easter in exile, I have a final idea for you: Jesus is alive! He is leading the most substantive, interesting, and consequential life imaginable. Even through pandemic, Jesus is superintending all creation to its intended telos. Be confident in that. Lead from that. You will deliver Easter 2020 from mere banishment of our cherished routines to freeing people to find their life, amid tragedy, in Jesus’ now-life, shepherding them into an experience of the with-God life.
Todd Hunter is a bishop of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO) in the Anglican Church in North America.