Every year, our church has a sunrise service on Easter Sunday morning. Usually we hold it at the home of our choir director. This year, because it has been raining for the better part of the last week, some key decision makers thought the ground would be too soggy for people to park on her lawn, so we held it outdoors on the church grounds instead. A dozen or so early risers, yawning and not all dressed up, gathered at 7:15 to sing “Allelulia, alleluia, give thanks to the risen Lord” – the first alleluias since Ash Wednesday – and to pray, and to shiver in the gray breeze, facing east across the lawn behind the church building, which is mostly a view of the back yards of the houses on the street that’s the first left past the church.
The members of the not-so-early Sunday school class had agreed that we wouldn’t officially have Sunday school today. A lot of people have special family obligations at Easter, and there was a lot of getting ready for worship that had to be done. But as it turned out, almost everyone showed up for class anyway.
We reviewed the relationship between Sabbath/Shabbat and the Lord’s Day: the Sabbath, the day of rest after the “6 days thou shalt labor and do all your work,” runs from sundown on Friday to sunset on Saturday. Jesus’ first followers, being Jewish, would have observed it. After sundown on Saturday, it would have been pitch dark – not the greatest time to be doing mortuary work. That explains why the women with their spices and ointments in Luke 24 can’t really begin to do their burial preparation work until first light Sunday morning, “the first day of the week.” Then, because of the events of the day, Christians will take to calling Sunday “the Lord’s Day,” a day to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. In a Christian world of Saturday-Sunday weekends and back-to-work Monday mornings, where almost no one knows anything about Judaism let alone identifies as Jewish, we have lost a lot of our feel for this particular rhythm.
And we thought about the emphasis in Luke 24 on the experience of the Lord’s Day: the experience of the empty tomb, and the experience of the risen Christ. “What is our experience of the risen Christ?” This seems like an important question. Because there are a lot of possible answers. Some people accept the testimony of the church, or of scripture, or even of people they know who have had some effervescent personal experience, as what they know about the risen Christ; some people admire the person they hear and see described in the gospels and resolve to align themselves with the movement that takes its name from that person; some people feel the story of Jesus’ self-sacrifice on behalf of sinful humanity very personally and gratefully; some people have a profound, almost mystical relationship to the sacraments, to the eucharist. Different as they are, those are all experiences of the risen Christ, and lots of people have built lives of faithful piety around those experiences. But whatever our experience is, it’s bound to color the way we understand things – things like Christianity, the church, “faithfulness to Christ.”
So it makes some sense to pay attention to our experience of the risen Christ, to what it actually is, and isn’t. Not because there is some rubric for this experience that we are being graded on, so to speak. Rather, because when it comes time “to give an account of the hope that is in us,” we’ll have to have done our homework. And this seem to be that homework, or at least part of it.
The sun tried to come out here for a minute or so right around the middle of the day, but mostly it’s been gray, cloudy, and chilly. Hardly surprising for early April, but not the photogenic Easter sunshine of popular imagination.
I am OK with this. It’s easy to love a day of brilliant sunshine, when it’s easy to smile and feel happy. But Easter and its message of invincible life is every bit as real when there’s a thick cloud cover as when the sun is shining. That awareness is mighty.
Because we will all have to travel some dismal days. This year, our pastor’s father-in-law died the week before Easter; our pastor will be traveling to meet his wife and family for mourning and memorial service this week. Another member’s mother-in-law is ill, probably sick-unto-death, and all the family is gathering at our friend’s house, and they are waiting for the last brother to arrive this afternoon from Cincinnati. Another member who has been caring for her ailing mother is “taking it one day at a time,” as she says whenever anyone asks her how things are going. “In the midst of life we are in death,” the liturgical calendar notwithstanding.
In times like this, in real life, it helps to have an understanding of Easter that includes this morning’s gray, chilly breeze; it helps to know that in an early dawn like that we can still sing our first alleluias honestly. We may not feel the warmth of the spring sun yet, or see it with all the clarity we would like, but the Bradford pears are in full bloom, the red oaks are covered in buds, and we know the clouds will roll by and the trees will leaf out. It is just a matter of time.