Why Liturgy Matters at Easter

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I attended church Easter Sunday at a great church. It has incredible outreach in the community, a redemptive, transforming presence in the region. The gospel is preached, lives are changed. It’s very much in the fashion of a contemporary, non-liturgical mega-church type of service. This article is not a criticism of my church.

Which is important, because our Easter service left me oddly empty. The church really tools up for Easter Sunday. The music was outstanding, the message a fine presentation of the power of the living Christ to change lives. But somehow, I left feeling something had been missing, missing indeed. My wife hit the nail on the head by commenting that it seemed not like an Easter Sunday service, but just a really jacked-up version of our usual service. No Easter songs were sung, but the living Christ was confessed and celebrated in the music.

So why am I whining? Here’s why: the church’s life all year long is about the Living Christ, present in the church by the Holy Spirit, changing lives, implementing the rule of King Jesus in the world, through the church. But Easter is not really about the “living” Christ. Easter is about the historical fact that makes our talk of the Living Christ meaningful. Easter is about a year, month, day, hour, minute and second in which the Incarnate Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was stone-dead, and a millisecond later, was gloriously alive. Not “living forever in our hearts and lives” but alive in full continuity of embodied, human existence. Not just resuscitated, revived, but glorified, brought not just “back” to life, but somehow, forward to life. Forward to a kind of life that makes even this life seem like some kind of illusion, some kind of death.HolySepulchre-6

Easter is not about the Living Christ. Easter is about “Christ is Risen! He Is Risen Indeed!” It’s about the event in time and space that makes our talk about his living presence more than mere spirituality and mindfulness. He is alive because he defeated death, literally and bodily—whatever those words mean in this kind of situation. He is alive because he arose, as John Updike so brilliantly, even scandalously declared in his “Seven Stanzas at Easter.”  Easter, then, is about that discrete event.

And here’s the rub: lots of folks will happily talk about the “Living Christ” present in our midst; a vague “presence” of God that we associate with the life force, Spring, communion, family, etc. But Easter isn’t about that. It’s about a massive block of cenomanian limestone that enclosed a dank burial cave in which a dead messianic pretender suddenly demonstrated that he wasn’t pretending at all. He rose. He’s not just the “living Christ” he’s actually alive. Scholars like to contrast the “historical Jesus” (the Jesus of Galilee who they tend to think was not divine) and the “Christ of Faith” who is that murky living presence. Somewhere I heard someone brilliantly reverse the terms: The historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith. The Christ who arose in history is the Jesus we follow in faith.

Which is why I missed the liturgy. Too easily, non-liturgical churches in their desperation to be relevant to the “here and now” lose the power of the particular “there and then.” They move too quickly to the generic, “living Christ” without giving due regard to the Fact of the risen Jesus. The classical Easter liturgy calls our attention to this fact. He arose. He resumed his historical, embodied l existence on a whole new level. The Easter liturgy makes us listen to the whole story of the Passion, often read aloud in the service. It calls us to sing songs not of Christ’s ongoing life, but of Jesus who arose “up from the grave.”

Yes, that’s it: the grave. The contemporary “living Christ” emphasis seems embarrassed about lingering at the grave. Looking at the abandoned grave clothes. Pondering the particular moment of resurrection. The liturgy makes us stand with the apostles, peering into the tomb, confused because the literal, obvious fact our eyes see is shattering our prior vision of life, burning down our world, pointing us to another world.

So that when we say “He is RISEN…He is RISEN INDEED!” we are genuinely surprised.

Anglicans like to pop the cork on a bottle of bubbly champagne at that moment in the service.

I understand why. When Jesus popped the cork on that grave, it was a whole new world.

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I'm 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I've recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I mean this in kindness…. But why do thoughtful evangelicals keep rewarding these historically, intellectually and liturgically disconnected churches with their attendance? I’ve read and heard stories like this all my life, but people keep going back, and the churches that “get it” liturgically ( and still believe in the Resurrection) are left to bare subsistence or closing their doors. I don’t get it.

    • Dan, this is an important question. Most of the answers I have heard come back to family dynamics of one kind or another. A spouse does not share the same longing for the liturgy, and the smaller churches cannot offer the kind of programming that appeals to the kids. Plus, it is hard to leave the majority. You have to answer a whole lot more awkward questions when you leave the mega-church for something more intentional. Your friends feel “judged.” It’s just too costly.

  2. I will go a step farther: it is not just the Easter Day liturgy that is important, it is all the liturgies of Holy Week – Palm Sunday with its triumphant procession and its dramatic reading of the Passion; Maundy Thursday, with the footwashing in fulfillment of the New Commandment (Love one another as I have loved you) and the Eucharist, the procession to the altar of repose and the stripping of the altar, representing the stripping of Jesus; Good Friday with its starkness; and then the deep mystery of the Great Vigil of Easter, with its beginning in the dark and the kindling of the new fire, and midway through the acclamation – Alleluia! Christ is Risen! – and the lights come on and the bells ring out and the organ sounds…

    We pray these liturgies with hearts and minds, yes, but also with our bodies. We make ourselves present to these events as though we ourselves were following Jesus into Jerusalem, as though He knelt to wash our feet, as though we ourselves stand by the cross and watch in helpless grief as He suffers, as though we were there to help Joseph and Nicodemus to bury Him, as though we ourselves were with Mary of Magdala and the other Mary and Salome, sitting opposite the tomb and keeping watch. As our Jewish brothers and sisters know from their yearly celebration of the Passover, we are to celebrate these things as if it were we ourselves who went forth from bondage in Egypt, as though we ourselves were there in the front row, witnessing these events.

  3. Dr. Stone, thank you for your candor regarding the missing “something” in the “relevant” church movement, as I too have found modern services lacking in substance. This is a sadly predictable trajectory of theology and practice divorced from ancient orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Most modern theological architects value innovation above that which was believed and practiced universally for
    all time and in all places (St. Vincent of Lerins), thus missing, among other vital elements of Christianity, the richness of the Divine Liturgy.

    For this very reason, I have recommended for years that congregants attend an Orthodox Church service in order to see this difference for themselves. It’s overwhelming. It gives multimedia and full-sensory services a whole new meaning and usually brings about questions like, “Why did we change and according to whose authority?”

    This is a good question.

  4. Maybe the liturgy guides a person or the service to focus on the historically risen Jesus, maybe it doesn’t for some folks. But if the service, without or without a traditionally liturgy, doesn’t focus on the incredible resurrection event and what that means to us today, then that is (1) primarily the fault of the worship planners and (2) the fault of any believer, especially mature believer. Re/ (1): if the worship planners aren’t focused on the reality of a Risen Lord, rooted in history and transforming lives today, I doubt the mere text of a liturgical guide will get them there. The issue is not about liturgy, present or absent. It is about our hearts (I speak as a worship planner).

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