Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Throwing Easter Away

As the dust settles from Lent and Holy Week, and after blowout celebrations at the Easter Vigil and on Easter morning, I'm again struck this year by how difficult it is to generate comparable energy for observing the Great 50 Days of Easter. Actually, I'm struck by how many churches do not observe the Great 50 Days, at least with nothing quite like what we put into the 40 days of Lent. People are tired from participating in Lenten book studies, sticking to fasting and self-denial regimens, outreach and service activities, etc. Asking them to carry on for 50 more days - even if it's with things that are fun and joyful - feels like asking way too much. And so, after the last service on Easter Day, we all breath a sigh of relief, take a well-deserved nap, and go back to business as usual on Easter Monday.

No wonder a former parishioner (and a cradle Episcopalian of 70 plus years, no less) once remarked to me that Easter is "only a day." This gentleman had never heard about the Great 50 Days of Easter. Unwittingly, perhaps, the Church has helped to foster this misconception, which also plays into the Church's role in trivializing Easter.

So I resonate with the following passage from Bishop N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope:

I have come to believe that many churches simply throw Easter away year by year; and I want to plead that we rethink how we do it so as to help each other, as a church and as individuals, to live what we profess. I am speaking here particularly from, and to, the church I know best. Those who celebrate in other ways will, I think, be able to make appropriate adjustments and take whatever they need to apply to their own situations.

For a start, consider Easter Day itself. It’s a great step forward that many churches now hold Easter vigils, as the Orthodox church has always done, but in many cases they are still too tame by half. Easter is about the wild delight of God’s creative power – not very Anglican, perhaps, but at least we ought to shout Alleluias instead of murmuring them; we should light every candle in the building instead of only some; we should give every man, woman, child, cat, dog, and mouse in the place a candle to hold; we should have a real bonfire; and we should splash water about as we renew our baptismal vows. Every step back from that is a step toward an ethereal or esoteric Easter experience, and the thing about Easter is that it is neither ethereal nor esoteric. It’s about the real Jesus coming out of the real tomb and getting God’s real new creation under way.

But my biggest problem starts on Easter Monday. I regard it as absurd and unjustifiable that we should spend forty days keeping Lent, pondering what it means, preaching about self-denial, being at least a little gloomy, and then bringing it all to a peak with Holy Week, which in turn climaxes in Maundy Thursday and Good Friday … and then, after a rather odd Holy Saturday, we have a single day of celebration.

All right, the Sundays after Easter still lie within the Easter season. We still have Easter readings and hymns during them. But Easter week itself ought not to be the time when all the clergy sigh with relief and go on holiday. It ought to be an eight-day festival, with champagne served after morning prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system. And if it means rethinking some cherished habits, well, maybe it’s time to wake up.

Maybe next year we should give up some of our Lenten activities and use that time to discern how we can do a better job of celebrating the resurrection during Easter season.


Joe Rawls said...

I've always had a problem with the notion of "Low Sunday", the Sunday after Easter when the music is scaled back because the choir is given the day off and the overall attitude during the service is rather blah. Granted, the choir deserves a break after Holy Week, but there must be things like Taize chants that could be used to better effect.

Bryan Owen said...

I agree, Joe, that the choir deserves a Sunday off after everything they've done for Holy Week, the Easter Vigil, and Easter Day. But like you, I also have an issue with the very idea of calling the 2nd Sunday of Easter "Low Sunday." That sends the message that we don't expect anybody to show up anyway, so you may as well stay at home. And lo and behold, people do stay home!

Granting that we do well to give folks in the choir a break, we can do a better job of thinking through how to make that Sunday (and the subsequent Sundays in Easter season, as well) a more fitting celebration of the heart of our faith. In suggesting that we may need to rethink "some cherished habits," I hear N. T. Wright challenging the Church to exercise some imagination when it comes to the liturgy and music of the Sundays that follow Easter Day. That challenge may extend to other areas as well, such as Sunday morning Christian education offerings, and even weekday/weeknight opportunities.

I'd love to hear from others thoughts on how to meet this challenge.

Carol M said...

Huh? The choir does not sing the sunday after Easter? Really? Not in my experience as a chorister!! We may sing music that is not as demanding but we do sing even if fewer people show up. Anyway, that is not my argument.

I agree. I too would love to find or make new traditions in observing the 50 days of Easter.

hawk said...

The seasons of Christmas and Easter get short thrift and The Day of Pentecost is mostly forgotten. I've often thought that The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday should be restored to separate Sundays with Palm followed by Passion followed by Holy Week followed by Easter. The older American PB followed this pattern though the Palm and Passion were reversed.

I also think the 12 Days of Christmas should be restored in some meaningful way and Advent should be minimized.

On the other hand, maybe we've come to the point culturally where we need the fasts more than the feasts. We seem to feast all the time, so the times of fasting really resonate in the churches. It wasn't too many years ago that Christmas or Thanksgiving meals were a big deal, but now the average Episcopalian eats that way all the time. The Great Fifty Days of Easter and the Twelve Days of Christmas seem rather ordinary compared to the 40 days of Lent and the five weeks of Advent.

Anonymous said...

I was struck with many of the same thoughts after I found the Chapel door locked on Monday and Tuesday.

Father Dennis said...

Thank you for a great post on the Reurrection Faith. It is so good that I may have to use it in my comments on Low Sunday!