There’s something about the two major Christian holidays that have become, well, something of a drag for me, in my role as pastor of a small church. Easter, especially, has become difficult, in the reality of what I experience at my small church in the middle of Maine. Now that I’ve served Old South for over a decade, I’ve learned a lot about the rhythms and textures of the year, and it’s hard to escape the notion that there’s something about our holy days that feels not so holy.
At Old South, Easter is, by far, the best attended Sunday worship service of the year. The choir will sing. The bell choir will perform. People will wear spring clothes. Some of the women will wear hats. I’ll say, “He is Risen!” And, the response will come, “He is Risen indeed!” And I’ll get to preach to the largest audience of the year.
I know that there are at least a few people who regularly attend Old South who look at Easter as a great opportunity to lure some people into more regular attendance and commitment—perhaps someone we’ve never seen before or maybe someone who once was active at Old South but has become a CEO (Christmas and Easter Only). There’s a lot of pressure. Somehow, it’s all up to how I lead worship that will lure, or not.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that Easter doesn’t work that way. Even on an Easter when CEOs tell me that my sermon was great and the service wonderful, it doesn’t mean that they will come again—before Christmas. The CEOs of Old South are an interesting group. They genuinely like coming on Christmas (Eve) and Easter. But, only on for those two services. There’s even a few who play in the bell choir—for Christmas Eve and Easter. It’s what they like; it fits in with whatever church experience they are looking for.
My lack of “feeling it” this year likely has a little to do with the pressure of the day and the expectations. But, it has a lot more to do with what Easter has come to mean to me, which doesn’t line up well with the big worship service full of unfamiliar faces.
Year after year, I find myself increasingly drawn to the thoughts of Henri Nouwen, who reflected that Easter was really for Jesus’ closest followers. Easter is an intimate event—small, quiet, life-altering and life-affirming.
In The Road to Daybreak, Nouwen writes the following after a simple Eucharist on an Easter morning:
[Easter] was not a spectacular event forcing people to believe. Rather, it was an event for the friends of Jesus, for those who had known him, listened to him, and believed in him. It was a very intimate event: a word here, a gesture there, and a gradual awareness that something new was being born—small, hardly noticed, but with the potential to change the face of the earth.
I think if I could have it my way, I’d tell all of the CEOs to take the day off. No offense meant, but Easter is for those of us who are in church almost every Sunday. It’s for the small group of friends, those who do the work, who struggle with their faith, who show up when hardly anybody does. Easter is for those who hear their name being called, and answer by becoming a part of a community of faith, through the ups and downs, through the doubts and certainties, through the joys and the fears, through good times and bad.
Easter is for the friends, the close followers. What I’d like to be able to do on Sunday is to gather up my small flock and talk about what Easter means, what the resurrection means, not in general terms, but what it means this year for this church, and not just for Easter day, but for next Sunday and the next and the next, and for the committees and teams, for the choir, etc.
Christmas has room for a crowd—a crowd that includes a lot of “extras,” those who show up for the big moment, but then are gone. Easter doesn’t really have that space. It doesn’t lend itself to a group of varying degrees of interest and commitment.
Easter is for the friends, for the followers, those who stay close, those who know Jesus so well that they recognize his voice when he speaks to them in the darkness and the heartbreak of life. Easter isn’t really about a bell choir, or loud alleluias, or spring hats. It’s about a moment when you open yourself to transformation, when you look at something completely unbelievable and, while you may struggle with believing, you find a renewal of trust and a compelling story that you can’t help but follow—not alone, but with a ragtag group, gathered together to live out the good news.