EASTER SUNDAY morning a few years ago, I sat next to my mother in her Methodist church in Rockville, Md. I grew up in that church. I learned in those Sunday school classrooms, married under the arching wood ceiling of that sanctuary and mourned my father sitting in those familiar pews.
Demographics in the community have changed and mainline churches, including my home church, have lost population. So over the years, the church lovingly began to share its spacious facilities with other congregations—Korean and Latino churches among them.
So on that Easter several years ago, the combined service was a multi-cultural, multi-lingual colorful celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
After the welcome, the opening hymns and the Scripture readings, the pastor of the Latino congregation invited the children to come forward for the children’s sermon. Forward they went—the girls in their beautiful new dresses, the boys all spit-shined and polished, my mother craning her neck to see the cute little ones.
The pastor held a large box in his hands. I gathered he’d been building up to this day for several weeks, inviting the children to guess what was in the box, hinting it was a Gift that Jesus gave us on that long-ago Easter morning. Most of the girls sat primly, trying hard to respond to the pastor’s gentle questions. A lot of the boys squirmed.
And then came the Big Moment. The pastor explained that Jesus came to give us New Life, to change us, just like caterpillars are changed into butterflies! The lid came off the box and the children pressed forward to see what was in there. Butterflies! Yes, real ones!
“You can touch them,” the pastor said.
A couple of girls extended a finger to gently stroke the little creatures. Then the boys took over, grabbing the butterflies by the wings and thrusting them at the girls. The girls screamed and dashed away. Soon children were scurrying around the chancel area chasing and being chased by butterfly-armed warriors.
It was hilarious. The congregation was in stitches. Loose butterflies streamed toward the rafters. And the poor pastor, who’d never anticipated this chaos, could only shrug and smile. Kids will be kids. And joy may erupt in unexpected ways on Easter Sunday morning.
Easter is the highest of holy days on the Christian calendar. Christmas may have its dark winter joys, its traditions and beauty, but Easter is the consummation of all Christians believe. As Paul wrote, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” Easter’s empty tomb makes all the difference.
I have to laugh sometimes when I hear someone say, “All religions are basically the same.” They most assuredly are not. They differ in answering all of mankind’s transcendent questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going when I die? What is good and what is evil? Who is God? What is God like? Is there a God? What does God require?
While all religions may be interesting, colorful, consoling or helpful, logically they cannot all be true. Their answers to those questions are too different.
That’s why freedom of religion is so important—so each individual can sort things out on his or her own, without compulsion. In a pluralistic society, respecting others’ faiths (or lack thereof) is an important value. But you can respect others’ belief systems without believing they jive with ultimate reality—a reality we will eventually all bump up against.
When I was a little kid, Easter marked a great transition: From that day on, girls wore white patent leather shoes to church, not black. Easter meant we’d have new, pastel dresses and, sometimes, white gloves and hats (!) to wear to church. The rigors of winter were over; spring had arrived and our clothing announced it.
So did our music. After a somber, three-hour-long, winter-ish Good Friday service, Easter Sunday music lifted our spirits. I remember walking home when I was about 8 singing “Up from the grave He arose!” at the top of my lungs.
One of the rural churches out near us has a neat tradition: The congregation holds a sunrise service in their church graveyard. Standing there on a dark, chilly morning, surrounded by bone-filled, stone-marked graves really brings home the shock and wonder of the empty tomb those women found at dawn’s early light over 2,000 years ago. Jesus was dead and now he is alive! Death is defeated. Heaven’s gates are open wide. Amazing!
“Tell me the old, old story,” the hymn says, and so my parents told me, and I told my children, and now they’re telling theirs. Really, though, it’s not just a story to be told, it’s a story to be lived, a new life to grow into. Like those caterpillars that became butterflies, there’s a lot of deconstruction, renovation and change that happens.
I imagine caterpillars get quite goopy inside when metamorphosis is going on. Kind of like me and most other Christians I know. Life is messy. We have to grow into love, learn to forgive, let go of old habits and forge a confidence in grace. All that happens over a lifetime.
“Was it a morning like this?” the song asks. Yes, I imagine it was. And yet it was a morning like no other, one that changed life forever. Right now, we live in a dark, Good Friday world, a world full of injustice, disease, poverty and war. But the story hasn’t ended. As the Philadelphia preacher said, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s a-coming.”
Because of Christ, darkness will give way to light. Love will overcome evil. That is our Faith. That is our Hope. That is our Joy. That is what we celebrate today.