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.
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.