On Track for a Happy Easter
For those old enough to remember, the Lenten season can be likened to a “local” passenger train: Slow travel, lots of stops, and occasionally wondering if we’ll ever get where we’re going help define it. This year, back on the ninth of February, we began the Church’s major penitential season. Finally, we arrive at the end of the journey.
As slow as the passing of the previous weeks may have been, the conclusion of Lent’s forty days provides a “wild ride” for those whose hearts are open to the Word of God and the rhythm of the Church’s observance. This Thursday, our “slow train going nowhere fast” suddenly transforms itself into a rushing roller coaster.
For those who follow the ancient Christian calendar, Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday) brings a greater sense of celebratory worship then we’ve had since Lent began. This day we especially remember our Savior giving us His own body and blood in Holy Communion. The shape of the service lifts us from solemn reflection and penitence into joyful participation in the heavenly feast.
Yet if partaking is the ultimate height, the bottom drops immediately after the final communicant tastes and sees that the Lord is good. For this Thursday commemorates “the night when He was betrayed (1 Cor 11:23)” and just as Christ left the Passover feast to meet His death, so we plunge downward with Him as we remember the heart of His suffering on our behalf.
Perhaps your congregation follows the tradition of stripping the altar and removing most all of the decorations before leaving on Thursday night. Here at Holy Cross, the communion ware is carried out, banners removed, and black cloth covers altar, pulpit, and lectern. This symbolism reminds the faithful that in communing, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor 11:26)” According to Scripture, this death followed only hours after Jesus hosted His life-giving Supper.
Whether in daytime or night, the next day’s services provide the year’s most detailed and intentional focus on the death of Christ. From Thursday’s joy in the upper room, we plunge headlong into the Good Friday abyss of Jesus’ suffering for our sins. Moving swiftly from garden to cross, we pass with Him through Jewish and Roman trials, observing the mocking and the beatings he bore for us.
Year after year, I see no group exit church more quietly than do those who gather this day. Even though we know that death is not the victor, the services of Good Friday run us through a spiritual and emotional wringer. At the conclusion of the final service, the “roller coaster” glides slowly and silently to a halt. We leave a “ride” we couldn’t enjoy, yet one which purged and purified us.
Then follows a Saturday where nothing seems to happen. But step into church this evening for the Vigil of Easter and life begins to stir. Scriptures and services once again take us for a ride. Now there’s no plodding pace of the Lenten train nor the extremes of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Instead, as the speed and the joy of the journey quicken, God assures us we are on the “express train” to heaven. The living saints join us in worship while the saints who went before us await our eternal reunion.
By Sunday morning, the celebration is at “full throttle.” Voices and instruments loudly and proudly proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead. Because He lives, we live also. Death is not the end but the passage into life eternal. The believers are “all aboard” this train. The One who engineered our salvation conducts us safely to its completion. This train is Christ’s Church and its length grows as new passengers are added by Baptism and His Word. May God grant us safe passage throughout this life into the never-ending life to come.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.