Preaching on Easter Sunday is hard. Expectations are high. Whenever there’s a trumpet involved in a worship service, the preacher is obligated to step up. But Preaching on Easter is also hard because it can feel dishonest. Or maybe not ‘dishonest’ exactly, but certainly ‘hollow’ or ‘one-sided’. Already, in the few days that have elapsed since Easter, I have spoken with a number of people who are suffering—who have been suffering for a long time. Some are in hospital beds, some have creaky knees, some have relationships that are strained to the breaking point. What does Easter mean in those situations? How do we speak about victory over death and evil, when there seems to be so little actual victory over death and evil?
The congregation I serve amps up the challenge by singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah at the end of each Easter service. They do a wonderful job of it. I stand and listen. I watch the faces of the singers. They concentrate, focusing on when to come in, finding their part. I find myself being glad the piece takes such focus, otherwise I worry that the great gap between the hallelujahs and the many loses might swallow the singers.
This year the whole Easter challenge has reminded me of an alpine climbing route somewhere in the Canadian Rockies. It’s not a route I’ve done, but one that several friends have told me about. Their eyes grow wide as they talk; their knuckles white. What makes this route special is that, in a single long day, climbers can summit several peaks without retracing their steps. Yet the most challenging part of the climb is not any of the peaks exactly, but the narrow ridges that connect them.
A route like this is the sort of thing that one must do roped to a partner. The crux of this particular climb requires you and your climbing partner to strike an agreement. Your safety, not to mention your ability to enjoy the experience, hangs on the agreement. Here the ridge line is uneven and not much more than a foot wide. It is what climbers call very “exposed.” Both sides drop away at almost a sheer vertical for hundreds—or tens of hundreds—of feet.
Walking on a foot-wide path does not seem difficult until there’s nothing but air beyond it. Especially if the air sometimes moves, if it comes and goes in gusts.
The agreement that you must strike with your climbing partner is that if they slip down one side, you, linked by your climbing rope, must jump off the other. You cannot hesitate. If you hesitate, if you think, both of you will die. There is time only for belief and action.
When you jump, if you have the nerve, the rope linking you will catch on the ridge itself and the two of you will both be able to climb back to the top. No hesitation. No thinking. You have to believe that the connection between the two of you will hold. That is the only way to move forward.
It seems to me that the life of faith is much like this. There are always moments in a life that look particularly risky and other moments that seem to be nothing but joy. There are times when death seems to dominate. There are times, like Easter Sunday, when God’s power really seems to be rushing toward us.
The temptation is to think that in honoring one we must lose the other. The temptation is to think that we can’t sing the Hallelujah Chorus and grieve. The temptation is to believe that it is either the omnipotent power of God and the empty tomb or the grim realities of the news and the bodies we see in the mirror.
What I think I see more clearly this year than before, is that the Easter story actually contains both of these realities. Easter is not just the home team’s all-too-predictable victory. It is more honest than that. If we look closely at the way Luke describes the first Easter morning (Luke 24:1-12) we see that it contained as much questioning and bewilderment as it did celebration. The first visitors to the tomb were perplexed, then terrified. What they had initially was a missing body—not a resurrected friend.
There is loss in the Easter story. There are questions. There is grief. Moving through the season of Easter with honesty and boldness requires the belief that the signs of God’s victory aren’t disconnected from the realities of hospital beds, creaky knees and strained relationships. I’ve come to think that we can honestly celebrate the sign of Easter, and preach it, precisely because we know it is connected to the experience of confusion and fear. We walk forward in faith, acknowledging one because the other is never disconnected.