Seasonal

Preparing for Easter (Year B)

The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons 2018, Year B, copyright © 2017 Augsburg Fortress.

Lectionary

“And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples” (Isa. 25:7).

The Easter season is about seeing: Christ risen, Christ present among us in the breaking of the bread, Christ’s Spirit poured out on the church. In Lent we have turned inward, acknowledging the brokenness of the world and our own participation in systems that oppress. We have walked the wilderness journey of temptation and doubt. Like a groaning desert, our whole lives have cried out for baptismal waters to refresh us and set before us the promise of a new beginning. Perhaps we’ve wondered if such a beginning could ever come.

But at Easter every veil that has obscured the cosmic reality that Christ is alive, life is stronger than death, and love wins is lifted and discarded with Christ’s burial shroud, never to be needed again.

Acts

The readings in Easter give flesh to this newness by leading us through a different kind of birth narrative: the birth of the church, the risen body of Christ born by water and the Spirit, as recorded in the book of Acts.

The accounts of this nascent community of “the Way” still sound radical to our postmodern ears: a pooling of material resources so all in the community can have enough (Easter 2); the apostles continuing Jesus’ ministry of healing (Easter 4); the inclusion of the sexually stigmatized and of religious outsiders (Easter 5 and 6); a peaceful and civil transfer of authority (Easter 7); and perhaps most shocking of all, peoples and nations formerly suspicious and hostile to one another able to speak to and understand one another, and a Spirit of truth telling poured out on women and men alike (Pentecost).

We need to hear these stories more than ever as we work out our own anxiety around the relevance of the church today. We need to be reminded that the same Spirit who enlightened and empowered these first witnesses of the resurrection has also been given to us in baptism. We too have “power from on high” to live as a countercultural communion of faith, bound together not by social or ethnic bonds but by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

For congregations who nevertheless feel strongly about reading from the Old Testament in Easter, the solution is not to set aside the Revised Common Lectionary but to follow an alternate pattern of first readings such as the one proposed by the English Language Liturgical Consultation (englishtexts.org/Current-Discussions/Alternative-Readings-for-the-Easter-Season).

Psalm

The psalms in Easter are full of joy and the reversal of shame, helping us to sing an even “more profound Alleluia” (ELW 851) as God’s redeemed people. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Ps. 118:22); “How good and how pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1); “Many . . . say, ‘O that we might see some good! . . . You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound” (Ps. 4:6-7); “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Ps. 23:5); and perhaps most wonderfully, the ending of Psalm 22 that we don’t hear on Good Friday: “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord” (v. 26).

It is perhaps nowhere clearer than in Easter that the psalms are not a fourth lectionary reading that can easily be omitted. The psalm is a congregational response to the first reading—in Easter, a joyful song that God’s promises have been fulfilled, death has been undone, and the world has been reborn.

If your congregation does not sing the psalms, take a look at the wealth of resources listed on pages 327–328 of Sundays and Seasons, Year B 2018. You will find, for example, simple chanting on a tone (ELW Psalter for Worship), lush choral settings (Psalm Settings for the Church Year), easy congregational settings (The Lyric Psalter), refrains based on popular hymn tunes (The People’s Psalter), metrical hymn settings (Psalms for All Seasons), and contemporary translations with edgy, evocative music (The Emergent Psalter).

Gospel

In Easter our year of readings from Mark is temporarily interrupted by accounts of Jesus’ postresurrection appearances from John and Luke, which capture not only the excitement but also the fear and confusion that tend to accompany news as world-shattering as this. It is crucial in proclaiming these texts not to minimize or discount these very real human emotions. Many in our assemblies identify strongly with the experience of Thomas and others who do not at first believe, and long to know that their doubt is not a cause for shame or exclusion from the worshiping community. Instead of approaching these texts from a negative lens (i.e., “Those silly disciples, why couldn’t they see?”), they can become an invitation for “doubters” to experience Jesus’ presence for them in the meal of holy communion. Many of the postresurrection experiences in scripture occur in the context of a meal. Many of the ones that happen today still do.

“He ascended into heaven”

The alternate prayer of the day for Ascension of Our Lord proclaims that Christ “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things,” yet nevertheless “abides with us on earth to the end of time.” Rather than get caught up in the cosmology of this paradox, we should delight in its implications for the church: Christ’s mission has been entrusted to us, and though we cannot see him as before, he continues to live among us in word and sacrament. Because Ascension Day is always a Thursday (forty days after Easter), many congregations do not gather to celebrate this important festival. While some churches transfer it to the following Sunday so the story is at least heard, Ascension Day is a perfect opportunity for several congregations to come together for a shared worship service.

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh”

The Day of Pentecost is not the beginning of a new season but the culmination of the fifty days of Easter. The same confusion and amazement that characterize the resurrection pervade the readings on this day. If your congregation uses this Sunday as an opportunity to worship in multiple languages, make sure that this is not done in a tokenistic way but in a way that equally challenges everyone in the assembly to listen and understand.

For instance, if your congregation worships in English and has a member of the congregation who speaks fluent Spanish, do not let this be the only day in the year when she is invited to read in her native tongue. If your congregation is primarily white but consists of a sizable immigrant community, do not let this be the only day you invite them to share a piece of music indigenous to their culture. Find ways for the multiple languages and cultures that make up your community to teach and enrich one another throughout the year, and let Pentecost be the day when they all come together as a sign of God’s reconciling Spirit.

Visual Environment

Just as all of creation awakens to new life at Easter, consider how your congregation’s worship environment can awaken all the senses. There are some elements that people will expect: lilies and tulips, white or gold paraments, banners that appear only once a year. But the resurrection should not be predictable! Don’t discount the element of surprise in helping proclaim the mystery of faith.

If your congregation uses wafers for holy communion, bake a loaf of fresh bread and let the smell waft through the congregation like incense. Or use incense itself to tickle the noses of worshipers with an olfactory paradox: a burial perfume that will not stay buried but rises with our praises. Although “terror and amazement” may temporarily seize some people, hopefully none will actually flee once they come to appreciate the power of this thoroughly biblical image.

“See how its branches reach to us in welcome”

In terms of art: what if the wooden cross from Good Friday is transformed into a tree of life, adorned with beautiful leaves and flowers (and maybe even fruit!) and placed in the location where the assembly is welcomed. This could be especially powerful if your worship space displays an empty cross without a corpus. A tree of life could send the message that the cross is not simply negated by Easter—a thing of the past—but is utterly transformed into something new and life giving. No longer simply an instrument of death (or a logo of Christianity), the cross is where God meets us with mercy in our deepest need, beckoning us with the words “Give me your sickness, give me all your sorrow, I will give blessing” (ELW 342).

Alternatively, considering that Arbor Day falls in late April, try adopting the practice of planting a tree during the Easter season, particularly in an area starved for beauty or in a place where violence and death have desecrated the land. Gather around the tree and join all heaven in singing despite the world: “Thanks to Christ whose passion offers in mercy healing, strength, and pardon” (ELW 342).

Whatever visual elements are used to punctuate Easter Sunday should be carried throughout the season. We too often forget that these are the Sundays of Easter—fifty days, or a “week of weeks”—and not the Sundays after Easter. Like a kaleidoscope, each Sunday offers us another way of seeing and approaching the mystery. This may mean refreshing the flowers on the third or fourth Sunday of Easter, but it may also mean maintaining other festival liturgical practices used on Easter Sunday throughout the season.

Music

Each Sunday of Easter is an “Easter day.” Even better, each Sunday is itself an “Easter day!” Just as it is impossible to cram all the joy of the resurrection into one Sunday, it is impossible to cram all the hymnody of Easter into a single liturgical celebration. It is not wrong to sing “Jesus Christ is risen today” (ELW 365) on the fifth Sunday of Easter. For that matter, it is not wrong to sing “Awake, my heart, with gladness” (ELW 378) on the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. While some hymns may be especially appropriate for certain days—for instance, “O sons and daughters, let us sing” (ELW 386) on Easter 2—and using resources such as Indexes to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2007) can help you choose songs that best capture the themes of each day, assemblies should not be shy about maintaining their Easter joy in song throughout all fifty days.

Music Sourcebook for Lent and the Three Days (Augsburg Fortress, 2010) also contains gospel acclamations and canticles that can be used in the Easter season. If your congregation always sings “Let the vineyards be fruitful” at the offering, consider using “The disciples knew the Lord Jesus” (S497), “Our Paschal Lamb, that sets us free” (S499), or even a general Easter hymn such as “This joyful Eastertide” (ELW 391).

Especially appropriate for Ascension Day are “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus” (ELW 392) and “A hymn of glory let us sing!” (ELW 393). For Pentecost, if your congregation has not yet sung Herman Stuempfle Jr.’s twenty-first-century composition “God of tempest, God of whirlwind” (ELW 400), set to the familiar and beloved tune cwm rhondda, give it a try this year. Its world-shaking imagery will certainly “shake [you] loose from lethargy!”

Seasonal Checklist

  •  Use “This is the feast” as the hymn of praise, and use the Nicene Creed.
  •  If your congregation doesn’t already use a full thanksgiving at the table, do so in Easter. Forms VII and X (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pp. 67, 69) use fresh, poetic language that pulls together many of the images in the Easter readings. Form IV (pp. 111, 133) can be used from Ash Wednesday through the Day of Pentecost, creating an intentional unity through the whole Easter cycle. Form IX (p. 68) calls to mind the cosmic reach of the resurrection.
  •  Schedule an ecumenical Ascension Day service with other congregations in your area or, if geographically possible, between other Lutheran congregations in your conference/cluster. Rotate the host congregation each year.
  •  Light the paschal candle on each of the Sundays of Easter, including Pentecost. While there is a tradition of extinguishing the candle after the gospel reading on Ascension Day, Christ does not cease to be in our midst in word and sacrament at his ascension; quite the opposite!
  •  While it is one of the three principal festivals of the church year, Pentecost often does not carry the same import as Christmas and Easter for many people. Spend some time teaching the significance of this day. If your congregation has an Easter breakfast and sells Easter lilies, also schedule a Pentecost picnic and sell red flowers to adorn the worship space.
  •  Many congregations celebrate affirmation of baptism (confirmation) on Pentecost, which makes great liturgical sense. But consider whether moving this celebration to the fall, when school is beginning instead of ending, might change the perception that confirmation is a “graduation” from Christian formation.

From sundaysandseasons.com.

 

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