Seasonal

Preparing for Easter (Year B)

The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons: Year B 2021, copyright © 2020 Augsburg Fortress.

Preaching

A local megachurch raised a sunrise-hued billboard one year that said simply “EASTER: April 18–21,” thereby conflating all of the Three Days into Easter Sunday. I wished I could raise a similar board that said (using that year’s dates) “EASTER: April 21–June 9,” declaring that the good news is way too large to be restricted to one extended weekend. A full fifty days mark our celebration of the resurrection, ending in the church itself raised up by the Spirit at Pentecost.

The Easter season starts out with dwelling on the resurrection appearances, and then moves back in the gospels to Jesus’ farewell speeches while simultaneously moving forward in the book of Acts as the gospel spreads. Each week we are called not only to look for the risen Christ’s presence deeper and deeper in our own lives, but also to ponder where the Spirit of the risen Christ might be pushing us deeper into the world.

We are on a long hiatus from the Gospel of Mark. Most of the gospel readings for this season are from John, and the second readings from 1 John offer us an opportunity to sink even deeper into the vocabulary and syntax of Johannine grace. But instead of spending too much time defining love and unity in abstract terms, the preacher will want to keep the bodily reality of the resurrection front and center while illustrating what love looks like. Fortunately, the readings from Acts give us lots of rich images of what resurrection love and freedom look like: a community sharing all that it has (Easter 2); healing offered to a lame man (Easter 3 and 4); the scriptures opened up to an outsider (Easter 5); good news proclaimed to the Gentiles (Easter 6); and even electing a new church leader (Easter 7). The risen body of Christ, the church, has concrete work to do in embodying the good news that Christ is alive and present.

The time after Pentecost will offer us plenty of opportunity to sink back into the story of Jesus and his earthly ministry, but in the Easter season, the ministry of Christ is the ministry of the church. The bodies that proclaim the resurrection are our bodies—baptized, fed at the table, and sent out to embrace a changing world. How can you help your congregation to see God’s work in the world embodied in the ministries your congregation is already doing? Don’t be afraid to narrow the perceived gap between the first-century church and our twenty-first-century joys and concerns, because we are one with that church in the communion of saints.

Many congregations perceive Pentecost as a one-time celebration of the Holy Spirit. While the red color may only last a week, the festival of the Holy Spirit is continuous with the fifty days of Easter, a capstone to our celebrations of Christ’s death and resurrection. Pentecost is one of the church’s major festivals, but can sometimes feel like an afterthought. A brave preacher might face head-on the many ways that our culture is fond of declaring that the church is dying. The story of Acts can feel like a lost-in-time glory-days story of church growth. But it is precisely in our dying that God’s power is lifted up among us. On that fiftieth day of Easter, don’t be afraid to proclaim that Christ’s Spirit gives life to those in the tombs—not just individuals, but the church itself.

Part of the church’s ministry, then and now, is the praise of God. The psalms of the season overflow with praise and exaltation at what God has done. While we start the Easter season at the empty tomb wondering with Mary, we end it with full-throated alleluias in wonderment for what God is still doing among us and for God’s promised presence with us forever.

Intercessory Prayer

Through Lent and the Three Days, we have been fasting, praying, and serving in preparation for the joy of Easter. Now we feast, and our prayers resound with new hope and confidence in God’s promises. What has your congregation been praying for these last six weeks? How do these prayers shift, evolve, or intensify in the glow of resurrection? Here are some themes and emphases to consider:

Alleluias and rejoicing: Alleluias abound in our liturgy—they can abound in our prayers as well! Especially on Easter Sunday, begin or end petitions with an alleluia to set a tone of rejoicing, even as we pray for God to come quickly to the needs still present among us. Include language of praise as much as you are able. Praise God for the church across the world, even as you pray for its unity. Praise God for the goodness of creation, even as you ask for healing from storms or pollution. Praise God for the work of peacemakers, even as you ask for war to cease. Praise God for resurrection life, even as you ask for health and healing. Especially on the Day of Pentecost, praise God for the gift of the Holy Spirit, even as you pray for courage to proclaim God’s salvation to a broken world.

Seasons of creation: In parts of the world where Easter and springtime coincide, take note of all of the newness and resurrection you see around you. Include details like butterflies, budding trees, spring rains, and lengthening days in your prayers as a way of recognizing resurrection in nature. Consider the ways that elements in nature (fire, wind, oil) show up in imagery for the Day of Pentecost.

Baptism: As you prayed in Lent for those preparing for baptism, pray in Easter for the newly baptized. Pray for the renewal of your worshiping assembly in the life of faith. Craft a petition for each week of Easter focusing on one of the promises made during the rites of Holy Baptism and Affirmation of Baptism: “to live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people, following the example of Jesus; and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth” (ELW, p. 236). Our Easter readings from Acts illuminate the ways we are called into community with all the faithful, for the sake of the world. Pray for the community of faith, and as you look toward the Day of Pentecost, pray for the gifts of the Spirit to fall upon all the baptized.

Jesus in the gospel readings: As the Easter season continues, we will read from Jesus’ farewell discourse in John’s gospel, where he prays that the disciples might live in unity and love. Take note of the things Jesus says and the things he prays for, and include those themes in your intercessions. For example, on Easter 4, Jesus speaks of a day when there will be one flock and one shepherd (John 10). Where is there discord in the world, and how might we pray for unity? On the Day of Pentecost, Jesus promises us an Advocate (John 16). Who are those in our midst whose voices are not heard and whose needs are not noticed? How can we pray for the Spirit to work on their behalf?

Assembly Song

This is the day! But even more, these are the fifty days! Keep celebrating Easter with lots of alleluias all the way through the Day of Pentecost! There is a reason the Easter section of Evangelical Lutheran Worship contains thirty-four items, and there are many other hymns and songs throughout the book with strong resurrection themes. These songs are meant to be used throughout the Easter season, not just Easter Day itself. It’s easy to spend a lot of time and energy seeking out new music from dozens to hundreds of available resources. Yet, chances are that our core resource contains plenty of selections you haven’t used yet. Go there first!

The editors of Evangelical Lutheran Worship were very intentional when deciding what each piece of music in the service might be called. A previous resource referred to the first hymn as the “entrance hymn,” which may imply a procession of clergy, choir, and other worship leaders. Evangelical Lutheran Worship calls this music “gathering song,” a more inclusive term that tells us that all God’s people are equally important as we gather together in God’s name. “Gathering song” also implies greater flexibility in this part of the liturgy, as we may be singing a hymn, a psalm, a traditional song of praise like “This is the feast” or “Glory to God,” a medley of praise songs, or any combination of these.

Although the term “hymn of the day” dates back to the sixteenth century, many people still call the hymn after the sermon the “sermon hymn.” This implies a very close connection between the hymn and the preached word, as if the hymn is intended only to reflect on the pastor’s wisdom. However, the hymn of the day ought to reflect the themes of the whole day, all the readings and their place in the liturgical year. The musician who is attuned to the lectionary also has an opportunity to “preach,” and the hymn of the day does not have to perfectly mirror the sermon topic. Sometimes musician and preacher will discern the same themes from the readings, and sometimes they may not. As long as both share a common starting point, that is fine! Lastly, where a “closing hymn” may suggest that the church is now closed, so people should just go home, “sending song” supports the concept that God’s people are being sent out for mission in the world.

Choirs and other musical ensembles sometimes decline in attendance after Easter Day. Beautiful spring weather and activities outside the church are highly alluring! Consider this time of year for a special project such as a spring musicale, a cantata presentation, or maybe a musical partnership with a neighboring congregation. These can be wonderful experiences, both for the musical high they provide and for the personal bonding opportunity for your volunteer musicians. You might start this project and build some enthusiasm after Epiphany when there is a slight lull in activity in many places, and then pick it up again after Easter Day for a presentation sometime during May or June.

Finally, you may have middle school, high school, or college-age musicians in your congregation who are preparing for solo and ensemble contests, spring recitals, or auditions as the school year comes to a close. They may have just the piece you need to help keep the festival feeling of the Easter season going. Invite them. People love to hear members of the community play and sing, and especially young people!

Worship Space

It’s hard to keep a party going for fifty days, even if you’re only responsible for the decorations. We’ve got those potted palms from Palm Sunday to work with. And the Easter lilies and other potted flowers, but they will last three weeks at best, not seven! Ration your lily budget or coordinate with the flower donors so that fresh plants can be added throughout the season. Anything that suggests light and life is fair game for Easter décor. Plan things to supplement the environment to keep it festive and surprising every week or two: forsythia, dogwood, apple blossoms, vines, grapevine, wheat, and grasses would all work great. We need to at least match the grandeur of the Christmas environment. Plants destined for the church gardens and outdoor planters might make an appearance for a weekend in worship first. Turn the area around the baptismal font into an oasis. Even if the lilies give out everywhere else, can the font continue to be a place of abundant life and color?

Don’t think you have to be limited to Easter white. Use a variety of colors. A colorful baptismal bowl might appear for the season. The lectionary suggests other images that might appear in turn: tree of life, shepherd, cornerstone, Christ the vine, good fruit, abundant catch of fish, victory wreaths, white robes; and finally for Pentecost, fire, wind, languages, birthday.

Easter might be a good season to try creating a mobile or some other congregational art project. Even a mobile as simple as blue construction paper water drops over the baptismal font can be an effective first try in this season of entering into and dwelling with the mysteries of baptismal living.

Add processions, or add color to existing processions, in those weeks when we hear about the risen Christ in our midst. A butterfly kite on a fishing pole makes a great and surprising Easter banner. Maybe a whole series of animal kites could join a parade; or fabric streamers to represent fire (red) or water (blue) could add to the celebration. Mylar or silky, light fabrics move well in procession. Symbols aren’t necessary. Consider flag-shaped banners cut in strips (an internet search for Alvin Ailey’s dance “Revelations” will yield examples of such banners). Even nonmoving, large, colorful fabric panels scaled to the room can add to the worship experience.

On the Day of Pentecost the color is red. Invite the assembly to participate by wearing red, or provide them something red when they arrive. Consider arranging the processions to highlight wind in and fire out: wind chimes and lightweight streamers in the entrance procession and red fabric “fire” banners or candles—even the paschal candle—on the way out.

Pentecost celebrations often make use of multiple languages. Expand this impulse and use the gifts of varied cultures in the art, textiles, or images. There are great old traditions that could be reinterpreted for today, such as scattering rose petals (from the ceiling or balcony?) to represent tongues of fire, or blowing trumpets to recall the mighty wind.

Seasonal Checklist

  •  If your assembly keeps the tradition of burying the alleluia in Lent, celebrate its return with lavish alleluias during the Easter season.
  •  Light the paschal candle on each of the Sundays of Easter, including the Day of Pentecost.
  •  It is particularly appropriate during the Easter season to use thanksgiving for baptism as an alternative to confession and forgiveness. A new form is available in the seasonal worship texts section (p. 162).
  •  If your congregation doesn’t already use a full thanksgiving at the table, do so in Easter. Forms VII and X (ELW, 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 local congregations or, if geographically possible, with other Lutheran congregations in your conference/cluster. Rotate the host congregation each year.
  •  Consider observing the Day of Pentecost as the next baptismal festival after the Vigil of Easter.
  •  If you will use a diversity of languages for the Day of Pentecost, make preparations in advance with musicians and readers.

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From sundaysandseasons.com.

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