Preparing for Easter (Year C)

The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons 2019, Year C, copyright © 2018 Augsburg Fortress.

Theology of the Cross in Easter

At a summer gathering of campus pastors and ELCA college chaplains, Dr. Mindy Makant, a religious studies professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University, urged the group to tell stories that point to the cross from the perspective of the resurrection. Theology of the cross calls a thing what it is and finds God in unlikely places. “So what?” Makant asked. “How does it become performative? How does it mediate God’s love to the world?” If theology is something we do, how do we embody theology of the cross? “How do we tell a truthful story with our lives?”

In Easter worship we can embody a witness to God’s loving activity in what Makant calls “the poignant gap” between Easter morning and Christ’s coming again—this in-between time in which we boldly affirm “Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!” and also live with the reality of loss, anxiety, and grief. We are both/and people. We both genuinely mourn, and we do not mourn as people without hope. “Hope,” says Makant, “is the future tense of faith. It is creative space, grounded in our knowledge of the resurrection—because we know that dead people stay dead . . . until they don’t. Our knowledge of the resurrection is based on the trustworthy character of God.”

People come to worship on Easter morning and throughout the Easter season aching not only to hear about but also to experience the love of God showing up in the midst of the reality of their lives. Sub contraria specie, which means “under the form of the opposite,” means God can be found not only in the unlikely places we think of first—the cross, the manger, at table with sinners, healing on the sabbath—but also right in the middle of whatever is really going on in your congregation, your community, in the nation, in the world. There are no godforsaken places or people.

The Easter Season in Year C: Love Shows Up

While the lectionary texts for the Easter season contain familiar elements from year to year (the Gospel of John, Thomas on Easter 2, at least one Sunday about shepherds/sheep), the readings aren’t identical, and different themes and preaching emphases can emerge. In year C, the road to Emmaus passage is absent, but love is everywhere.

  • Easter Day: John 20:1-18. “So [Mary] ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’” God’s love shows up in this and other details in the story, especially in Jesus’ interaction with Mary.
  • Easter 2: John 20:19-31. The word love isn’t used in this passage, but God’s love shows up in Jesus’ particular concern and care for Thomas and in bringing a breath of peace to the grieving disciples.
  • Easter 3: John 21:1-19. “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’” Simon declares his love three times.
  • Easter 4: John 10:22-30. Jesus knows the sheep, gives them eternal life, and promises that nothing will ever separate him from them.
  • Easter 5: John 13:31-35. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
  • Easter 6: John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9. “Jesus answered [Judas (not Iscariot)], ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’.” Or, from the alternate gospel reading, a story of God’s love in action: Jesus healing at Siloam on the sabbath.
  • Easter 7: John 17:20-26. “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
  • Day of Pentecost: John 14:8-17 [25-27]. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”

Taken together, these texts ask and answer a series of powerful questions. How do we know God? Embodied love (Jesus). How can we be sure God is still with us, after the resurrection and before Christ comes again? God sends the Spirit. Because God loved us, we also can love.

Embodiment, the Senses, and the Gospel of John

At The Craft of Preaching conference hosted by Working Preacher and Luther Seminary, the Rev. Karoline Lewis offered expertise on proclaiming the gospel and John’s gospel in particular: be attentive to the details in the text, and be true to the specificity of the author’s voice and how the text wants to be preached because it comes particularly from John.

John is about the Word made flesh, so we’re called to pay careful attention to sensory details in the texts and consider embodied approaches to worship. For example:

  •  We know about God’s love because Jesus makes the disciples breakfast on the beach (Easter 3). What kind of food-related ministry can you lift up (preferably in very tangible, active, and delicious ways) on this day?
  •  On Easter 4, play with the sense of sound and with use of voices. How do we hear God’s voice?
  •  On Easter 6, include an opportunity in worship for anointing for healing and prayer with laying on of hands. Bless and send anointing oil home with congregants.
  •  On either Easter 4 or Easter 6, “I heard the voice of Jesus say” (ELW 611) connects to hearing and experiencing the love of God.
  •  Examine the sharing of the peace as an embodied act of God’s love, particularly as it relates (or does not relate, in contextual practice) to John 20:19-31, the Easter 2 gospel. For people with compromised immune systems or other concerns, this practice falls short of carrying the significance we hope to give it. Jesus embodies peace without physical touch. Offer, and model, touch and no-touch options for sharing the peace of Christ.
  •  Be attentive to details in the texts and use those details to inform choices for liturgical arts and music. How might Easter in year C look and sound different from previous Easter seasons? If “Love Shows Up” is the theme for the season, how does that look and sound in your context?

◦ Take liturgical arts cues from what God’s love looks like in each of the texts. Translating that into visual arts—without filling the worship space with an abundance of fish—may be tricky, but be guided by the recurring motifs of abiding, abundance, and mutual, eternal relationship.

◦ For hymn choices, broad themes related to love or the Easter season may be less helpful/interesting than focusing on a specific detail from the text each Sunday and letting that detail guide the search. What is God doing in the text that shows love? How is love specifically being made known?

Day of Pentecost

Consider that Pentecost Sunday is not the start of a new season but the culmination of the season of Easter. When read through the lens of love showing up, the readings are especially poignant as Jesus reassures the disciples, and us, that God’s embodied love will continue to be with them even when he is not. Review past Pentecost traditions and practices in light of how you plan to shape the rest of your worship during the season. You may still want to throw a big Pentecost party but with a slightly differently thematic emphasis this year.

If your congregation sells red flowers for Pentecost, think about ways to turn that event into an embodied act of love—perhaps through sharing flowers with people who will be cheered by them, organizing volunteers to help people plant the flowers they’ve purchased, or a different ministry that might grow from the proceeds of the flower sale.

If you’re hoping people will wear red on Pentecost Sunday, give them fair (and frequent) notice. When this becomes a “Hey, where’s your red?” accusatory thing, it can be alienating, especially to newcomers. Leading up to the day, model talking about it in a way that emphasizes that it is optional and just for fun.

Congregations might sing in different languages on Pentecost as a way to embody the fullness of the Spirit. If this is new for you, have a soloist or choir sing in the new language and the assembly in the more familiar language. You might teach a simple refrain to the assembly that they can learn by ear.

Seasonal Checklist

  •  If your assembly keeps the tradition of burying the alleluia in Lent, celebrate its return with lavish alleluias during the Easter season.
  •  Consider an ecumenical or joint ELCA congregation Ascension Day worship service.
  •  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.
  •  Engage the assembly in vocal expressions of resurrection joy by making unabashed use of the Easter call and response (Alleluia! Christ is risen. / Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!) in the greeting, the peace, the invitation to communion, and the dismissal.
  •  Use “This is the feast” as the hymn of praise.
  •  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 (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.
  •  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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