• Preparing for Easter (Year A)

    The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons: Year A 2020, copyright © 2019 Augsburg Fortress.


    “But we had hoped . . .” On the third Sunday of Easter the Lukan text reports that the two disciples on the Emmaus road say to Jesus, “But we had hoped . . .” (Luke 24:21).

    Easter is the season to proclaim with joy and boldness that all in which we had previously falsely hoped has been put to death. Now is the time, “the queen of seasons, bright” (“Come, you faithful, raise the strain,” ELW 363), to raise our voice to proclaim the one true hope—an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading—the hope of Jesus Christ risen from the dead.

    “But we had hoped . . .” We had hoped for a better diagnosis, and we were disappointed. We had hoped for a better return on our investment, and the market failed us. We had hoped that homelessness and hunger would somehow have miraculously disappeared in our nation, rather than becoming worse, and the stark truth stands before us that without our own participation and sacrifice in its eradication, there is no hope. In other words, this is the season, a week of weeks, in which to unabashedly proclaim that the false projects and easy answers on which we repeatedly pin our hopes have been pinned instead to the cross and destroyed in the empty tomb. For the first time there is new hope. Real hope. Hope that even death cannot destroy.

    It is with this conviction and faithful resolve that the preacher is called in this season to navigate a path from Matthew’s fearful ones present around the tomb on Easter morning, through the doubt-filled upper room, on the Emmaus road, and all the way to where the disciples find themselves on Pentecost, “all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). Through all the doubts and fears, in spite of all the “what ifs,” amid the places and situations that the gospel spreads before the Easter season assembly, the witness of the early church—almost exclusively from 1 Peter—is of a hope that is unrelenting. Those to whom the author of 1 Peter writes are not the privileged, so this hermeneutic of hope will have to be unpacked for most congregations who are still as burdened by their fears as those first witnesses of the resurrection.

    It is a splendid season in which to include in the proclamation the witness and testimony of the newly baptized, or the parents of infants or children baptized at the Vigil. They will have their own stories to tell of hope born or reborn, of a passage from old to new that is the source of this season’s name: paschal.

    One might do well to choose a central theme or image from the overall arc of these readings to anchor the preaching for the season. Hope, of course, could be such an anchor. But so also could a phrase from so many of the lectionary texts: “a new birth into a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3), “I came that they may have life” (John 10:10), or “because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). Each of these is sturdy enough to stretch the span of the season and to connect the message of the failure of our human plans and hopes over and against the death-defeating hope that Christ freely offers all.

    Intercessory Prayer

    The women who seek Jesus at the tomb are ushered into the new age of Christ’s resurrection with fear and great joy. It is possible that both of these emotions arise from an uncertainty about what is going on. Undoubtedly, fear drives many of the prayers that are spoken in our homes and also in our faith communities. What might our devotion to prayer look like when shaped instead by the great joy that arises from uncertainty? It is not difficult to imagine the excitement with which the women run from the tomb or the enthusiasm with which Thomas confesses, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

    Often in our congregations the time of praying for the church, those in need, and all of creation bears a somber tone. Easter may be a season in which we pray with excitement, great joy, and even a little bit of fear of the unknown, as we look for what our resurrecting God is doing in the world. How do we express our great joy in the resurrection, especially when interceding for the sake of the world? Our prayers of praise and thanksgiving might lead us to lift our hands up. Praise and thanksgiving are often set to music that causes us to sway and move with the Spirit. Even our intercessions can speak of the joy and excitement we have in anticipation of the great things God will bring to fruition. In the Easter season we pray with joyful anticipation because we are rooted in the sure sign of all God’s promises fulfilled: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Maybe this is the season to teach all people in the congregation joyful prayer gestures, such as the ancient orans position or other gestures that express uplifting within our being. Musically inclined faith communities might intersperse a sung refrain from Evangelical Lutheran Worship with the petitions (consider ELW 741, 744, or 752).

    The texts of the Easter season call us to see our identity renewed in Christ. We were once not a people, and now we are God’s people (1 Peter 2:10). In year A some of the texts from Lent are repeated soon after in the season of Easter. Do we receive these words in a new way in light of the resurrection? Now we lift up the cup of salvation, call on the name of the Lord, and pay our vows in the glory of Christ’s new life. In Easter we become the witnesses of the resurrection and are, therefore, called to mindfulness before God of the people most in need of this salvation: those who suffer oppression, those who are persecuted for their faith, and especially those whose lives are endangered when they practice their faith.

    Having witnessed how Christ’s death and resurrection are God’s age-old prophecy and promise fulfilled, the disciples devote themselves to prayer while they wait for a new promise, the Advocate whom Jesus will send. As the Easter season draws to a close, we cling to the presence of the Holy Spirit, who keeps us in the way of Christ, and we are called into a heightened awareness of the work that God is doing now, among us and throughout the world. It is that same Holy Spirit who guides our praying, and even utters prayers on our behalf when we do not know what to pray (Romans 8:26). This Holy Spirit flows from the fearful and joyful hearts of believers out into a needy world.

    Assembly Song

    Like the readings for the Easter season, assembly song should invite ever-widening reflection on what it means to be Easter people fully living into our baptismal calling as witnesses of the resurrection. The Christ into whose death we are born journeys with us on the way (Easter 3) and becomes the way (Easter 5). Though Jesus was hidden by a cloud at his ascension, we find his presence among us in our assemblies, communities, and friends; in strangers; and each week around word and meal, a foretaste of the great and promised feast.

    Unlike secular observances of Christmas and Easter, the church’s celebrations of these festivals do not end the following morning; we do well to annually remind our assemblies of this throughout the twelve days of Christmas and the fifty days of Easter. Consider beginning each Sunday of Easter—a week of weeks—with one of the many rousing hymns with exclamatory titles and bold tunes, such as “Alleluia! Jesus is risen!” (ELW 377), “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” (ELW 382), “Christ is risen! Shout Hosanna!” (ELW 383), “Christ is alive! Let Christians sing” (ELW 389), and “We know that Christ is raised” (ELW 449), all of which encourage us to keep festival, and to keep hope. Or, given the abundance of wonderful Easter hymns, consider using select stanzas or refrains as gospel acclamations throughout the season: consider the third stanza of “Christ is arisen” (ELW 372) or alleluias excerpted from “The strife is o’er, the battle done” (ELW 366), “Good Christian friends, rejoice and sing!” (ELW 385), and “O sons and daughters, let us sing” (ELW 386). Instrumental descants, bells, Zimbelsterns, choral stanzas, and other celebratory adornments are appropriate for the entire season, not just Easter Sunday.

    Perhaps this season would be an appropriate time to replace instrumental preludes with a gathering song (or songs) as a means of keeping festival, or of teaching the assembly one or more new Easter or baptism hymns or songs that nurture and strengthen their collective voice. For example, consider songs such as “Alleluia,” “Come to the table,” “God who has saved,” “Haleluya! Pujilah Tuhanmu,” and the Palestinian “Hallelujah” in the collection Singing in Community: Paperless Music for Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2017).

    As noted in the 2017 edition of Sundays and Seasons Preaching, Year A (p. 148), the gospel readings for the second through seventh Sundays of Easter can be paired with sections of the catechism, a correlation that can readily be explored through assembly song. After all, these are the days in which the newly baptized now gather as members of the assembly! The following list may be useful for thinking intentionally about hymns and songs that trace the long arc of Lent’s baptismal preparation through Easter’s baptismal living: the Apostles’ Creed (Easter 2), Holy Communion (Easter 3), Holy Baptism (Easter 4), the Lord’s Prayer (Easter 5), the Ten Commandments (Easter 6), and Confession and Forgiveness (Easter 7).

    Finally, as has been suggested in previous seasonal essays, it may be helpful to review the guidance and suggestions in sources such as Keeping Time (pp. 122–130), the “Scripture Index—Service Music and Hymns” section of ELW Leaders Edition (pp. 906–920), and the “Music” section of Principles for Worship.

    Worship Space

    The art and environment in your church can reflect the glorious and wondrous resurrection of Christ. The fasting is over; the time of feasting is at hand. It is a season when the worship space can point to the risen Christ in our midst.

    Easter is the church’s greatest festival; the worship space can have even more adornment than it does in the Christmas season. Strive to be authentic in any decor that is chosen, and consider displaying art or furniture from the local community of believers. Always use the very best elements for decor at church. Plastic, silk, and artificial flowers don’t have a role of honor in the worship space. Keep the ambo, table, and font unobstructed. Add flowers or other decor to the room, but add nothing that gets in the way of the movement of the people during the liturgies.

    Fabric can be used to enhance the space during Easter. Simple swaths of sheer fabric placed high above the heads of the congregation can be effective. Banners can also be used. It is not necessary to have banners with words or slogans; sometimes less is more. Rainbows and doves are often symbols used in Easter decor. Suggest rainbow motifs in sheer fabrics instead of hanging the stereotypical rainbow arch of intense colors. Let some shimmering white banners suggest the dove instead of the overused image of a dove. Add a depiction of the olive branch in a creative way, appropriate to the scale of your space. Images of the empty cross and the risen Christ may be displayed to show visual revelation. Change the nave’s cross drape to white and use a vase that held bare branches in Lent to now hold lush, green, living plants, depicting the change of the church season from barrenness to abundance, fasting to feasting.

    Art depicting scripture stories that was created during Lent can stay in place for the season of Easter. Set up a large floor easel to display a work of art that is stationary through the season. Choose some fine art for service booklets or for projection in the nave. An excellent resource for fine art is the National Gallery in Washington, DC. It provides open access to thousands of digital images in public domain, free of charge.

    Wreaths and garlands are often underused in Easter. Wreaths are appropriate for the season as they signify triumph and eternity. The paschal candle can be placed near the table to illuminate the incarnation of Christ’s body in the meal. Or the candle may be placed near the font to reflect new birth in baptism. If placing the paschal candle near the font, consider adding large new candles near the paschal candle representing the newly baptized. The candles could burn every Sunday in the season and be taken home after Pentecost.

    The last day of Easter is the day of Pentecost. The focus of the seating arrangement, if movable, could be the font. Drape the nave’s cross in red. Flames are a strong image of the Holy Spirit, as are wind, breath, and the image of a dove. Experiment with red ribbons flowing abundantly down from a large hoop to hang gracefully in the nave. Create an aura of flames by using seven sheer fabric banners in hues of red and orange. Add white doves to cascading red ribbons. Consider an alcohol type candle to float on the baptismal waters during a reading of the Pentecost story. Alternately, if your space would allow, place forty-nine smaller glass votive candles in addition to the paschal candle on Pentecost Sunday to visually represent the fifty days of Easter.

    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. 168).
    •  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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