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Embracing Our Identity as Easter People

When I was leaving Michigan and moving to California, some friends conspired to throw a surprise going away party. It was near the holidays, and I totally bought the ruse that I was invited to a friend’s Christmas party. When I walked into the party, everyone yelled: SURPRISE! I was totally shocked and amazed! I looked around the room to see friends gathered from near and far. My mother had snuck in from out of town, and there she was in the middle of them – smiling and delighted. It was a wonderful celebration!

That surprise reminds me of what all four Gospel accounts make clear: Jesus’ resurrection took his disciples completely by surprise. They missed any clues Jesus might have given them. It was as though when they arrived at the tomb on Easter morning, an angel shouted: SURPRISE!

It’s remarkable when you think about it. The defining event in Christian history – Jesus’ passing through suffering and death to the new life of resurrection – took his closest followers completely by surprise. When Mary Magdalene came to anoint his body, she thought someone had taken it. (John 20: 1-2) Peter ran to the tomb with John, and they found it empty. But “they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead.” (John 20: 4-10) The disciples didn’t believe the women who said Jesus had been raised. (Luke 24: 10-11) Then, of course, there’s Thomas. He found it so difficult to believe in the resurrection that he demanded to see Jesus’ wounds as proof. (John 20: 24-29)

The disciples’ surprise provides an intriguing contrast with our own experience of Easter. We approach Jesus’ suffering on Good Friday knowing we are on the verge of celebrating Easter. We know how the story ends even as it unfolds. There is a way in which taking the death-to-life passage of resurrection for granted can lead us to normalize it. We can miss its dramatic, life changing impact. In contrast to the disciples’ total surprise, we can find ourselves viewing Easter as a sure thing rather than a mystery that is overwhelming.

To celebrate an event is to enter completely into it. I once experienced a dramatic example of such a celebration – of entering completely into the event. I was in Brazil on business when the World Cup match between Argentina and Brazil took place. The celebration lasted three days: a day to anticipate the game, a full day to experience the game, and a day to remember and relive the game. It was close to impossible to get any work done during those three days! If a soccer game can generate that level of intensity, what does it say about the way we should go all in to celebrate Easter?

Here are three ways we can enter more deeply into the Easter event – allowing it to move us at a profound level and gift us with transformational change. 

First, we can remember and celebrate the Easter events we have already experienced. As we look back over our lives, what experiences have we had of new life emerging from the place of death? When has our sorrow been turned into joy and our disappointment given way to hope? My Easters have included tragic death giving my way to consolation and the deep appreciation for a loved one I will always remember. They have included reaching a professional dead end and having a wonderful future emerge from the desert of disappointment. A third resurrection experience was having my woundedness slowly give way to healing, wisdom, and a more profound grasp of God’s redeeming presence. What Easters – times when suffering and death gave way to new life – have you experienced? Easter moments can be difficult to see as they occur. Sometimes, they only become clear as we look back on them.

A second way of embracing Easter – the passage from death to life – is opening ourselves to transformation in the present moment. What do I need to leave behind – what needs to die in me – so that I may live in a more vital and alive way?

Jesus provided us with an insight about the Easter transformation when he raised Lazarus from the dead. As Lazarus emerged from the tomb, Jesus told those gathered: “Unbind him, let him go free.” (John 11: 1-37) As we enter into this year’s celebration of Easter, in what way do we need to be unbound? What does the death-to-life passage need to free us from all that holds us back? What does it need to free us to become? For me, being unbound means leaving behind my tendency to judge and condemn myself so that I can learn to forgive myself. Being freed includes being freed from my need for control in order to receive the help of others and accept the unconditional love of God. As you approach Easter this year, in what way do you need to be unbound? In what way does Easter need to free you?

A third way of celebrating Easter – of entering into the event – is being willing to “wait in joyful hope” for the Easters that are yet to come. Faith calls us to continue to trust the death-to-life passages that are still unfolding within us. It also invites us to wait for the Easter passages that are yet to come. These include the ultimate Easter when each of us will cross the canyon of death to pass from this life to the next.

When my mother was nearing her death, she wanted to be dead, but she was afraid of dying. When I relayed that to my priest friend Ken, he responded: “I hear that a lot.”

It takes a profound act of faith to claim our identity as Easter people. Time and again, we say we believe it in our profession of faith – perhaps without giving it much thought. “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” Yet, truly meaning those words requires trusting that the ultimate death-to-life passages leads us to the mercy, forgiveness, and love of God. Fully entering into that Easter demands trusting and surrendering to the life-giving power of God. Going all in to trust the resurrection as our ultimate destiny requires a leap of faith – one that is orders of magnitude more difficult than saying the words. At some instinctive level, my mother knew that’s what faith asked of her. One day, it will ask that of each of us.

As the Easter season unfolds, it calls us to more fully embrace our identity as Easter people. Entering into Easter urges us to surrender to the death-to-life passage whenever and however we experience it. When we embrace the resurrection, we join Lazarus in being unbound and the Risen Christ in leaving the tomb behind. In claiming Easter as our destiny, we trust our sorrow will be turned to joy, every tear will be wiped away, and new life will rise from the place of death. As the Easter season unfolds within and around us, it invites us to renew our trust in the resurrection. Daniel Berrigan once summarized that trust with startling clarity: “The only tombs that Christians believe in are those that are empty.”

Happy Easter!

Questions to Ponder

Here are some questions to help you enter more deeply into the celebration of Easter.

  • When have you been surprised by Easter?
  • As you look back over your life, what experiences have you had of the death-to-life passage of Easter?
  • At this moment in your life, in what way is Easter calling you to be unbound?
  • What is this Easter asking you to leave behind? What new life is it holding out for you?
  • How is Easter inviting you to “wait in joyful hope” for resurrections yet to come?
  • What is holding you back from fully embracing your identity as an Easter people?
  • How can you join Lazarus in being unbound and the Risen Christ in leaving the tomb behind?