Before we rush to Easter — and with good cause the Christian world anticipates that glorious day with its splendor, pomp and elation — let us tarry in other places with Jesus.
The church will first recall the Passover meal celebrated by Jesus and his disciples in the Jerusalem upper room. That ancient meal commemorating Israel’s release from captivity and bondage to Pharoah has been reshaped in the Christian understanding to include the sacrament whereby Jesus’ body is represented by — or becomes — the bread and wine as he becomes the means of liberation.
Many congregations observe this event on what they call Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday. Services are somber and pensive as worshipers remember Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, the sharing of the Passover feast and Jesus and the disciples departing into the gathering darkness of Gethsemane where the disciples would scatter like sheep before the wolf and Jesus would be arrested like a common criminal.
Some congregations strip their altar and chancel area of all Christian symbols during that service as a sober reminder of the despair of that evening.
Today, congregations will gather — some at noon, others in the evening — to remember the crucifixion, that event so filled with horror, so laden with mystery, yet promising reconciliation and new life for all who embrace the cross and the Son of God. Some congregations will hear the seven last words Jesus spoke on the cross. Others will sing hymns such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.”
Venantius Honorius Fortunatus, a 6th century Italian poet and priest whose poem “Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle” can be found in many church hymnals (including the United Methodist Hymnal on page 296), wrote these words of tribute about the cross of Christ (stanza 4):
Faithful cross, thou sign of triumph,
Now for us the noblest tree,
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be;
Symbol of the world’s redemption,
For the weight that hung on thee.
These are incredibly moving words. Most of us hope that Easter Sunday will be accompanied by the blossoming and blooming of the natural world. But Fortunatus gets to the heart of the Christian mystery: Enjoy the dogwoods, cherry trees, azaleas and flowers. But recognize that for the follower of Jesus, the most beautiful tree in the world is the rude, rough, unadorned and splintered cross of Christ; none can compare with this symbol of redemption and sacrifice.
So make your plans to be in church somewhere this Easter ... whether at a chilly and moving sunrise service or in a crowded sanctuary, large or small, with dozens or hundreds of joyful worshipers. But don’t forget Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and even the barrenness of Saturday. These three days must be embraced so that one can receive the shocking, joyful victory over death and evil that is Easter.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.