Alleluia! – Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
I have say: this is not where I want to be right now (in my backyard). I want to be with you, in person, at St. Matthew’s, in our beautifully decorated church, singing my heart out with you, sharing the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, sharing the joy – with you.
Alas, here I am, imagining your faces in front of me as I am looking into a tiny camera. But I am grateful that I can be with you, and you with me, and God with us, at least in this way, during the times of COVID-19.
What we are experiencing this year is unprecedented. That we can’t gather, that we can’t worship together. We can’t celebrate Easter the way we like and cherish: with festive clothing and soaring song, gathered with those we love without the worry about contagion, watching the little ones excitedly look for Easter eggs.
Some may ask, how can we celebrate as all this is going on? Is it appropriate to celebrate life as people are dying? Shouldn’t Easter better be cancelled this year – a year we experience insecurity and anxiety, isolation and suffering, a year we experience so much death?
If Martin Luther was alive today, he probably would say, nonsense! That’s the devil speaking who wants to drag us into despair. I defy all the powers of the devil and death and celebrate the new life we are given in and through Christ’s resurrection! Fie on you, devil! And if I knew that the world came to an end tomorrow, I still would plant a little apple tree today…
I’m not making all that up; Luther in his day experienced threatening situations, he experienced a pandemic in his day: the plague. Luther had a healthy fear and respect regarding those things – he didn’t preach that nothing evil can befall us when we just have enough faith. But in all turmoil, he never lost his hope and confidence in the life-giving powers of the risen Christ. He was protesting the forces of the devil and death by living life to the fullest – and responsibly.
And I’m with Luther. Not celebrate Easter? ‘Jetzt erst recht!’, as we would say in German. Unfortunately there is no good translation for this quite forceful and defiant expression. ‘Now more than ever!’ comes pretty close.
In these times that seem hopeless for many, we need hope. We need the reassurance that things somehow will go on, that there is some sort of resurrection and new life at the other side of what is going on right now. That a new day will dawn after a long night. That the great stone of anxiety, suffering, grief and death will be rolled away. That life will be victorious.
Easter is not just a carefree celebration meant for carefree times. The events on Easter morn are a protest against death – and all the forces that foster and play into the hands of death. The first Easter dawned on a nation under ruthless Roman rule – not only Jesus was crucified, but many were crucified for even minor infractions against Roman rule. The first Easter dawned onto a people longing for freedom and sovereignty. The first Easter dawned onto a society where many were poor and injustice was the norm. Those were not happy, carefree times – those were uncertain, dangerous, difficult times.
And Christians throughout the centuries have celebrated Easter, often under uncertain, dangerous and difficult circumstances, protesting all the forces that defy life, and literally laughing into the face of death. Death, where is your sting? Hell, where is your victory? I know that my redeemer lives, and that where he is, there I shall be also.
When we celebrate Easter today, we are protesting all the forces of evil and death – proclaiming that our God has the power to overcome death, that God is a God of life who wants an eternal life to the fullest for all creation, that God’s kingdom is near – a kingdom in which we love each other and look out for each other and care for each other, just as God loves us and looks out for us and cares for us, a kingdom where the life of all and for all is fostered.
No, Easter is not canceled. How could it? God is at work, even in the midst of death. We cannot celebrate Easter as exuberantly as in other years. But it is our duty and delight to celebrate – to sing and pray and thank God for the new life we are given. It is our duty and delight to connect with those who are dear to us, and to share the Easter hope and Easter joy with them. It is our duty and delight to rejoice in the fact that death never, ever has the last word.
And I want to close with words by the 17th century theologian, pastor and hymn writer Paul Gerhardt, words we will sing just in a moment. Gerhardt knew a thing or two about celebrating life in the midst of death – he was a first-hand witness of the horrors of the 30 Year War, which tore Europe apart. He knows that the promise of Easter is not about a happy and carefree times, but about God’s conquest of death. And so he writes:
Now I will cling forever
to Christ, my Savior true;
my Lord will leave me never,
whate’er he passes through.
He rends death’s iron chain;
He breaks through sin and pain;
He shatters hell’s grim thrall;
I follow him through all.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!
This post is also available in: German