Growing up in Aztec, New Mexico, there was a long-standing tradition for Easter Sunday morning—the Easter Sunrise service at the Aztec Ruins. It was both one of my favorite services of the year and one that I dreaded.
I loved the service because it was beautiful. It was beautiful to see the sun rise across the hills. It was beautiful because of the ecumenical nature of the service and people from all different churches gathered together to welcome the morning of resurrection. It was beautiful watching our breath in the cold morning air (Sometimes with snow still on the ground). It was beautiful because there was a tendency for little powerful moments to sneak up on us, like the time a jackrabbit came galloping through the gathered worshippers, surprised to see a crowd of people singing together in his usual haunt. It was beautiful.
Then there was the other side of this service. For one, it was a sunrise service. It usually started at 6am, meaning we had to be out there at 5:30, meaning we had to get up very early. These days, I am usually at the church preparing for Sunday far earlier than that, so it doesn’t seem nearly as bad. However, for a small child, it was awful! We also won’t go into the fact that there is something terribly imperialistic about a bunch of Christians worshipping on the grounds of an ancient Native American city (that’s for another discussion). If it makes you feel better, my understanding is that the service is no longer held at those ruins.
The worst part, however, was not the cold or the early morning. The worst part was the fact that many of the churches that participated had not taken any time for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. This translated into the reality that the Easter Sunrise service often focused on the suffering, the sorrow, the pain, the loss, the death, the blood and the gore. Surely, this is also the result of bad theology, but I think a large part of that lay in the fact that some churches didn’t make time for this stuff in other parts of their life, so the most important Sunday of the church calendar to focus on hope, resurrection and new life, became a time to dwell on death.
This is part of the reason that I think it is so important for us to have a Maundy Thursday service. I also think that the time we spent together last night worshipping, reenacting the Last Supper, the foot-washing and hearing the story of the passion is one of the most powerful worship experiences of the whole year. This is the 10th time I have been a part of leading this service at Covenant. It hasn’t changed a great deal over those 10 years, but every year I still find myself with tears in my eyes as we hear the story. Every year I marvel at the solemn procession to wash hands and feet and enter the sanctuary. Every year I relish the conversations at the table as we eat and share communion together. It quite simply, is my favorite service of the year.
The other piece of this is deeply theological. You can’t have the resurrection without death. As dark as this sounds, we need death. We need loss. We need sorrow. It is the journey through these things that leads to the hope of resurrection. Let’s also make clear, it isn’t that God causes these things, but it is that God can work through even these things to bring about transformation and new life. That really is the story of Easter. God takes the worst brokenness that we can throw in God’s direction—the pain, the suffering, the sorrow, the torture, even the death—and God transforms them into new life.
So I invite you to take time today to contemplate the brokenness in your life. Where are the places that you see death’s grim demeanor staring you down? Where are the places that you have faced suffering and pain? Where are the places that have seemed to you to be beyond the reach of light and life? Take some time to confront those dark spaces. They are there, and when we ignore them, they tend to crop back up in places they shouldn’t (like Easter sunrise services). Today, Good Friday, of all days, should be the time where we give that brokenness expression so that we are ready to leave it behind in the tomb and live into the promise of God’s resurrection and new life for us all.