Easter 2017 will be forever etched in my soul.
I can still so vividly recall where I was at 7:30 that morning. I stood looking out of a window at the end of a hall of a massive hospital, after one of the longest nights of my life. On that Saturday night, I had taken my teenage daughter — my firstborn — to the emergency room. I had sat with her throughout the evening and into the wee hours of the morning. (The reasons for the hospital trip are her story, so I will let her tell it.) As I stood looking out into the sunlit San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, I knew my life had forever changed.
The road leading up to that Easter had been perilous and painful, to say the least. I was a Missouri kid that had moved to Los Angeles over 20 years before, and for all those years in that glorious metropolitan melting pot I had been pastoring in different churches. My family and I were in one of the most soul-searching times of our lives, so the night in the hospital with my daughter felt like the boiling point of everything we had been walking through. As I stood looking out that window, I could see the road that connected the hospital with the seminary that had brought me to LA all those years ago. It felt like 21 years had come full circle. I knew it was a significant turning point in my life (and it was).
The moment was not lost on me. Here I was, early Easter morning, staring out into our past, sitting in our present, and speculating about our future. If ever there was a time I believed in the hope of the resurrection that we celebrate on Easter, this was it. But that hope was present in one of the darkest times of my life.
If we are not careful, we can unwittingly sanitize the Easter story. Even though our motives are good, we can inadvertently tame it by dressing it up in its “Sunday best” and make it safe and secure for the modern consumer. But as I read it, the hope of Easter grows up out of the ground of the depths of the darkness of a hurting and dying world.
There is a power and beauty in the Easter story. Yet there is something deeply unsettling about Easter — particularly if we will allow it to penetrate our hearts from the inside-out.
When the first followers of Jesus opened their eyes on the inaugural Easter morning, they were not experiencing the hope and comfort and joy that Easter can bring. Jesus had been crucified, and by this point He had been in the tomb for three days. All their hopes and dreams and expectations had been dashed at Jesus’ execution. Their belief that Jesus was the long-awaited-for Messiah of Israel, the one who would be King and Savior of the world, had all gone up in flames at the cross. For three days they had been hiding out in fear that they too would experience a similar fate. They were disoriented, disillusioned, and full of despair. As they stared out into the abyss of a future without Jesus, all hope had to have been lost.
And then to add insult to injury, word came from some of the women that Jesus was not in the tomb. The Gospel of John tells us that Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved” raced to the tomb and found it as the women had testified. Jesus was not there. The sight of the empty tomb had to be bringing them to their breaking point. What they could not imagine, not even in their wildest dreams, was what they were about to experience. The crucified Jesus was about to appear to them in His risen glory. And their lives would never be the same.
There is a pattern in this story that runs throughout the rest of the New Testament: The pathway to Easter comes through Good Friday and Holy Saturday. For there to be resurrection, there has to first be death. For the new to come, the old has to die. The pathway into our experience of the resurrection life of Jesus only comes through our dying to the old ways of this fallen world.
Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (He would go on from here to speak of the significance of his death; see John 12:20-36) Saint Paul would later write, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” The Apostle John reminds his readers, “And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” Saint Francis of Assisi would echo all three by saying, “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
The journey to Easter comes through the trials of Passion Week, the death of Good Friday, and the burial of Holy Saturday. It is through this path that we can walk out of the tomb with Jesus into the light of the dawn of new creation. And once we do, we see a whole new world open to us — with all its possibilities and potential — a world worth waiting for and a world worth working for.
Resurrection life often comes after a time of great trial. It often comes after a long period of pain. It often comes after the dark night of the soul. It often comes after we loosen our grip on an old way of living in this world.
If we want to experience the fullness of the power of Easter, we sometimes have to endure the agony of Good Friday. We sometimes have to sit in the deafening silence of Holy Saturday. It seems to be the pattern, and although we would like to choose another way, it is often the process. It is the way it has to be if we are going to be brought out of the pangs of a world of death into the power of resurrection life.
As I stood in the hallway of the hospital early that Easter morning, I knew my life would never be the same. There was a sense that something new was being birthed right there in that moment. If I was being honest with myself, I had been dying for quite awhile. Over twenty years of tumultuous pastoral ministry in a particular kind of Christianity had taken its toll, and I was dying. I had been struggling on life support for years now, and it was time to let go. The weekend of Easter 2017 felt like I had finally breathed my last breath in that old world and the tomb had been sealed.
Yet Easter Sunday felt like the stone had been rolled away and I was looking in the bright light of a new day. I was walking out of the tomb into the second half of life (with a tip of the cap to Richard Rohr). The old was passing away, and the new had come. Jesus was making all things new. In a very real sense I felt like I was being born again again. I did not know exactly what the fullness of all this meant for my life — that would come later. I just knew I could not go back, that I needed to walk forward into the newness of what Jesus was leading me into.
I would not want to relive that time period in my life; it was so painful. And I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone else, either. Yet the pattern holds true: The pathway to Easter comes through Good Friday. We must first die to the old for the new to come. We follow Jesus into his death so that we can walk in newness of life. And there is no end to the kind of life Jesus brings; we just have to be willing to let the old go so that we can experience the new.
It can be terribly scary to let go of the old. It can feel like your life is coming apart, and in many ways it very well may be. But if we follow Jesus into it, it will be the road to resurrection life. This is what I began to discover in my experience on Easter 2017. What felt like the very worst Easter of my life may have ended up being the very best.