On December 26, I published a post titled, “When Christmas Isn’t a Major Key Holiday.” It seemed to resonate with a number of people who also found themselves feeling unfestive as they dealt with grief and heartache during the season of “glad tidings and joy.”
Grief and heartache aren’t unfestive. They aren’t incompatible with Christmas. In fact, they’re the perfect platform for true Christmas spirit to bloom…
Perhaps, like O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Christmas is more about a cry of anguish than holiday cheer and warm fuzzies. Of aching longing for eternity rather than rosy contentment with earthly things. Of desperate expectation rather than idyllic sentiment. Of hope – hope in what has come, yes, but more so in what is yet to come.
Perhaps where our anguish and the hope of Christmas meet, we experience a glimpse of the true peace and joy of Christmas. Perhaps the key to Christmas spirit isn’t found in ideal circumstances or putting on a happy face or pretending Christmas doesn’t exist, but rather in embracing the anguish as we desperately cry out, flat on our face, with tears streaming and heart breaking, “O come, o come, Emmanuel!”
Little did I know when I wrote those words that Easter of 2020 would in many ways feel like a repeat of Christmas: a usually “major key” holiday arriving in the form of dissonant chords in a minor key. Coronavirus has drastically altered life across the globe in a startling matter of days. Like whiplash, the sudden halt to normalcy has left people bewildered and hurting and feeling anything but celebratory.
In our American context, we are used to Easter week being full of pastel colors, blooming flowers, new dresses in the latest floral prints, Easter egg hunts, loads of chocolate, visits with relatives, upbeat worship songs celebrating the Resurrection, and inspiring sermons about the victory of the resurrection. Perhaps we attend a somber Good Friday service or watch The Passion of the Christ to remind us of the more gory, solemn side of Easter, but we quickly get back to the heartwarming reality that Christ triumphed over sin and death.
What if the same conclusion I came to at Christmastime is true of Easter, too? What if grief and heartache aren’t anti-Easter but the doorway to a deeper, truer, more poignant kind of Easter joy? What if grief, heartache, confusion, isolation, disillusionment, and fear are exactly the Easter lead-up emotions that give way to the deepest kind of worship?
On Good Friday, Jesus’ disciples, family, and friends went to bed devastated and grieving. Their dreams had been crushed. Their hopes of deliverance dashed. Their would-be king hung on a cross. Their friend was in a tomb. Their band of brothers was temporarily disbanded: one had sold Jesus out, all of them fled out of fear, and one of them denied him three times. After all he had done for them, in His time of need, they were no where to be found.
They were hurting. Confused. Isolated. Disillusioned. Disappointed. Afraid. Grieving. Ashamed. This wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. Was it? Easter week had begun with joyful celebration. Yet it ended with something entirely different. What happened?
They couldn’t see that something better was coming. Something greater than their greatest hopes. There was no joy for the disciples that night, or the next or the next. There was no bright spot on the horizon.
Just days before, Jesus had triumphantly entered Jerusalem on a donkey while people waved palm branches and effectively declared that He was their awaited Messiah. He’d been healing all their diseases. Raising their dead. Curing their blind. Feeding their hungry. They could follow him whenever they wanted and return to the comfort of their homes when his words became uncomfortable. They were ready for deliverance from all the things they didn’t like and he was their guy. Their ticket to freedom. The genie to their dreams.
Perhaps Palm Sunday represents our lives up until now. We have lived in the privileged comfort of life in a first-world country where our personal freedom and convenience are our gods. Where it’s easy to declare Jesus is King because it comes at little to no personal cost. Where we unabashedly use hashtags like #firstworldproblems because we’re so privileged we can even joke about it. Where we do what we want, when we want.
Maybe the Easter joy we are used to experiencing is actually Palm Sunday joy. It’s the joy of good times; the joy of living in a state of comfort; of having a god who mostly gives you what you want and expects little in return; of thinking our happiness is attainable with that next relationship, that next promotion, that newest iphone; of full bellies and satisfied sweet tooths.
But where is joy in shouting “Crucify him!”? Where is joy in the betraying kiss of a friend? In the sting of the whip and agony of the crown of thorns? In realizing the one you put your hope in is about to die, leaving you empty and confused? In the horrifying sound of the weeping and moaning of a bereaved mother at the foot of the cross? In the realization that you put the nails in his hands yourself?
The joy is there, friends. It is Sunday’s joy, but it is there. It is there in the sighing whisper,”It is finished.” It is there in the realization that everything he said WAS true…which means if he’s dying now, he’ll be living later. It is there in the kingdom of heaven breaking in, poking a cosmic hole in Brokenness. It is there in the tearing of the veil that has separated man and God for generations.
Easter is only a joyful occasion if Good Friday is a torturous one. For only when we are acutely aware of the brokenness around us, of the blood of guilt on our own hands, of the hopelessness of everything else around us…only then can Easter be good news. Pain is the birthplace of joy.
We are keenly aware of the brokenness around us right now. The illusion of Palm Sunday has spoiled. The tables have been turned. The entire world is groaning and aching even more intensely than usual at the afflictions of disease, injustice, hunger, economic uncertainty, fear, and loneliness because of COVID-19. Everything around us looks bleak and hopeless, empty and vain. We feel like we’re trying to contain and elephant in a birdcage, shoving one limb in only to have another fall out. On top of it all, the situation is only revealing our worry, selfishness, fears, idols, fragility, and helplessness that have been there all along.
Our dreams have been crushed. Our savings accounts drained. Our sense of control squelched. Our hopes of deliverance from this nightmare dashed. Our countrymen, even friends and family, lie in graves. Our communities are disbanded, isolated. Our deliverers of modern medicine, science, and intellect overwhelmed by a giant foe.
Maybe we don’t need more Palm Sunday joy this year. Maybe we don’t need celebrations and feasts and egg hunts and big to dos to find joy in Easter. Maybe we don’t need life to return to normal so that we can celebrate appropriately.
Maybe what we need is the lonely, quiet, uncomfortable silence of socially distanced living in the middle of a pandemic we cannot control to scrape off the layers of false joy, comfort, security, and hope we have covered up for so long. Maybe there in the depths of the agony of our deepest fears, heartache, grief, pain, confusion, disappointment, and disillusionment, we will discover true joy: the joy that comes when you realize that something great is coming. Something greater than your greatest hopes. That in fact, Jesus IS everything you’ve been looking for, only far, far better.
So friends, this may Easter look different for you than it ever has before. Maybe you don’t feel like celebrating. Maybe you’re planning to ignore it; it’s just another day, right? Maybe you’re trying to recapture as much of your sense of normal Easter festivities as you can muster in your own home and virtually. Maybe you’re trying to conjure up some leftover Palm Sunday joy that has to be stashed somewhere, right?
But maybe you should embrace the painful context of this Easter. Dig deep into the heartache. Let it be as uncomfortable as it actually is. Lay down your expectations for everything you thought life was supposed to be, how God was supposed to work. Admit that brokenness sucks. Acknowledge that coronavirus only reveals the things that have always been true: we are weak. We are finite. We are mortal. Wealth is fleeting. Security is momentary. Comfort is blinding.
Maybe this pandemic gives us the unique opportunity to strip away all the distractions, all the secondary sources of joy that so easily become primary, all the coverups for the things we don’t want to face, and simply sit with the story of Easter. Maybe as we see that the bad news is worse than we thought, we will also see that the good news is far better than we could have imagined. Maybe we will remember that this is not our Home, and that the deep ache we feel for the world to be right won’t go away when coronavirus is over.
Maybe then the true joy of Resurrection will sink deep into our hearts. Jesus is alive, and He is King of a Kingdom that is far better than this world could ever be.
Maybe Easter isn’t a major key holiday this year, and maybe that’s ok. Because the dissonant chords of life on this earth won’t find their resolve until Jesus returns. And if He’s risen tomorrow, He WILL be returning later.