It’s not Christmas. The neighbors haven’t plastered their home with Easter lights, nor has the Easter tree been trimmed with ribbons and bows. The little children don’t bubble with excitement in quite the same way. The grownups don’t stay up late shopping and preparing for the long-anticipated Easter Eve. It’s not Christmas. Rather, it is the greatest day of the whole year.
But many of us will miss the buildup yet again. Holy week will pass, Monday to Friday, plodding through our same routine. The preparation before Easter doesn’t have the same fanfare as elves and Santa, cookies and a manger scene. Even though we might land in a church come Easter Sunday morning, perhaps even find an Easter egg or two, it’s almost too easy to forget that this is the greatest celebration of every Christian who ever was.
Theologically we can understand why this day is so special. Christ rising from the dead, what we celebrate on Easter morning, is the reason that we are free from sin, death, and the devil. Saint Paul gives us plenty of reason to count Easter as the most important and holy day we celebrate.
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
1 Corinthians 15:17-19
However, I’ve watched my children, in wonder of their young Easter excitement, enjoying an ancient wisdom beyond their years. The week before Easter, Holy Week, tells a long and emotional story. It is a complex truth to understand Christ’s sacrifice given for our reconciliation with the Almighty God. We have regularly celebrated the whole week together, focused around ancient worship traditions of the Christian Church, and every year I’m surprised at their reaction. They enthusiastically look forward to Christ’s passion journey, ending in joyful celebration on Easter Sunday. Looking back to my own childhood, I don’t remember such an expectation for this incredible Easter joy. Yet every year my kids are more than ready to dive head first into the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday, I watch them get to church a little early so they can grab their very own palm branch outside of the church doors. Before the service begins outside the church doors, they hold their branches, just as they hear the crowds do outside of Jerusalem. Singing at the top of their little lungs, “All Glory, Laud and Honor” they march with the adults, great-grandparents, kids of their church family into God’s house. Today they hear the beginning of the story of Christ’s last journey in our world. Loved and adored all the way to alone and despised.
At home this week, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we clean out every room in the house. They hate it. However, they don’t fight it much anymore. Kitchen, living areas, bathroom bedroom, everything is set right once again in anticipation for the celebration coming on Sunday. As much as the children don’t enjoy cleaning, it has become part of the somber rhythm of this week.
Thursday, I watch them fill the pews in night church. Maundy Thursday worship celebrates Jesus’s new covenant of love, body and blood shed for the forgiveness of sin. By the end of the service, the kids’ eyes are focused on the altar, waiting for Christ’s story to progress. A single voice sings Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning…” One by one, every book, candle, cloth is removed from the altar. Naked and bare, unlike every other Sunday, the children watch God’s dwelling place stripped of every dignity.
Leaving in silence, uncomfortable hushed goodbyes, the service abruptly ends. There is no benediction tonight. There is no joy or singing tonight, because we all know where the story must go.
Friday, black dresses, shirts, and shoes set the tone for the holy funeral we are about to attend. Silence, sadness, the children enter the sanctuary tonight contemplating the dark linens draped over that tortuous cross. They hear the whole story now, the accusations, the beating, the punishment ascribe to Jesus. They sing sad songs, speaking together with the whole church, the story of one stricken, smitten, and afflicted. Finally, the church fades to black. A single candle burns alone on the nude altar. Then slowly, silently, the scarce light is escorted out of the church.
“He said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).
Jesus is dead, the small ones whisper. Darkness overcomes the whole church as we blindly feel our way outside and somberly hold the hands of those who mourn this Good Friday.
Saturday, we huddle outside of the church once again, this time in front of a watchful night fire. Even though it is late, the kids are excited to continue to the end of this great story. Each lighting a small candle, together we walk back into the shadowy sanctuary. The children listen closely to long beautiful stories of remembrance, of God’s great mercy to his people from creation, His gracious salvation in flood, through sea, or even by fish. Generations singing the praises of God. And tonight, as we watch in the middle of the night, another story is remembered.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! The dusky church is suddenly bursting with light. Alleluia! The music fills the sanctuary and all voices shout the happy hymn of praise. Alleluia! The kids jump up, excited to hear the first proclamation of Christ’s resurrection from the dead before sunrise on Easter morning. Alleluia, Christ is risen!
While the kids already walked through the whole story, following the emotional rollercoaster of Christ’s passion journey, tonight they can barely sleep. Tomorrow is the grand party of the resurrection.
Early Easter morning, they step into brand new clothes. The church is decorated with flowers. The people are smiling and happy. The story of our Risen Savior is proclaimed. Singing and Shouting, Alleluia! A huge potluck feast awaits as the family of God celebrates the greatest day of the year. The kids stuff their tummies with cinnamon rolls and Easter candy, playing games and rejoicing with their friends.
On the journey, watching my children soak in the story of their Savior, it’s no wonder they have grown to love the greatest day of the whole year. They can touch, smell, feel, taste, sing, and shout from the dark depths of death to the exhilarating heights of our celebration of life during Holy week, even as a young child. It’s definitely not Christmas, but for these children, it will not be easy to forget that this is the greatest celebration of every Christian who ever was.