So here is the thing. Easter this year is going to be flat. The emotional twists and theological minefields of the week before Easter are captured in Matthew’s account of the last week of Jesus’ life, where Jesus persists in making the Kingdom of God, and not the law, and not the Temple, and not the Jewish nation the centre of discipleship. Some of these themes will be communicated in online services with skill and wise preparation, and our own personal devotions can dwell on some of the horror and hope of the events. However, the rhythm of readings that take us through the week of Christ’s passion, with all its ups and downs, won’t climax as in other years with the reflective services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, or an Easter vigil for some on Holy Saturday. The exuberant joy of Easter day will be curtailed without the possibility of joining together to break the Lenten fast and to shout in unison that “He is risen indeed.” How wonderful that some Christians have placed a palm cross in the front window of the house, in silent protest that there were no fronds waved in triumphal procession this year. But we all know that it is not quite the same.
So here is my wild blue-sky-dreaming thought. Perhaps we could honour Easter in restrained ways this week and postpone our celebration until later in the year. I understand that the church calendar sets Lent as forty days from Ash Wednesday (not including Sundays), but why couldn’t we extend Lent this year? After all, the word “lent” means “lengthening” of days which happens in the spring-time, so celebrating new birth in April in Australia, when all the leaves are falling off the trees, has always struck me as a mixed message. We may not choose to fast until the spring, but we could decide that foregoing the Lord’s Supper until then is one way of showing solidarity with Jesus who fasted forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. And anyway, the date of Easter is a moveable feast, falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox. I know that conversations are happening (beyond my pay grade) between different branches of ancient European churches to set a regular date for Easter. Not sure what I think about this yet. But in the meantime we could, just could, cash in our chips and go full steam ahead and plan for a September celebration.
“We are reminded by the author of Hebrews that, just as the high priest enters the holy place once a year with the blood of animals, so Jesus entered as a high priest into the most holy place with his own blood as a sacrifice of atonement, not once a year but once and for all.”
So here is my next crazy thought: Easter celebrations normally build on the date of Passover. But the book of Hebrews makes a powerful connection between Jesus’ death and the Day of Atonement as well, which this year is being commemorated by our Jewish friends on Sunday September 27. We are reminded by the author of Hebrews that, just as the high priest enters the holy place once a year with the blood of animals, so Jesus entered as a high priest into the most holy place with his own blood as a sacrifice of atonement, not once a year but once and for all. Jesus is the better sacrifice, who makes a better covenant: “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb 9:14). The Lord’s Supper, which on the night before he died Jesus commanded us to perpetuate, is not merely an updated version of the Passover without the lamb, but a new practice which combines many threads from the Old Testament, for example Exodus 24 and Jeremiah 31. The Lord’s Supper is no longer a domestic rite like the Passover but a public one, taking this cue from the Day of Atonement which was national in its scope. Blood poured out to cleanse by a divinely ordained priest in the order of Melchizedek is not something that the Passover ever saw as its foundation idea. 2020 is turning out to be an upside down year, so why not reinvent the church calendar too?
So here is the scoop. The most amazing thing about conversations and online interactions in the last couple of weeks is that ecclesiology is cool again. As someone who has spent the last twenty years researching and writing on what the church is about, I am overjoyed that an often undervalued doctrine is getting its day in the sun. Taking away the regular pattern of Sunday services, or at least substantially reinventing them in a digital age, has made us rethink what we do and why. Some social commentators are already calling 2020 the Great Pause or the Great Disruption. I like the idea. We have to face our own lack of control of the natural environment, and spend more time at home with those closest to us, even if they aren’t necessarily the ones we would by preference choose to hang out within a log cabin in the hills. So pressing pause on so many things that we hold dear might turn out to be for our deep emotional refreshment and spiritual recalibration. Pressing pause on the liturgical high point of the year, the celebration of Easter, might just be a blessing in disguise. Or in the best case scenario, we might get to celebrate it twice.