I love Easter Sunday. I love the way my church's normally casual congregation takes everything up a notch (or three)—the girls in new linen dresses and the boys in once-a-year ties. I love the jubilance of the music, and the preacher's grin when he urges us to turn to one another and say, "He is risen!"
Easter Sunday is the Christian faith's gold medal victory lap and its raison d'etre. It's the Happily Ever After to end all happily ever afters. Easter Sunday shouts: "Death, where is thy sting?" and "Love wins!" and "God is alive!"
But here's the rub: I dread Good Friday. I dread the images of torture and suffering. I dread the somber music and the awful remembrance of the violent death of a loved one—of Jesus, the Loved One. I dread the smothering grief and the inescapable remorse and the terrible recollected cry, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Left to my own devices, I'd probably skip Good Friday. But I suspect that if I did, Easter morning would become increasingly hollow. I'd forget how much my salvation cost.
What's more, I'm pretty sure my Good Friday avoidance would cause me to lose touch with certain realities about the way the universe works on this side of eternity. I'd start to believe that you can have victory without sacrifice. I'd convince myself that you don't have to die to live the resurrection. I'd buy the lie that Christ's ultimate victory over death—and my decision to follow him—means life on this earth will be trouble-free.
The biblical writers warn us repeatedly that the Christian should not expect a life exempt from Good Fridays. They encourage us to consider every hardship pure joy because suffering is an opportunity to identify with Christ and become more dependent on him (James 1:2-4). They repeat Christ's plainspoken invitation to "take up his cross" (Mark 8:34-35).
And yet, for many of us Easter Sunday Christians, when the job is lost, or the tumor is malignant, or the friendship is betrayed, we grieve not only the wound but also the fact that we can be wounded. We feel that either we're not doing faith right or that faith—that Jesus—has let us down. We don't consider it "pure joy" when our faith is tested. We consider it failure.
I'm beginning to think our expectations are not just unrealistic, they're anti-gospel. But our confusion is hardly surprising. According to some experts, we're bombarded with more than 3,000 advertisements a day, telling us we're entitled to (and must pursue at any cost) an easy, ageless, worry-free life. When we meet and accept Jesus, many of us can't help but distort his promise of abundant life into something that resembles the illusion advertisers sell us every day.
So how do we become Easter Sunday Christians who truly see (and even embrace) the good in our Good Fridays? How do we resist our sense of entitlement and the distorted expectations that are so deeply ingrained? I've found the following four principles helpful.
Check the Definitions
When I read that God "works all things together for good," I can't help but think of the marketers' definitions and assume that "good" means "easy," "youthful," "desirable," and "wealthy." But when I read the Bible, I discover that God defines "good" in entirely different terms.
New Testament Christians seemed to believe the greatest good is to become more like Jesus. They took it for granted that this process wouldn't be easy.
"What do people mean when they say 'I am not afraid of God, because he is good?'" asked C.S. Lewis, musing on this idea. "Have they never even been to a dentist?"
Evidently, early Christians also assumed that the "good" God is working toward is much more expansive than one individual's personal circumstances. God is establishing his kingdom, doing nothing less than "reconciling all things to himself" (Colossians 1:20), and the ultimate good for the believer is to be included in that process.
I'm immensely comforted when I remember that the God who cares deeply and personally about even a fallen sparrow is watching over me. But I've been a parent long enough to suspect that my heavenly Father knows more than I do about what I need and where I'm going—and about what's best for the whole family. So it's a safe bet that his definition of "blessing" is different from mine.
When I'm expecting Easter Sunday and I get Good Friday instead, I'm trying to remember that God's definition of "good" undoubtedly confounds and far exceeds my own.
Almost all the new beginnings in my life have come from what felt at the time like terrible endings. So I know I need to re-examine my concept of "death." Frequently, what seems like a small (but devastating) death is actually a chance at new life. I can point to dozens of "dead ends" in my career, ministry, or relationships that turned out to be opportunities to change direction.
Nature gives us vivid examples of this principle. Like seeds, we must be willing to be broken in order to grow into what we were made to be. Like reptiles, we have to shed old skins. Like caterpillars, we must be entombed so we can emerge as completely new creations. When I think of all the energy I've expended resisting endings and change, I wonder what new life I've missed.
Jesus tells us to die so we can live. He invites us to surrender all the illusions we have about what makes a life good and worthwhile so we can discover real life. And then he walks with us, every step of the way, as we die a thousand deaths in the process of letting his life go deeper and deeper into us. Until at last we really and truly physically die, only to live forever.
The rumors of our demise, it turns out, are greatly exaggerated. With God, the end is the beginning.
In my non-liturgical church tradition, a "church calendar" is a list of youth group meetings and members' birthdays, not an ancient rhythm of days and observances. But I've been learning that many branches of Christianity throughout the centuries have used liturgical time as a way of keeping believers connected to the realities of both life and death in the faith.
Cycling through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Passiontide, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and back through "ordinary time" to Advent again, Christians are reminded that suffering is an expected part of human life, and, more important, that God is constantly redeeming that suffering through his resurrection power. I'm just beginning to discover how helpful the church calendar can be in correcting and realigning my own expectations.
Lent, in particular, is a fascinating season. A few years ago, when I became aware that some of my Anglican and Catholic friends went through an annual ritual of giving up some creature comfort for 40 days every spring, I responded with what I thought was a clever line: "This year for Lent I'm giving up self-control." My friends would smile but challenge me to give Lent a serious try.
This year, in my desire to more fully embrace Good Friday, I'm observing my first Lenten season. It's an experiment to see if denying myself one small but habitualized comfort (in my case, a certain kind of food) prepares my heart to more fully enter into every part of Easter.
My Lent-experienced friends tell me that disrupting even one routine can expose the crutches and illusions and substitutions that keep us from authentically participating in the life Christ offers. Lent, they claim, can facilitate a small death to self that becomes an opening to new life. I aim to see if they're right.
Expect the Unexpected
Endings that are beginnings, death that is life—God will always confound our expectations.
A couple years ago, during a jubilant Easter service, our pastor said something that stopped me in my mental tracks: "The world offers promises full of emptiness. But Easter offers emptiness full of promise."
Empty cross, empty tomb, empty grave-clothes . . . all full of promise. If I were writing the Easter story, I don't think I'd choose emptiness as my symbolic gesture. But then, I also wouldn't be talking about strength being made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), foolish things confounding the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27), the meek inheriting the earth (Matthew 5:5), or the poor in spirit getting (in every sense of the word "get") the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). And I certainly wouldn't be talking about dying in order to live.
What is it about God that makes him so favor this kind of paradox? I guess this is what we should expect from the Servant King—the God who decided that the best way to save the world was to let it kill him. I don't understand the way God thinks. But on those days when I feel hollowed out and broken—half-dead, even—it makes me glad to remember that for Easter people, even death is full of promise.
The world makes a lot of promises. Smoke and mirrors, mostly. Frantic, cartoonish attempts to distract us from the gaping holes in the middle of our souls (or to sell us the latest product in order to fill them). There's no life in those promises.
So I'm hoping that this Lenten season, I'll be a little more willing to die to that stuff. I'm praying I'll become more aware of the empty space within, and that I'll resist the urge to fill it with any old thing I can find. I'm going to wait, carved out, vulnerable, a cracked and crumbling jar of clay, on a life God's offered to deposit anywhere there's room. I'm going to believe that if I'll just leave my empty spaces empty, he'll fill them. That, I'm convinced, is a reasonable expectation.
I'm writing this article during a particularly long Good Friday season in my own life. My mom is battling cancer, and I'd be lying if I said I was able to watch her suffer and "count it all joy."
I pray for healing and hope desperately it will come here on earth. I ask all the questions people have asked at the bedsides of sick loved ones for thousands of years. I vacillate wildly between hope and despair, faith and doubt, openness and bitterness.
But I know that we do not suffer alone, because the God of the universe wore our skin and died our death and removed its sting forever. This is no meager consolation. And even when I'm desperately sad, I look at my mom and I remember: Without Good Friday, there would be no Easter morning. So I pray through the night, and I wait for the resurrection.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.