Easter, John 20, 2017
Preparing for Easter lo, these past few weeks, I have had conversations with Ethan and Julia, about hymn selections. We agreed that almost all the Easter hymns in our hymnal reflect the idea of victory. These are loud and celebratory hymns—some of them even have a marching meter. In one of the previous churches I served, every year, we actually hired a drummer among other musicians to accompany us in song on this special day. The drummer always brought with him two big kettle drums. Can you imagine trying to fit two kettle drums through our doors?
Every year, the drummer would start out with some low rumbles, but by the end of our service he was applying great force to the drum heads. It was like the sky was opening up—as it may have, when Christ appeared back from the dead.
Personally, though, I never liked those drums! Too jolting. So glad we have narrow doors. However, I have to concede, as you will also probably concede, that Easter is not a day for quiet meditation. That was our posture during Lent, along with fasting, maybe, if that was your thing. During Lent we meditate on our sins and Jesus’ crucifixion. On Easter though, it’s ok, even necessary--to let loose some Alleluias, and then, of course, afterward, to put good food in our bellies.
Over the millennia, Christian communities have interpreted Christ’s victory differently. And over the course of our lives, we, as individuals, have probably interpreted Christ’s victory differently, depending on our life circumstances. Every year, I myself am in a quandary as to how I will understand this most important day in our liturgical calendar.
Today, then, I thought I would share with you three different interpretations of Christ’s victory—my hope is that these different interpretations will help you and me both make some sense of today, Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017.
For this first interpretation we need to look back to October 27, 312. In Italy a great battle was shaping up. That battle would be between Constantine, a contender for emperor of Rome, and Maxentius, the then current Roman Emperor. Constantine and his troops, were stationed on the outskirts of the City of Rome. They were at the far end of a bridge, that they would have to cross to enter the city. Maxentius and his army were stationed inside the city.
That day, again, October 27th, 312, the day before battle, Constantine led his troops in prayers. He asked his pagan gods for a favorable outcome. According to later written accounts, during those prayers, a cross appeared in the sky. It appeared to both Constantine and his men—in other words, the cross was not one man’s hallucination. A sign from God?
Some people today, claim that what they saw could have been a solar halo, known also as a “sun dog,” At any rate, Constantine and his troops determined that their fight would be helped by this god they had heard about called Christ. They hurriedly painted two Greek letters: Chi Rho— on their shields. Chi and Rho are the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ. Christians in that day, as also today, used the Chi Rho as a symbol for the Christ movement.
On October 28th, 312, Maxentius’ and Constantine’s armies had AT it at the Milvian bridge. Maxentius was thrown off that bridge and drowned. His death ended the battle. Constantine gave Christ the glory for his win.
I don’t think there was such a thing as a military band back in Constantine’s day, but had there been, Constantine’s military band would have marched into Rome, to the drumbeat of a song of praise to Christ.
That’s one way to understand Christ victorious.
Maybe this story sounds slightly offensive, though—it does to me-- as if God actually takes sides in war. Abraham Lincoln suggests this: “My concern is not whether or not God is on our side, my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer goes further than that. He wrote, “The wars of Israel were the only 'holy wars' in history... there can be no more wars of faith. The only way to overcome our enemy is by loving him.”
Wise words those. If you DO believe in holy war, though, the victory at Milvian Bridge is one way to understand Christ victorious.
Now I want to bring us back to the present day. Today, April 16th, 2017— is the 10th anniversary of the shooting at Virginia Tech, a day which has come to define my life. As you know probably, my daughter was at Virginia Tech on that horrific day, not even in class, safely in her apartment with the door locked—listening to the unfolding drama on TV. Since then, though, I have talked with parents who lost their children ten years ago, and to others whose children were shot, but survived. Their stories have become my story.
This Easter Sunday, which again, is the 10th anniversary of that horrific day, the students at Virginia Tech will be remembering. While we were sleeping, at midnight, the Cadet Corps and members of the student body lit a candle on Virginia Tech’s drill field. The candle will stay lit throughout today.
At 9:43, this morning, before this church service, a wreath was laid at Virginia Tech’s memorial. 9:43 was the time the massacre began. Later this afternoon, at 2:30, while we are finishing Easter dinner, maybe, or taking a nap, Virginia Tech will hold a school-wide event on the drill field. Still later, they will hold a candlelight vigil. The candle that was lit at midnight will be extinguished at 11:59 p.m. tonight. Then the candle will be carried back into Burruss Hall, site of the murders, representing the students’ and the school’s commitment to never forget.
Probably Virginia Tech’s Christian students and we too, struggle to find Christ victorious in this second scenario. We believe, though, right? that Christ is in the moments of remembrance today, as he was with the students and professors slain ten years ago, as he was and is with the survivors. Having known tragedy, having experienced death, Christ can be present to it, bring healing to it. That’s another way to understand Christ victorious, but without the drums, please. Think soft flute music maybe; a harp, a violin—something that can sooth raw nerves and bring comfort to tattered souls.
And now I will mention one last way we might interpret Christ’s victory.
Twenty-two Easters ago, I was an intern youth pastor at a church in Maryland. The youth group I led, decided to hold an Easter Vigil Retreat at the church on the Saturday before Easter. The thought was that they—WE, would stay awake all night. Then at sunrise, we would hold a brief service out in the church garden. Doesn’t THAT sound like fun???!
What do you do with fifteen senior highs over a sixteen hour period—particularly when there is little to no sleep on the agenda?
One thing we did, which was really creative, I think you will agree—was totally born of this person’s desperation. Each youth had brought along a sleeping bag. Yes, it was a vigil, and yes, technically we were supposed to stay awake all night, but I was hoping for just a FEW hours of shut- eye before Easter morning.
You know maybe that the caterpillar is a symbol we use on Good Friday—Christ in the tomb—and then on Easter the symbol is the butterfly—Christ resurrected? In keeping with that then, sometime during the long night everyone got in his or her sleeping bag and we staged caterpillar races from one end of a long church hallway to the other!
We also ate a lot, during those sixteen hours--. Pizzas, cookies, potato chips, popcorn.
And, finally, I had gathered together popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, cardboard paper towel and toilet paper rolls, crayons, glue, AND jumbo sticks of colored chalk. Some time during the evening, I challenged the youth to make some sort of objet d’art representing an aspect of Easter.
Ryan.15 years old, thin as a rail, already tall, constructed a cross, taping together a cardboard paper towel roll and a toilet paper roll. Then he bent some pipe cleaners into the shape a little man. He set that little man on top of the horizontal beam of that cross. Ryan told me, “This man is Jesus. He is sitting on top of the cross, and he is laughing.”
Having been to hell and back, figuratively and maybe also literally, Jesus could now laugh at death. Cool image, huh?
At sun up, we walked in silence out to the church garden. We laid our craft projects at the foot of the cross there—our offering to God for giving us Jesus and for resurrecting him and us to new life.
By then the sun was all the way up. The temperature was chilly, but not frigid. I handed out those boxes of thick, colored chalk. The youth surged out into the empty parking lot, and the sidewalks circling the church. They decorated every flat surface with chalk pictures of flowers, crosses, butterflies, fish, and Chis and Rhos. Christ resurrected, Christ victorious; Time to celebrate! That was our message to church members who arrived that Easter for worship. Think they were surprised?
We ended the morning, by feasting on Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, compliments of the youths’ parents.
Another interpretation of Christ victorious then, is this—a laughing Jesus, and pure joy, lightness, and all things good, enjoyed in a community of faith. And if I were to choose music for the youths’ understanding of Easter—it would definitely be--Handel!