I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.
-Exodus 12:12-13 (NIV)
For I guess the first time in my life, this Easter Sunday I won’t be in church. Well, that's not exactly true: I’ll be there, but the church won't be there with me. This Sunday, for the fourth straight week, the church will be “gathered” virtually, if at all. Because of the coronavirus, we’ll have to settle for being together in spirit.
That’s, apparently, a real thing. But, I’m sorry, it isn’t nearly the same as being together in body.
My son mentioned this week that this would probably be the first Easter Sunday in history that most Christians wouldn’t be together. He might be right about that; certainly, there haven’t many. After all, Easter is the one Sunday a lot of folks who don't make it to church the rest of the year show up.
We’re not alone, of course, in “skipping” church this Easter. Most Christians are, the few churches that are insisting on having some sort of service notwithstanding. Most churches, I guess, are doing some kind of live stream or prerecorded service. The ones I’ve seen have been pretty good — especially considering churches are just figuring it out using equipment they happen to have laying around.
Still, it isn't the same. Putting together a sermon or lesson and some prerecorded music only highlights how little “church” actually has to do with the “show”. It’s the people, and when the people aren’t together it doesn’t feel much like the church.
Look, I’ve tried to be pretty positive in this coronavirus disruption. Partly that's a theological conviction: God brings light in darkness, creates life where there’s death, and brings about good from evil. Partly, being positive is something I’ve been taught to do. Somewhere along the line, I’ve learned that most people prefer to be around someone who’s positive. Somewhere I've learned that it's preferable to be silent about suffering.
But, it's Good Friday.
At first blush, Good Friday sounds like a stupid thing to call the day on which many Christians reflect on Jesus’ death. “Good,” in this case, doesn’t mean positive, excellent, or something to be desired. It means “holy,” “pious.” It’s Good Friday because Jesus’ suffering was a holy thing that completed the work of God in redeeming human beings from sin and death.
In a lot of churches, the tradition is that the night before Good Friday, all color is stripped from the furnishings and decorations. The normally ornamented communion table/altar is left bare. Black is the only color used in the worship space.
Well, in my tribe of believers, the communion table is normally pretty bare. But maybe Good Friday is a good time to strip away a little of the positivity that sometimes we Christians prefer.
Good Friday — and Easter — are forever linked in the biblical accounts to another holiday: Passover. Jesus was murdered in Jerusalem because he was there to celebrate Passover, the day that Jews remember the events of the Exodus, when God delivered them from slavery in Egypt.
The Bible reminds us of the importance of what happened on that night in Egypt. From then on, the Israelites would literally reset their calendars so that their new year would begin with a celebration of what God had done. When something happens to reorient the way we look at time, we know it's significant. The night of the Exodus was an event like that.
But notice that reorienting time doesn't come without a struggle. It's horrific. All across Egypt, eldest sons die. But God "passed over" the Israelites' homes, with the promise "No destructive plague will touch you." Only -- there has to be death there, too. A lamb is killed, its blood sprinkled on each doorway.
Rarely does something new come without trauma. That’s what unrelenting positivity sometimes overlooks. To get to Passover, Egyptians died. Egyptian parents, wives, and children mourned for the rest of their lives. As the Israelites praised God for leading them out of slavery, many Egyptians must have wondered what kind of God does that at the expense of so many lives.
To get to Easter, you have to go through Good Friday.
Luke tells us that the Last Supper was on "the day of unleavened bread, when the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed." And so it's no surprise when Jesus tells his disciples at that meal that one of the cups should remind them of "the new covenant in [his] blood, which is poured out for [them]." His death would be the horrific event that reset our timelines and changed our calendars. Through Jesus, God passes over our sins and failures, and promises to give us life instead of giving us up to the plague and slavery of sin and death.
But that doesn’t come cheaply or easily. God only passes over our sins because of the blood of Jesus on our door frames.
Since Josh was a kid, we’ve loved that TV show, Dirty Jobs. This week we watched an episode we hadn’t seen before. Mike Rowe, the host, was working for a day with the school of forensics at Purdue University. Purdue has a “park” on its campus, but it’s not the kind of park you ever want to visit. Laying around the park, in various situations and in various stages of decomposition, are dead pigs.
You can apparently learn a lot about a corpse based on the kinds of insects that are, well, attracted to it. But we all know that a decaying corpse doesn’t smell good. Mike, the host, kept gagging from the smell. The students he was working with gave him some interesting advice: if you feel like you might throw up, you can apparently hold it off by smiling very widely. Which led to all kinds of visual gags of Mike “smiling” while doing very dirty jobs with dead pigs.
This Good Friday — or just Friday, if you prefer — know that it's OK if you aren’t feeling very positive. Jesus wasn’t either. He cried out in pain and suffering. He suffered the mockery of the crowd. He felt far too distinctly the limits of his humanity. He even felt as though God had turned his back on him.
What we’re going through is hard. There’s sickness and death around us in numbers we’re not used to seeing. We’re cut off from friends and family. We’re saddened by canceled events. Some of us are dealing with lost wages and the ripple effect of that.
Our faith doesn’t require that we smile wider when we feel sick. Jesus, certainly, never asked anyone who was suffering and hurting to pretend that everything was OK. He’s the one, you might recall, who said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” He’s the one who stood at a friend’s tomb and wept. He’s the one who asked God why he’d turned his back on him as he died on the cross.
Here’s what our faith does insist on: Easter is coming. The calendar has been reset. The sickness and death and sorrow around us is not the last word. It’s real, and because it’s real you may not feel like smiling today. But know that Easter is coming. Darkness gives way to light. Live gives way to death. Good Friday ends, and a new day dawns, a new year begins.
Christ is risen. Say it with me. Say it through tears, but say it. Christ is risen.