In one of those moments that perhaps can best be filed under “What Was I Thinking,” years ago when I was still a wet-behind-the-ears-green-horn-not-yet-smart-enough-to-know-better student pastor, I chose “Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come” as a hymn for morning worship – on Easter Sunday.
Hey, it made sense to me at the time!
In my own defense, I was simply trying to recapture some of the unbridled enthusiasm that is inspired by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and “Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns: let men their songs employ; while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy” just seemed to fit the bill. Granted, there were a great many other wonderful hymns that would also have fit and have been seasonally appropriate, but I’d gotten caught up in the creative rush of it; and, as I recall, the folks in the congregation were at least charitable in their reaction (although I do remember one person asking me if they could expect “Up From the Grave He Arose” on Christmas Eve!).
It was a “live and learn” moment, to be sure, and not something I’d do again. But I do have to confess that even all these years later, I still think that such a resounding call to joy is wholly appropriate for this particular season. In fact, I would go so far to say that true Easter joy may be one thing we’re lacking in the church today. This sentiment is echoed by Presbyterian poet Ann Weems in her wonderful collection of worship resources, Reaching for Rainbows: after suggesting that Easter Sunday services might include confetti, a drum roll and a three-minute standing ovation, she asks,
“Have we had the drums beaten out of us that we in the celebrative community can’t really get excited about God’s aliveness [or] about God’s love given to us unconditionally? Have we given Easter to the lily bearers, the bunny rabbits, the patent leather shoes? Let’s face it: we live as though we don’t believe in Easter.”
Perhaps it comes down to a hurting world more fixated, it seems, on death than life. Maybe the human cruelties that regularly play out on our television and internet screens make it too hard for us to possibly grasp that good, even divine good, could ever triumph over evil. Or could it be that we simply don’t believe we could ever deserve or earn God’s love, even when by grace we’ve already been given the gift of life abundant and eternal? Whatever it is, the result is that our celebration of Easter often becomes merely a commemoration of a long-ago event rather than an on-going miracle; the re-creation of every new heart that receives God’s gift of salvation in the risen Christ.
In Matthew’s account of that first glorious day of resurrection, we’re told that having heard the angel’s good news that Jesus had risen, “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy” to tell the disciples (Matthew 28:8). What’s interesting is although the other gospels talk about their fear upon discovering the empty tomb (in Mark, for instance, we’re left with the image of the women fleeing from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them.”[Mark 16:8]), only Matthew talks about the joy of it. And it was joy, indeed; the kind of joy that comes in realizing the impossible is not only possible, but has been made real, the kind of joy that comes in the sudden awareness that every inevitable dead-end of life has been cleared away forever, and that the road ahead lies wide open before you.
In fact, I have to imagine that as incredible as it was for the two Marys to have been met and greeted by Jesus himself, they could also hardly wait to run back to the disciples to tell them what they’d seen and experienced; to share this incredible joy with them immediately; and why wouldn’t they? After all, as it’s been said, when you know what the rest of your life is going to be like, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible!
That’s the kind of joy that God gives us even today through the Risen Christ: the start of a bright and brand new life, lived out of what Ann Weems calls “that amazing grace that in Christ’s resurrection we’re still loved even at our most outrageous.” This is what we need to embrace and to celebrate as God’s people, even as another Easter Sunday has come and gone. We need to feel the breathless desire to share the joy of what God has done and continues to do for us and for the world on Easter Monday, Easter Tuesday, and every Easter morning that follows. We can shout it in our alleluias, sing it in our triumphant hymns (even “Joy to the World!”), and dance it by lives centered on telling the good news to others by word and action – because this is good news that needs to be told! So “let the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love,” by proclaiming on this Eastertide with hearts, hands and voices that Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry