By Father John Wagner, a person with ALS.
Light streaming from the rising sun sets a kaleidoscope of vivid colors dancing across the freshly washed, heavily starched, and faultlessly ironed linens adorning the high altar in this Victorian Era church. It provides a feast for the visual senses, just as previous years in other locations have. A mass of pure white lilies, their brilliance highlighted by interspersed chrome-yellow daffodils, surrounds this space and extends outward into the nave.
Behind me, the voices of the congregation and choir blend with the music from a century-old pipe organ. Even the touch of our liturgical vestments feels different this day. And, how differently the congregation is “vested”… normally they’re in shorts and polo shirts. Today, it’s dresses and suits. This is the holiest of all days within the Christian Church… Easter Sunday, the annual festival of the resurrection of the Christ! It has been more than thirty years since I was blessed to celebrate an Easter Eucharistic Liturgy but the awe, the splendor, of this celebration has not dimmed over the years.
The sights, the sounds, the odors, all my senses are engaged in this annual celebration. Even sitting here writing this, my mind wanders back across decades of such celebrations… each stunningly alike and yet each starkly different. None, however, even approaches the difference of this Easter, nor today’s Good Friday.
On Easter, 2020, I shall be isolated with my dear wife. No stained glass, no fancy vestments, no organ, no singing… Just the two of us. Scripture will be read, and it will be studied, but there will be no community Eucharist. I can only imagine how different this celebration will feel.
For those of our brothers and sisters of the first covenant, I must admit that I longingly watched the Lehigh Valley Jewish Federation’s online Pesach Seder Wednesday evening. It helped remind me of a small band of persons whose leader had triumphantly entered the Holy City thousands of years ago. Their activities during that initial “Holy Week” are well-documented in the Christian Scriptures. That band went from the height of celebration to watching as their teacher hung upon a raw wooden cross, His very life-blood pouring out from His wounds, as He struggled to pull Himself upward to breathe. We have the advantage of knowing the activities of that following Sunday, where they were caught up in despair and were frightened for their own lives.
What will next year hold? Will we return to the celebrations of old, or is this our “new normal”? On a deeper level, is the Church (the community of worshippers), really missing out on anything this year? The sights, the sounds, the “feel” of our smaller “congregation” may be starkly different than previous Easters; but what of the core matters? What of the “heart of the matter”? I am certainly not capable of answering for all but, for myself, I think we’ll survive this time just fine! Consider:
In John 15:13 of the Christian Scriptures, we read: 13 Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. If the laying down of simply a portion of our “lives” will result in one person surviving this pandemic, then we have indeed demonstrated love by not gathering in person…
And the One we follow told us that the world will know us by our love. In John 13:35, we are told: 35 By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Our love for others truly is demonstrated in our adoption of alternate means and places of worship this Easter.
In John 4:23–24, we read: 23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” We can certainly worship in spirit and in truth this Easter, whether that would have been in the “typical” corporate format or in the current more “private” format.
You know, maybe, just maybe, this change in our “normal” may be just fine! Perhaps we’ll make new connections in our hearts, minds, and spirits. It could be that this change will serve to highlight the love of the Christian community and, in that emphasis, perhaps those around us will more clearly see the love within us. There are, of course, some sacramental matters which will be missing this Easter. However, I’ve even heard of some rather startling ways a few members of the clergy are “solving” those.
That cyber Seder celebrated Wednesday evening by the Lehigh Valley Jewish Federation incorporated a few novel elements as well. Each Seder which I have been privileged to attend ends with the words, “Next year, in Jerusalem”!! To that traditional ending, the Lehigh Valley Federation appended, “Next year, together”!! For all the good that this changed season might bring, may we truly be “together” next year and each year following.
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By The Rev. John C. Wagner. Father John is a retired priest of the Episcopal Church currently serving as long-term supply priest at St. James Parish, Drifton, PA. Having been reared as an “Army brat”, Fr. John states that “all we knew of the chaplain in the pulpit on Sunday is that he” (yep, no ladies at that point in time) “was neither Roman nor Jewish.” He has been fed by a multiplicity of expressions of Christianity and studied for ordination at a Roman Catholic Seminary. Beyond that, he is also living with ALS.