By Natalie Seale
Easter is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite time of year – my favourite holiday, and my favourite season in the church calendar. As Lent gives way to Easter, it seems that everywhere we look darkness is giving way to light. Spring is coming, bringing with it new life and a fresh start after a very long, very dark winter.
And yet, this season is as much about darkness as it is about light. As you read this on Good Friday – the darkest day in the Christian calendar – I pray that you will take this opportunity to remember what a blessing it is to share in the knowledge that we are on the cusp of great joy. We aren’t quite there yet – but we sit at the edge of triumph, hurtling towards the most exciting and awe-inspiring and wonderful part of our whole, remarkable story: the resurrection.
But I don’t want you to hurry your way to Easter Sunday and the joy that it promises to bring, because there is so much to learn and appreciate in the meantime. The light, after all, seems much brighter in relation to darkness. When I was asked to write this blog post, I wanted to make it clear that this season is about so much more than Easter Sunday. The six weeks that have taken us from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday are about much more than simply giving up something we enjoy as a penance. It is a journey that we take each year to reaffirm and renew our faith, preparing our hearts for the joy that will come as surely as the springtime.
Whether the Lenten season has been a part of your story or not this year, the Easter weekend is a wonderful opportunity to take a step back and re-engage with your faith. It is a time to reflect not just on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but on the importance of His earthly ministry and the consequences of the Cross.
“Lent is a call for renewing a commitment grown dull – perhaps
by a life more marked by routine than reflection.”
A Moveable Feast
I want to start with grappling the basics about Easter – the whys, the whens, and the hows – because these are questions we don’t necessarily ask, even when we celebrate Easter each year.
Easter is a moveable feast, with Easter Sunday falling any time between March 22nd and April 25th depending on the year. This can make things complicated, but it is done this way for several reasons. The first is that Jesus’ disciples never recorded the exact date of Jesus’ resurrection. This isn’t that surprising really, given everything that was happening. Yet, their failure to do so led to a lot of necessary guesswork when it came to celebrating the resurrection in the decades and centuries that followed.
In the very early days of the Church, believers linked their observance of Easter with Jewish Passover. The Gospel records the fact that the death, burial and resurrection of Christ happened after Passover in some detail. The Jewish holiday calendar has always been based on solar and lunar cycles, so feast days do not fall on the same day each year. Linking the two together meant that Easter, too, became a moveable feast that was dependent on the date of Passover.
However, at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the Western Church decided to establish a more standardised system for determining the date of Easter that still stands today. Easter is always celebrated on the Sunday immediately following the Paschal Full Moon. The Paschal moon can occur up to two days after the “actual” full moon, which has given us the span of dates from late March to late April.
The date of Easter Sunday also informs the other dates that mark the lead up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, with Holy Week itself beginning with Palm Sunday. Many of us commit to a fast of some kind to replicate the sacrifice of Christ’s journey into the desert, where He – like Moses before Him – stayed for 40 days and 40 nights. Different churches mark the days of Holy Week – Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – in different ways. It is a time of quiet waiting and reflection before the joy and exuberance of Easter Sunday.
Easter Weekend in Real Time
As you’re reading this, most of the days I’ve just mentioned in Holy Week have already passed. But what I’d like you to do from now is to slow things right down. The best is still yet to come.
We all know that Advent is a wonderful time of joyful anticipation, but the coming of a baby, born to be our Saviour, happens as quick as a flash! Perhaps this is why I love Easter so much more… because of its conscious, heartfelt invitation to slow down, be still, and let the events unfold.
So this is my conscious and heartfelt invitation to you to slow down and witness the events of this Easter weekend. I know you might have a lot going on, but I’d like to experience this special, holy weekend with you in real time. Let’s take that invitation to slow down and really act on it, savouring each part of this crucial story as we go.
My heart for you is that you will be inspired by what you read here today, and that you’ll keep joining me as this special weekend unfolds. Let’s sink deep in the events of the next few days together, and enjoy them right here, in real time.
So let’s start by talking about what is happening today, Good Friday. Last night in Gethsemane, Jesus was arrested – betrayed by one of His disciples and abandoned by the rest of His friends. Overnight, the Chief Priests of the Sanhedrin (that is, the Jewish court system at this time) held secret trials and decided that Jesus should be crucified. Though Pontius Pilate could have put a stop to it, he reluctantly agreed to a crucifixion that Friday morning, and effectively washed his hands of the whole thing.
Jesus was beaten very severely before being nailed to a cross, where He would remain for six heart-wrenching hours until He died at about 3pm in the afternoon (Matthew 27:27-44).
To me, the worst thing about reading the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion is the taunting. Hanging there between two thieves – weak, covered in blood, and completely exposed – crowds of people had gathered to mock the Son of God. They told Him that if He really was the Son of God, he would surely be able to save himself. One of the thieves echoed their jeers as he hung on a cross, shouting to Jesus: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself. Save us!”
But in amongst the pain and anguish of Jesus’ suffering; amongst all the misguided comments coming from the crowd, we can still find hope and forgiveness. We find the other thief acknowledging that whilst he had done wrong, the Son of God has done nothing to warrant this painful and humiliating death. Heartbreakingly, he turns to Jesus and says: “remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” With grace and mercy, Jesus tells the thief that, on that very day, they will be together in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
However many times I read these crucial verses of the Gospel, it never gets any easier. Real despair. Real sadness. Sometimes, even real tears. I feel like I carry the weight of the events of that crucifixion day around with me all day on Good Friday, just as heavily as the darkness that fell when Jesus finally gave up His spirit (Matthew 27:45). I despair with Jesus’ mother Mary and his friends who had to witness the torture and death of their friend and teacher. And this empathy isn’t a bad thing – because if we want to rejoice in the wonder of the Risen Christ, we have to appreciate the bigger picture of His sacrifice.
While the crowds at Golgotha missed the point, we don’t have to. The cross was the very reason that the Son of God had come, so it is important that we don’t skip over the heartbreaking parts of Good Friday in our race to commemorate the resurrection on Easter Sunday. When Jesus uttered the words “it is finished” (John 19:30) He really meant it. As the one, true sacrificial lamb, it was His very presence on the cross – and not whether He had the power to come down from it or not – that really mattered.
“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds
we are healed.”
Natalie is a Yorkshire lass who recently moved all the way to San Antonio, Texas, to live with her husband Quincy. She has a PhD in Renaissance history and until recently taught undergrads and post-grads at the University of Edinburgh. Her passion is for teaching, but in the process of applying for a visa she discovered a new love for writing devotionals and lettering by hand. Good coffee, old books, family time, warm jumpers and Texas sunsets are some of her favourite things. Her heart is to live a life full of the love and joy of God, and in doing so help others to achieve their potential.