Easter—the queen of all Christian festivals, the crux (literally!) of the Church year, the singular celebration that every other worship service throughout the year flows into and out of. We visit family. We eat chocolate bunnies. We decorate hard-boiled chicken eggs. We give baskets of goodies. It is a pull-out-all-the-stops time of celebration.
But getting there takes time. We are still slogging through the 40 days of Lent; we are Israel, wandering in the wilderness. We are Christ, driven by the Spirit, tempted by the Devil. We fast, we pray, we give. We reflect, we repent, we reconcile. And all of this is in preparation for that glorious Easter Day.
But for what purpose? Why do we do this every year? The answer is simple: discipleship. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9: “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.” The words disciple and discipline are related, both from the Latin discere, “to learn.” Lent is all about discipline, limiting one’s personal freedom for the purposes of deeper spiritual growth. In Lutheran terms, we call this the death of the Old Adam and the Old Eve. It is taking up one’s cross to follow Christ, for grace, though free, does not come cheap—Christ paid for that grace with his life, and so do we. Again, Paul writes in Galatians 2:19, “I have been crucified with Christ.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer unpacks this even further in his book The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ bids us come, he bids us come and die.” Lent is about death, about dying to self, about returning to baptism and that daily drowning, or as Paul yet again says, “I die every day!” (1 Cor. 15:31). What is the Christian life about if it is not about striving to be more Christ-like today than I was yesterday? The life of the Christian is to say, with John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
We have all been through the journey time and again in our daily lives that we encounter metaphorically in Lent: we have betrayed our Lord; we have denied him pride of place in our lives; we have run from him when the going got tough; we have been crucified with him, baptized with him, and buried with him. And then we emerge from those waters of Lenten baptism on that glorious resurrection morning. On Easter Day—and every day—we are raised with him. God, as always, makes us alive by killing us. It is the only way. One cannot get to the empty tomb without going through the cross.
So here we stand. Broken, yet whole; dead, yet alive; poor, yet rich; slave, yet free; sinners, yet saints. We need to embrace our dual nature, and we need to embrace both the cross and the empty tomb. So let us journey through Lent, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday together, with diligence and persistence. Let us not simply skip over the dark and twisty days of Holy Week to satisfy our gluttonous yearning for the wedding feast of Easter. We will get our cake soon enough, and our patience will be rewarded.