Easter Week is the busiest and most important week in the Christian year. From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, special services fill church calendars. Churchgoers waving palm branches join the Hosannas of the crowds as Jesus humbly entered Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey colt in what is known as the Triumphant Entry. Beneath the fanfare is the knowledge that before the week is over, we will be remembering the bogus trial and torturous death of the one that was blessed as coming in the name of the Lord by the hopeful crowds. The week includes Maundy Thursday foot washings and communion meals, the Cross Walk, Good Friday community services, and on Saturday for some a service of Easter Vigil, and finally on Sunday morning, the celebration of resurrection.
Easter morning started chilly and damp with only a hint of light in the east when I sat down in my home office to review my sermon and get an early start for the day’s activities. I was excited about the delicious Easter breakfast at church that family and friends would enjoy together. Deacons dressed for the celebration would prepare a breakfast feast at pastel covered tables with flowers in the center. In the still dark early morning, the familiar words of the songs that I learned as a child filled my heart: “Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!” “He lives, He lives; Christ Jesus lives today!” I was relieved that the pensive meditations of lent and the pain of Good Friday would be replaced by victorious Easter words declaring “Christ is risen” with all responding “He is risen, indeed!”
Alone in my home office I booted up my computer and the first thing I saw flashing across the screen was news of the bombings in Sri Lanka — at least 150 dead, the banner line read. I sat in my chair knowing that Sri Lankan Christians and visitors from around the globe had been celebrating delicious Easter breakfasts or were gathered in services dressed in their holiday best in flower-adorned sanctuaries when the bombs that interrupted their worship and family meals were detonated.
I realized that just as the first bombs were exploding, I along with a group of local pastors and church members were concluding an amazing evening of fellowship and a delicious middle eastern dinner with precious Muslim friends from many different countries. I had been asked to share the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ and to explain that hospitality and love to the stranger were the heart of Jesus. I offered my personal story of losing many loved ones and being sustained by the hope of the resurrection in Christ. Sharing a bit about the miraculous restoration of the life of our son after drowning Easter season years ago, filled all of our hearts with gratitude.
In the chilly dark of Easter morning, I looked down at my sermon notes and wondered if the atrocities of this experience would silence the Alleluias as people around the world awoke to the disturbing images and heartbreaking news. I prayed that words would come to me to help process the shared shock and grief. How can we sing of triumph over death when the church, our family of believers, are devastated by the carnage? I recognize that research reports that Christians are the most oppressed religious group in the world, and I am aware of the danger and oppression that many churches around the world experience, but this Easter morning massacre stunned me.
I had planned to include in my sermon a mention of still smoldering destruction of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris when just days before, the world watched as firefighters and first responders fought to protect historic artifacts and priceless icons of the Christian faith. Tens of thousands daily visited this top tourist site to see the magnificent Medieval cathedral, considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. Millions of dollars were pledged to repair and restore the historic church, and we are assured that one day, tours will resume and the church services continue, but somehow it all seemed trite in the light of the brutal Sri Lankan attacks on Christians.
In a carefully orchestrated plot, bombs detonated with precision at three Christian churches and three luxury hotels that housed visitors from Christian nations. A British family on holiday in Sri Lanka — Ben Nicholson and his wife and their two children were sitting down to a festive breakfast when the bombs exploded. Only Ben survived; his wife, Anita; 14 year-old son, Alex, and 11-year-old daughter, Annabel, died in the blast. A Danish visitor lost three of his four children. Sri Lanka is a country of less than 7 percent Christian — nearly all of those people lost family and friends and have loved ones hospitalized, fighting for their lives.
If the message of the cross is that love triumphs over hate, then more than ever that message is surely needed. One of my familiar favorites to sing on Easter Sunday is one written by a great Methodist hymn writer. Charles Wesley’s “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Loves redeeming work is done, … Christ has burst the gates of hell … where O death is now they sting? Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted Head, Made like him, like him we rise, ours the cross, the grave, the skies.
My planned sermon was focused on Christ triumph over death, but Easter morning news made it seem so much harder to say the words with conviction and hope. In I Corinthians 15:54, we are offered a glimpse into the promise of the resurrection. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true. Death has been swallowed up in victory.
This is what many pastors preach in their Easter messages: Christ died for us and his power enables us to overcome suffering and death through him. This is our prayer: O God, let it be true in the unthinkable loss and mind-boggling pain of the Easter suffering in Sri Lanka. And may Christ’s sacrificial love enable us to be instruments of peace, grace, and comfort offering the hope of resurrection healing and redemption.
Rev. Ginny Teitt is pastor of Concord Presbyterian Church in Delaware.