Our Easter lilies didn’t bloom this year.
There were nearly 100 plants in the Sanctuary on Easter Sunday, and not one flower. There were lots and lots of buds, but not one of them was open. My colleagues speculated on the odds of them bursting open during the preaching, and wondered if it would put me on a fast track to canonization if they did. We’ll never know. The Easter lilies didn’t bloom.
Some were disappointed. Families that have taken pictures of their kids sitting among the sea of Easter lilies year after year now have one of them nestled among the buds. And the visual effect is just not the same when the front of the sanctuary is awash in green plants and not the spectacular spread of liturgically correct white that the Easter lilies supply. I heard some lament that the Sanctuary is never prettier than at Easter, and that this year they had been deprived of that vision, even as others commented that because the lilies failed to bloom this year that it resulted in the first Easter in memory that they didn’t sneeze and cough their way through the service because of their allergies. Because of who I am, my mind immediately began thinking theologically when I saw the field of unbloomed Easter lilies in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. What deeper meaning might be in them? What message were they proclaiming?
It brought back a vivid memory of an Easter Sunday from my childhood.
I had just served as one of the acolytes for the High Sung Mass at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Glendale, California. It was the liturgical icing on the Holy Week cake. It was good that spring break from school and Holy Week coincided in those days because I was at the church continuously that week either getting ready for a worship service or participating in a worship service – Palm Sunday, the Monday before Easter Mass at 6 am, the Tuesday before Easter Mass at 6 am, the Wednesday before Easter Mass at 6 am, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Even and Easter Day. This year in Boston they will be running the marathon on the day after Easter. But at the Church of the Holy Apostles we always ran a liturgical marathon during the week before Easter. And so, there I was in the sacristy with my priest after crossing the finish line. Easter Sunday worship with all of it pageantry was finished, the Holy Week schedule had been faithfully observed and the 40 days of Lent with their intensification of the spiritual disciplines had been scrupulously kept. We were getting out of our robes, my priest and I, when I heard him mutter, “Thank God that’s over!”
I wasn’t shocked; I was exhausted too. And by that time I harbored no illusions about the humanity of my priest. The previous summer I had seen him in a bathing suit at the Verdugo Plunge, Glendale’s public swimming pool, leaping off the high dive and screaming like a little girl all the way down into the water. No, after that display, my priest’s humanity was not in doubt. A child of the 1950’s, I had been raised to reverence authority figures, especially priests. But by the time of that Easter Sunday morning, mine had had tumbled off of that pedestal in a bathing suit and with a high pitched scream.
“Thank God that’s over!” I understood what he meant. He was tired. It had been a long day after a long week. He had given up martinis for Lent, and there was a pitcher of them waiting for him at home. I let the remark pass. But as I continued my own spiritual journey, I discovered at a deeper level that what my priest had muttered in an unguarded moment after Easter Sunday worship is symptomatic of a flaw in how Christians generally think. Easter is treated as if it were the end of something. We get Jesus up and dressed, but He has nowhere to go and nothing to do. Worship attendance reflects this. We pack the room on Easter Sunday and the next week is traditionally one of the worst attendance Sundays of the year. That’s always mystified me. If what we said on Easter morning is true then that ought to be enough to get you back the following week, and the week after that. As the lyric to an old Keith Green song put it, “Jesus rose from the dead and you can’t even get out of bed!”
The way that the church has traditionally structured her observance of Easter, this mistake has been addressed head on. Easter is not a single day, it’s an entire season! The celebration that we began last Sunday morning won’t officially be finished until the first week of June! The season of Easter on the Church Calendar lasts seven weeks, until Pentecost on June 8. And technically, it doesn’t even end then because it is the church’s conviction that every Sunday is a little Easter. Christian worship shifted from the Jewish Sabbath to the first day of the week as a witness to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why in our spiritual heritage as Disciples the Lord’s Day (Sunday worship) was regarded a “Gospel Ordinance” on par with both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is a way that the message of the Gospel – the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ – is constantly kept in heart and mind for us as Christians.
The Gospel is for Christians too. This is how Tullivan Tchividjian, one of Billy Graham’s grandsons who is now the pastor at the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida, puts it –
One of the most common objections that those of us who are committed to preaching the gospel of grace week in and week out hear is, “Ok…I get it. Can we move on now? We hear the same thing week after week. Can we hear something different already?” Considering the way our consumeristic culture has conditioned us to always crave “what’s next”, the objection is understandable. Add to that a fundamental misunderstanding inside the church that the gospel is not for Christians but for non-Christians, and you have the perfect recipe for Christian people thinking that it’s “time to move on.”
One of the most important discoveries of my life has been that the Gospel is not just for non-Christians; it’s for Christians too. I used to think the Gospel was simply what non-Christians must believe in to be saved, while afterward we advance to deeper theological waters. But what I’ve come to understand is that once God saves us he doesn’t then move us beyond the Gospel. Rather he moves us deeper into the Gospel. The Gospel, in other words, is every bit as important for growing as a Christian as it is for becoming a Christian in the first place. The Gospel is the fuel that makes Christians go.
So, the Easter lilies not blooming on Easter Sunday might not be such a bad thing after all. If they, in their incomplete development, can bear witness to the fact that what Easter is all about cannot be restricted to a single worship service on a single Sunday each spring, then I might advocate for unbloomed Easter lilies in the sanctuary every year. The promise that an Easter lily bud holds in itself is not all that different from the truth that burgeons forth form Christ’s empty tomb. It’s takes more than just an Easter Sunday to begin to grasp the magnitude of what Christ’s resurrection means to us and does for us. There is always more to come, and that’s my theology of an Easter lily bud. DBS+