If you had told me back in February or any time prior that no one would be in church on Easter Sunday, I probably would have thought it was a joke.
And yet here we are, most of us under self-isolation restrictions, having to spend many of our Sundays watching a live-streamed church service. As Easter Sunday approaches, perhaps we are discouraged by the fact we will not be able to celebrate at church like we would have originally. Because worshiping via the internet is not the same as worshiping in the same building together. Right?
What if I told you that this wasn’t the first Easter Sunday not to be celebrated in church?
Let’s travel back some two thousand years to Palestine. The Roman province of Judæa, city of Jerusalem. In an upper room, the disciples of Jesus Christ are waiting for the Roman soldiers sent by Jewish leaders to arrest them. All their hopes and dreams that Christ was the Messiah, their Redeemer, have been shattered two days before when He was crucified and died before their very eyes.
In the words of the beautiful song, God Rested by Andrew Peterson:
So they took His body down
The man who said He was the resurrection and the life
Was lifeless on the ground
The sky was red as blood along the blade of night
As the sabbath fell they shrouded Him in linen
They dressed Him like a wound
The rich man and the women
They laid Him in the tomb
So they laid their hopes away
They buried all their dreams about the kingdom He proclaimed
And they sealed them in the grave
As a holy silence fell on all Jerusalem
But the Pharisees were restless
Pilate had no peace
And Peter’s heart was reckless
Mary couldn’t sleep
But God rested
The sun went down
The sabbath faded
The holy day was done and all creation waited
All seems lost.
They are utterly without hope.
It seems that God has failed them.
But in this deepest darkness, dawn is breaking.
The first day of the week, Mary went to the tomb. It was empty. The angels standing there told her that Jesus had risen again. And though she wept, Jesus comforted her and appeared to her, alive.
Death could not hold Him captive.
The first Resurrection Sunday was not celebrated in a church. It began in fear and ended in joy and hope. It was celebrated by an empty tomb and in a room locked against the Jewish leaders.
“Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, ‘Peace be unto you.’ And when He had so said, He shewed unto them His hands and His side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. “
~ John 20:19-21
Such a hope cannot be bound within walls. It is free.
This was the first Resurrection Sunday. It was not celebrated in a church. Nor would it be the last.
I highly doubt that Easter Sunday was celebrated in a church until the era of Roman Emperor Constantine (280-337), who legalized Christianity throughout his empire. Beforehand, gatherings of Christians were mostly prohibited, the severity of the enforcement depending on who was in power at the time.
Nor was it the last time Easter would be celebrated outside of a church building.
Persecutions, wars, famine, these things have wrecked our world time and time again. Christians have been imprisoned and died for their faith—they still are today in parts of the world.
The Church is not a place; it isn’t a building. The Church is the individual brothers and sisters of Christ, united in one body as the Bride of Christ.
Today is Good Friday, the day we remember the death of Christ and His once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. In two days, it is Resurrection Sunday, the day we celebrate the fact Christ rose again from the dead. The grave could not hold Him and because of this, we have hope.
We may be restricted to celebrate Easter Sunday at home. But COVID-19 cannot stop us from saying, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” The government cannot stop us from rejoicing that, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” The self-isolation rules cannot stop us from crying out, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”
Resurrection Sunday is the celebration of the end of the darkest night in history, the celebration of when the dawn broke, bringing with it the hope that was finally realized with Christ’s rising from the grave.
“The morning! That is our watchword. Our matin and even song are full of it. It gives the hue to life, imparting color to that which is colorless, and freshening that which is faded. It is the sum and term of our hopes. Nothing else will do for us or for our world, a world over which the darkness gathers thicker as the years run out. Stars may help to make the sky less gloomy, but they are not the sun. And besides, clouds have now wrapped them so that they are no longer visible. The firmament is almost without a star. Torches and beacon-lights avail not. They make no impression upon the darkness; it is so deep, so real, so palpable. We might give up all for lost, were we not assured that there is a sun, and that it is hastening to rise. The church’s pilgrimage is nearly done. Yet she is not less a pilgrim as its end draws nigh. Nay, more so. The last stage of the journey is the dreariest for her. Her path lies through the thickest darkness that the world has yet felt. It seems as if it were only by the fitful blaze of conflagrations that we can now shape our way. It is the sound of falling kingdoms that is guiding us onward. It is the fragments of broken thrones lying across our path that assures us that our route is the true one, and that its end is near—that end, the morning with its songs; and in that morning, a kingdom; and in that kingdom, glory; and in that glory, the everlasting rest, the sabbath of eternity.”
Night of Weeping and Morning of Joy by Horatius Bonar (1801-1889)
Christ is our hope in all of this. COVID-19 is but one of many blights in history. The darkest time in the world’s history was not the 2020 outbreak of corona virus. The darkest hour in the world’s history was when Christ hung upon the cross, bore the wrath meant for us, and died and was buried in a tomb.
But He is risen! We are no longer captive to sin and fear. There is hope for the human race where there was none before.
However you celebrate Easter this year, no matter how dark and depressing the future seems, remember Christ and His sacrifice that bought us redeeming life with Him.
He is risen!