By Ethan Magness
People tend to prepare for what’s important to them. And they tend to experience what they expect. This is why our church invests so much energy in a variety of ways to help people get ready for a meaningful Easter celebration.
I am writing this article by the glow of a Christmas tree. It is barely December, and already I am seeing stockings and lights, candles and manger scenes. Our shopping is not done, our travel plans are uncertain, but we have begun to prepare. If you visited our home you would see that Christmas matters to my family. We start preparing weeks in advance.
People prepare for things that matter. In fact, it is a virtuous loop. We prepare because something matters to us, and our preparations make it matter all the more. So it seems sensible Christians would prepare for Easter. Not just in the obvious ways, such as planning services and rehearsing special music. But that we would prepare ourselves and our churches to fully encounter the Lord who lived and died and rose again for all his people.
This instinct that Easter required preparation is an ancient one, but it is not outdated. In fact, the leaders and staff at my church have discovered it takes extra effort to help our congregation enter sacred moments. It takes extra care to help one another slow down long enough to pray, confess, reflect, and worship as deeply as we want to at Easter.
As we have made this observation, we have found ourselves investing increasing attention to our preparations for Easter.
We don’t have this perfectly figured out, and every year is a little different as we experiment with something new and tweak what has gone before to try to improve our preparation for Easter. Nevertheless, we have landed on four tools that serve us well in our preparation: Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm/Passion Sunday, and Holy Week services.
You may recognize we did not invent these tools—these are the tools of our shared Christian heritage—but we have reclaimed them and adapted them for our context. We are grateful for how God is using them to bless our people and prepare us for Easter.
Ash Wednesday has a complicated meaning for our cultural context. For some ex-Catholics, it represents everything they have rejected. For some it is a cherished opportunity for worship they would like to reclaim. For most Protestants and all those raised outside the church, it is a mystery.
But the history of Ash Wednesday is beautiful. It began as a show of solidarity between the people of the church and those who were publicly marked for their sin. In our celebration, it is this history we seek to reclaim: declaring in our worship and in the symbol of the ashes that we are sinners saved by the grace of the cross.
For our Ash Wednesday services, we have pursued a common strategy. The details change from year to year, but the major elements are consistent. We provide a space of reflection and prayer that is simple and sacred. We provide Communion, and a station where those who wish may submit to the imposition of ashes either on the forehead or wrist. In every case, we want to focus on the meaning and purpose of the cross. We want to invite people to a deep experience of confession and forgiveness through the power of Christ’s death.
Because midweek schedules are so complicated, we have always made our Ash Wednesday service a self-guided, walk-through experience rather than a set service. This allows people to participate around their schedule and to spend as much time as they want.
As an example, one of most beloved Ash Wednesday experiences is a simple room with seven stations. The first three stations have large posters on which we print Scriptures and prayers of confession. The service guide invites everyone to pause and read and pray at each station.
The central station is a beautiful Communion table. In the printed handout is a meditation entitled “Confession and Consolation Meet at the Cross.” People are invited to share in the meal as they bring their confessions and receive consolation. The final three stations are Scriptures of consolation and forgiveness reminding us all that in Christ our sins are not held against us.
Other Ash Wednesday services have focused on other aspects of our confession and the meaning of the cross. We have explored the cross-shaped love of God that meets us in our sin and that we are called to offer to the world. Through poetry and visual media we consider the paradox of how God’s justice and mercy meet at the cross. Recently we explored the call to return to God found in Joel 2:12, 13.
The table of ashes always has some instruction and explanation for those participating. Frequently we have used these simple couplets.
Receive these ashes as a symbol that:
On the cross
Your life of sin has died
Through the resurrection
His death gives you new life
You are marked as one who has died
You are marked as one who now truly lives.
Our Lent observance has always been simple and focused on personal piety. We commonly make available or otherwise suggest devotional material, and we often will provide teaching on Lent through blogs and other media. Sometimes we plan a sermon series to help focus our thoughts on Jesus and on preparation for Easter.
We have written our own material and used materials from diverse published sources. One of our favorites was The Passionate Journey: Walking into the Darkness Towards the Light of Easter by Marty Bullis
Our celebration of Palm Sunday has undergone a significant transition over the last 10 years. As we have grown to welcome an increasing number of new Christians and not-yet Christians, we have discovered Palm Sunday celebrations that focus on the hosannas of the triumphal entry, and not sufficiently on the Passion of Good Friday, lead most of our congregation to arrive at Easter with no deep remembrance and experience of the crucifixion. Consequently our Palm Sunday services have the feel of a Good Friday service most years.
Through preaching and readings and songs, we work to relate the whole Passion story from the brightness of the triumphal entry to the darkness of the hill of Calvary. Changing the focus of Palm Sunday has profoundly improved our congregation’s experience of Easter. This strategy of a Palm/Passion service has been highly effective for us as we seek to prepare our people for Easter. It is a beloved service commanding almost as much creativity and excitement as Easter itself.
Holy Week Services
Our Holy Week services have varied greatly in the last 10 years. In part, this has reflected the changes in our Easter service scheduling, and in part, it is because our Palm/Passion service covers much of the material that might be done in a typical Good Friday service.
Consequently, we have tried more than a half-dozen different services. We have provided self-paced prayers adapted from the stations of the cross. We have had Good Friday walk-through experiences focusing on the sights and sounds of the last days of Jesus’ life. We have had quiet and somber Maundy Thursday services and loud and boisterous Communion celebrations.
One of our favorites was a Thursday service focused on Communion and celebrating Jesus as the bread of life. We recruited dozens of volunteers to make bread of all kinds in the lobby and sanctuary during the service, and then, at the climax of the service, we served baskets full of homemade bread and large glasses of grape juice. We served big hunks of bread, fluffy rolls, buttered biscuits, and piles of pita. All made from scratch, on site, during the service. It was a fantastic night.
We have discovered that at Easter especially, people will experience what they have prepared for. If they prepared for a day of dressing up and family meals and Easter eggs, they will find that.
But if they prepared for a day of being surprised all over again that life has conquered death, hope has beaten despair, consolation follows confession, and the bread of life is still alive, then this is exactly what will happen.
By investing in preparing well and broadly, we are investing in clarity for the resurrection message to penetrate the hearts of all those who are near and those who are still far off.
This hope is articulated well by a few lines (reproduced on this page) from a longer poem we often use at Ash Wednesday.
Ethan Magness serves as pastor of spiritual formation with Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland.
Because you are merciful,
We long for your justice.
It is the judgment of the world that we cannot bear.
It is the judgment of the law that crushes us.
We throw ourselves on your justice, Lord,
Because you are merciful.
Because you are merciful,
It is your justice that we seek.
As we die again to our sin and self,
We willingly stand in the judgment of your mercy.
Because you are just,
We long for your mercy.
The mercy of the world, says we do not need to change.
The mercy of the law, tells us it is too late to change.
We throw ourselves on your mercy, Lord,
Because you are just.
Because you are just,
it is your mercy that we seek.
As we die again to our sin and self,
we willingly stand in the mercy of your judgment.