For years Protestant churches observed the Easter cycle during the span of one week, beginning on Palm Sunday with a sermon on Jesus' triumphal entry and followed by a service on Good Friday. The observance ended with a service on Easter morning in which the congregation sang all the great resurrection hymns. Trumpets rang out, lilies flooded the pulpit area and the narthex, and choirs sang Easter choral arrangements and cantatas.
Then it was over. The following Sunday the lilies were gone, the trumpet players had returned to the pew, and the minister preached on Paul's shipwreck at Malta or Abraham's test of faith concerning Isaac.
Today things are changing. Many congregations are starting to observe the forty days of Lent. Worship committees begin to speak of the Great Fifty Days from Easter to Pentecost. If you add that up, that's ninety days—three full months devoted to the Easter cycle.
Why all the fuss? Won't one week's observance do? Why start preparing for Easter forty days early and prolong it fifty days afterward?
The Origins of Easter
The church keeps time in a different way than the rest of the world does, remembering the mighty acts of God with yearly seasons and holy days. Celebrating the great events of Christ's life and the Spirit's work within us, we retell the story of our faith.
Easter is the most ancient holy day on the church's calendar. Paul links Christ's sacrifice as Paschal lamb with the yearly celebration of the Passover (1 Cor. 5:7), suggesting that the apostolic church already observed Christ's death and resurrection at the yearly Jewish Passover festival.
The Great Fifty Days (stretching from Easter to Pentecost) was already well in place by the third century, observed as a season of feasting and joy and great celebration.
Lent grew out of the early church's belief that Easter was the most appropriate time for baptism—which is, after all, a symbol of death and resurrection. Lent began as a season of preparation, during which the initiates for baptism examined themselves and their commitment to Christ through fasting and prayer. This time of introspection and prayer gradually stretched to forty days (excluding Sundays, which are celebrated as a mini-Easter each week). The forty days of Lent were seen as comparable to Jesus' forty days in the wilderness, a time of fasting and prayer in preparation for ministry. Eventually nearly all Christians set aside these forty days as a time to renew their own baptismal vows and to prepare for the celebration of Easter.
The two elements of the Easter cycle—Lent and the Great Fifty Days—contain the essence of the gospel and proclaim the heart of the Christian faith. In the somber mood of Lent, we reflect not only on Christ's great suffering but also on our own sin and darkness. In the feasting and alleluias of Easter, we proclaim Christ's victory over sin and death, the end of our misery, and the beginning of our great hope.
These two moods cannot be separated. The Christian faith does not see one without the other. (As some preachers remark, we really shouldn't allow people to attend church on Easter if they haven't shown up for Good Friday.)
In the midst of our culture's busy distractions, we need time to ponder and celebrate the central truth of our faith: Christ's death and resurrection. Changing the pace of our life to match the slower, reflective mood of Lent and the more celebrative, victorious feast of the Great Fifty Days will deepen our experience of the gospel and enrich the worship life of the church.
But how do we begin to incorporate Lent and the Great Fifty Days into our church's worship life? How do we sustain these contrasting moods for so many weeks? How do we make Easter more than just trumpets and lilies?
Scripture Is Central
Scripture, first of all, must be the pivotal point in the Easter cycle. Scripture narrative sets the tone, informs the mood, suggests the colors and textures in the sanctuary, lends itself to music, forms the liturgy, creates the drama, shapes the symbols that appear in the sanctuary, and leads into family devotional activities throughout the week.
Start by choosing the Scriptures that will shape your worship. Some excellent resources are the Common Lectionary, Handbook of the Christian Year (published by Abingdon Press, 1986), and earlier issues of Reformed Worship.
Once you've chosen the passages for the entire Easter cycle, reflect on them individually and as a group until they come alive for you. Begin to feel a flow of worship that may help bring the Word alive for your congregation. Ask yourself these questions: What is the heart of the message in these Scriptures? What are we being called to proclaim in our worship? What visual, audible, or dramatic means can we use to support and add to the preaching of this Word?
Then, on each Sunday in Lent and in the Great Fifty Days, place a strong emphasis on the reading of Scripture. Let the narrative of the Word dominate your worship. Use every means you can to help it come alive.
For example, on Palm Sunday one congregation moved the chairs to create a curving pathway through the sanctuary. The worship leader, dressed as an Israelite in Jesus' day, walked slowly and meditatively down the pathway, offering "wondering questions" to the people who stood lining the way: "I wonder if the day was hot or cool as Jesus rode to Jerusalem with his disciples. Was the sun shining? Was it cloudy? I wonder what the air smelled like. I wonder if the donkey kicked up dust as he walked past the people on the path. I wonder if it hurt the children's hands to tear the palm branches from the trees. I wonder ...." Listening to the quiet, thoughtful questions, people began to imagine the scene at Jesus' triumphal entry in a new way and thus were prepared to hear the narrative of the Word that followed.
Drama, a reader's theater, puppets, mime, and storytelling all bring the Word alive in a visual way for the adults and children in your church. Integrate these methods often during Lent or the Great Fifty Days. Use them to enhance sermons or Scripture readings, to add life to children's messages—in general, to deepen the congregation's experience of the Word and to sustain the drama of the Lent/Easter story.
Color and Texture Proclaim the Word
Sorrow, penitence, the somber mood of Lent—these are conveyed by grays, browns, purples, blacks. The rough texture of sackcloth, the dark colorlessness of ashes, the hewn wood of the cross, the barrenness of the unadorned sanctuary—all speak of a time of darkness, of repentance, of waiting.
If possible, change the whole appearance of your worship place during Lent by removing all flowers, decorations, and bright colors during this time of introspection and waiting. A crude, plain cross set in the front of the sanctuary speaks more eloquently than the polished, decorative one that may grace your pulpit area during the rest of the year. Large spaces can be covered with dark-colored weavings of rough texture. Purple table runners, communion napkins, and vestments or stoles can help set the mood as well as marking the change in church seasons.
Easter and Pentecost should be a visual feast of color after the darkness of Lent. Flowers, bright banners of silk, colorful Easter symbols, gold and white paraments for Easter and bright red for Pentecost—all proclaim the joy and sustain the mood of Easter.
Be sure to draw the children into these changes by asking them to help bring out the new colors for each season and by explaining their meaning in children's sermons and church education classes or children's worship.
Symbols Speak as Loudly as Words
As wordless reminders of God's truth in our lives, the symbols of Lent's darkness can move us deeply. The crown of thorns, cloths of deep purple, ashes, wheat, palm branches, the bread and wine, f ootwashing, extinguished candles, darkness, silence, and the cross all speak eloquently of Christ's passion and of our need for a Savior.
In contrast, the resurrection life and light of Easter is symbolized by the newly lit Christ candle that will burn through the coming year in the sanctuary. We see the joy of the risen Lord in the gold and white colors of Easter paraments, in the flowers that decorate the worship space and the cross, in butterflies and empty tombs and lilies and bells and bright, colorful banners.
Use these visual symbols to silently proclaim the Word—suffering, crucified, and risen victorious— throughout Lent and the Great Fifty Days of Easter. Design them in banners, explain them in children's sermons, make use of them for meditations, display them throughout the sanctuary and in your homes. They will help sustain the moods of Lent and Easter—perhaps even more powerfully than the words you speak or the songs you sing—especially for the children, who learn primarily through what they can see and touch.
The cross—not only an instrument of death but the tree of life—is the primary symbol that unites the two aspects of the Easter cycle. You may wish to place a bare cross in the sanctuary or narthex at the beginning of Lent. On Easter morning, children and adults can crown the cross with flowers and vines, symbolizing the power of new life and regeneration that comes through its gospel message.
Banners can also be extremely meaningful in worship—especially when the congregation takes part in their development. One year a couple in our church made a beautiful Lenten banner. On a background of purple they placed the figure of a South American woman with a baby strapped to her back. The woman was stooped over, picking up pieces of manna and storing them in a basket. Around the frame of the banner were woven symbols of Israel's journey through the wilderness and God's nourishment: wheat, grapes, pillars of cloud and fire, five loaves and two fish, twelve baskets of bread, and a cross with a black shroud. Intertwining all these symbols was the green vine that is Christ.
The children gathered around this banner each Sunday during Lent to hear and watch these symbols of our faith unfold in meaning. For adults and children alike the banner came to represent the life and nurture that comes through the wilderness journey of Lent. Your congregation could do the same by preparing a banner together and filling it with different symbols for Lent or Easter that individual families have researched and contributed.
Music and Mood
Because both mind and heart are engaged in singing and in listening, music is a powerful mood-setter. The songs you choose will help deepen people's worship and their awareness of the Easter cycle's themes of repentance and joy. You'll want to refer to previous articles in Reformed Worship ("Easter Carols" and "Choral Music for Lent and Easter" in RW 6 and "Easter Hymn Festival" and "Children's Music for Lent and Easter" in RW 10) for suggestions.
Do some digging around on your own as well; the African tradition especially is rich in moving, rhythmic, easy-to-learn songs for this season. Folk songs such as "What Wondrous Love" and "Hallelujah, My Father" (Fresh Sounds, No. 6, © 1975, Celebration Services), sung week after week as the response to the Word or after the call to confession, can also be powerful mood-setters in Lent. As always, let the music be shaped by the Scripture you will focus on that Sunday.
During midweek services you may want to use some of the simple, repetitious songs written especially for this season by the community of Taize. (See Music from Taize, vol. 1 and 2, or Praying Together in Word and Song. All three books are available from G.I.A. Publications, Inc., 7404 S. Mason Ave., Chicago, Illinois 60638; 1-708-496-3800.)
The joyous hymns of Easter should resound in your church throughout the Great Fifty Days, reminding everyone of the risen Christ whom they celebrate during this season of feasting and joy. Don't stop singing them after the second or third Sunday. You may want to save the opening hymn of praise or the closing hymn each Sunday for such spirited pieces as "This Joyful Eastertide" and "Alleluia, Alleluia, Give Thanks to the Risen Lord."
Family Activities During Lent/Easter
To help families carry the mood of Lent and the Great Fifty Days with them throughout the week and bring it back with them to enrich the congregation each Sunday, set up a table in a conspicuous place in the narthex or the back of the sanctuary. Ask families to work together at home on their ideas and feelings in response to the sermons. Their offerings may vary greatly: a child's picture, a mobile, a collage of magazine pictures, a poem, a banner or piece of artwork. If some families work on special Lenten projects during the week, ask them to write up a report to place on the "family table." (Pastors should mention some of these projects and responses in the sermon, reminding people to look at the family table and to add their own contributions.)
Print the schedule of Scripture readings used during the Easter season and suggest that families use these passages in their family devotions during the week ahead.
You might also hand out simple journal books (made of several 8 1/2" x 11" sheets of paper folded in half and stapled together with a colored cover) for everyone to use during Lent. Encourage people to use their Lenten journals to record thoughts from their private devotions, responses to the sermons, lists of those they need to forgive or ask for forgiveness, and any Scripture passages that have become meaningful to them during this time. (Small children may want to fill their books with pictures about Easter.)
Sustain the Mood with Special Services
In Lent it's particularly important to give people a place for quiet reflection and self-examination. Midweek Lenten services (beginning with Ash Wednesday) offer a time for quiet meditation and prayer.
The Handbook of the Christian Year provides a liturgy for Ash Wednesday. During the service, invite people—children and adults—to write down on small cards the sins they need to confess and turn from. Ask everyone to watch as the cards are burned, along with the palm branches saved from last year's Palm Sunday service, and ground into ash to use for the imposition of ashes.
This is a graphic way for everyone, young and old alike, to begin the Lenten journey of confession, repentance, and renewal together.
For midweek services you will want to keep things simple: Scripture readings, a short liturgy, time for prayer and reflection. The book Praise God: Common Prayer at Taize (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971) contains simple, moving liturgies for the season of Lent that can be led by a pastor or worship leader. If possible, include the Scripture passages you've chosen for Sunday readings.
You may wish to include fasting as part of your church's Lenten journey. For an explanation of the tradition and use of fasting during Lent, see the article titled "Fasting" in Reformed Worship 6.
Holy Week is full of possibilities for special services, beginning with Palm Sunday. Again, an excellent resource for worship planning for these days is the Handbook for the Christian Year, which suggests liturgies, music, and readings for the week. (You will also want to read Howard Hageman's discussion of Holy Week celebrations in RW 2.)
Let your Palm (or Passion) Sunday be a pageant of palm branches and children; help people enter into the narrative of the Word through sight and sound. We tend to make Palm Sunday a service of celebration. Unfortunately, most people present on Palm Sunday won't be in church again until Easter morning. For this reason, you should present also the passion of Christ—the darkness of his trial and death—in this service. If you only have one service on Palm Sunday, you may have to plan on extending your time of worship to be able to include both elements—the celebration and the passion.
Morning and evening prayers from the Taize Community for each day of Holy Week are included in Praise God. Celebrations of the Seder supper, a Maundy Thursday foot-washing service, Tenebrae liturgies, the Good Friday service, and the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening are all dealt with in detail in the Handbook of the Christian Year. Offer as many of these services as you can, keeping them simple so that the week retains its quiet, meditative mood.
Though your church may not continue midweek services throughout the Great Fifty Days, emphasize hospitality and feasting during this time. Encourage families to get together with others for festive gourmet dinners and to sing their favorite Easter hymns and anthems, celebrating the risen Lord in their midst.
The two other special days that fall during the Great Fifty Days are Ascension Day and Pentecost. It's important to continue your emphasis on the victorious, risen Christ during these services as well. Consult the Handbook of the Christian Year and issues 3, 7, and 11 of Reformed Worship for liturgies, creative drama, and readings.
More than Remembering
All these suggestions are meant to stir your own creative thoughts and ideas. The Easter cycle is rich with symbol, color, song, and tradition. In your worship planning, however, it's important to remember that celebrating Easter must be more than commemorating a historical event. Through our worship in Lent, Easter, and the Great Fifty Days, we participate in the power and glory of the risen Lord, who fills and empowers his people today. Don't entertain your church members with events at which they are merely spectators. Find ways to help them participate in worship. This may mean scrapping elaborate plans in favor of simpler, more participatory activities.
Your worship during the Easter cycle should create a place where people—children and adults alike—can meet the God who suffered for them and who rose again, one who now fills them with his resurrection power. Go beyond trumpets and lilies. Use the forty days of Lent and the Great Fifty Days of Easter to mark a spiritual journey that will deepen the faith of all your members.