During the Paschal services late on Holy Saturday and throughout Easter Sunday and Bright Week following the Resurrection, those of us who attend church and are part of a community of worshiping Christians rightfully rejoice in the glory of the Feast of Feasts, the Lord’s Resurrection which prefigures and points to our own hope of bodily resurrection. Yet for all those of us who attend the Holy Week services and Paschal vigils and liturgies, what is often difficult to realize is that, despite packed churches on these occasions, these unusual crowds so atypical of the rest of the liturgical year mask an uncomfortable reality which the rest of the year witnesses: declining rates of general observance among Christians in a country which has an increasing number of committed non-Christians and religiously non-affiliated.
Shared participation and common experiences are the key underlying and overarching bonds of solidarity within every culture. Just as remembrance of God through participation in the liturgical life of the Church is what connects people to the very life and source of their ontological destiny and identity as Christians, so too, paradoxically, is withdrawal from that life a source of disconnect, alienation, emptiness, and confusion.
Liturgy at the Center of Easter Celebration
Every heartfelt and genuine participation in the Eucharistic liturgy of the Church connects the communicant to the heavenly kingdom. We enter into this kingdom's full spiritual reality and sacramental, deifying grace at every Divine Liturgy or Mass, when the Eucharist offered upon the church altar becomes the eternal throne of the Father, on which Christ sits. Communing of the sacred and life-giving Mysteries brings Christ into the very veins, the heart and soul of every worshipper. This is all the more vitally important at Easter, at Pascha. Every worshipper who communes of the Body and Blood participates in the timeless heavenly liturgy that is offered for eternity before the throne of God. So too, does every coming forth to the chalice constitute an affirmation of one’s citizenship in the universal Christian nation of the Church, whatever one’s geographical nation might be.
When I think of all those who, for so many reasons, tragically choose to not participate in the liturgical life of their church communities, I see, first and foremost, a lamentable withdrawal from that participation which is the source and spark for common Christian identity, belief, and lived experience. In this withdrawal, I see both an individual and a collective alienation, a separateness, a missing out or pulling away which will naturally have long-term consequences for society as a whole as well as individual non-churchgoers and their families. In this withdrawal, I see shattered community and shards of loving fellowship instead of healing, ever-deepening community and fellowship that ought to grow stronger with prayer and effort.
Especially on Pascha, the Holy Day of Holy Days, the Feast of Feasts, what is the withdrawal from participating in divine services if not a withdrawal, a stepping back from, and outside of, Christian life and culture? What is this, if not a tragedy which we as church communities should work collectively and lovingly to do everything we can to reverse? After all, those who are not attending alongside us are people dear to us – friends, relatives, even immediate family members – who we should do all we can to bring to church and to welcome. No pride, hurt feelings, or stubbornness are too great that they cannot be overcome with sincere forgiveness, mutual repentance, and Christ-like mercy.
What is Easter without participation in Christ’s Resurrection? It is nothing. Pascha without the solemn and profound beauty of remembering, affirming, and participating in the theological, historical and existential reality of the Lord’s Resurrection is nothing. Divorced from its basic, defining meaning and reality, Easter Sunday without remembrance of Jesus Christ risen from the dead becomes just any old Sunday in spring with no particular import. Forgetfulness of God on such a day as Pascha itself, the Feast of Feasts and day of days, constitutes nothing less than a complete divorce from the very heart of what Christianity is. Without the Resurrection, Christianity has no purpose, no heart, no real meaning.
Easter egg hunts and Easter baskets are lovely, fun traditions, but next to the cosmos-shattering Resurrection, they are utterly superficial, having no intrinsic connection to Christ. When the cosmos-shattering reality of His Resurrection is forgotten or downplayed, such traditions lose their very purpose or reason for existing. I recall with joy how much happiness Easter egg hunts and indulging in chocolate candy brought to my family growing up, but these pastimes are really nothing outside of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. Easter without the Easter bunny, egg hunts or baskets brimming with chocolates would still be Easter, or Pascha (as all non-English and German speakers call the day). Regardless of the eggs and baskets, observing Easter without Christ at the very forefront and heart is utterly meaningless, a commemoration of nothing in particular.
These enjoyable pastimes serve a positive purpose in many homes, warmly delighting children and parents alike, but when their inclusion in the rituals of a family’s Easter morning stands alongside the decision not to attend divine services, something truly profound is being lost and forgotten, while something far less important is being prioritized."
Celebrating the Day of Resurrection
What of all the millions of Americans, including so many professed Christians, who go about spending the Day of Resurrection as they would any other Sunday, perhaps with the addition of a family reunion at which no mention of Christ is made? The consequences will not likely be immediate, as any children opening Easter baskets filled with beautifully wrapped chocolates and jelly beans will show a truly genuine Christ-like glow, but instead of people wanting to prioritize their enjoyment of Easter as if it were simply any other occasion for a family reunion, let them see participation in their church’s community and above all its liturgical life as a source of joy, communion and community far more lasting and profound. Let them see regular participation in Paschal divine services as a gateway into, perhaps, regular participation in regular Sunday services or even mid-week services and community gatherings (no pressure!) . When this begins to take place, and more and more people in a church community come to know each other and genuinely care about each other as brothers and sisters in faith, a truly beautiful thing occurs: Christ dwells in their midst and makes His home in their hearts.
This Paschal season, as we rejoice in the risen Lord, let us look to our own parishes and see in those empty pews or floor spaces an opportunity to extend a heartfelt welcome, to be more neighborly, to go out of our way to forgive one another and truly live the greeting “Christ is in our midst!”. Let us by our example encourage and welcome others joyfully into that life-giving and restorative participation which is the rock and foundation of our life as Christians, and the most beautiful expression of our common citizenship in the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. Christ is Risen — now let us strive to live in such a way that, every day, our actions proclaim the reality of the Lord’s Resurrection!