And if Christ has not been raised from the dead, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
I Corinthians 15:17-19
This is bound to be one of the strangest Holy Weeks I think I’ll ever come across. No palm procession and cries of “Hosanna”. No reenactment of Jesus’ final meal before His passion. No words from the cross or singing of “O Sacred Head now Wounded.” And to top it all off - no Easter! Wait a minute, no Easter?
Can Easter really be canceled? It sounds a bit like the Sheriff of Nottingham's diatribe in one of the Robin Hood movies; “That’s it! Cancel the kitchen scraps for widows and orphans. No more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas!”
I know we’re talking about Easter, not Christmas, but it still begs the question - can you really call off Easter? For that answer I turn to perhaps the greatest movie of all time, The Princess Bride:
Wesley: I said I would always come for you, why didn’t you wait for me?
B Cup: I will never doubt again.
Wesley: There will never be a need.
Boy: Ughh. They’re kissing again! Do we have to hear the kissing part?
God showed His true love for us in giving His only-begotten Son into death on the cross in payment for all our sins and raising Him to life again. Death could not stop true love, it just delayed it until the third day. So can Easter be called off? No, but it might be delayed awhile. I am reminded of one of the great Easter hymns (LSB 469) “Vain the stone, the watch, the seal; Christ hath burst the gates of hell. Death in vain forbids His rise, Christ hath opened paradise.” Pilate tried to keep Jesus in the tomb, and failed. Satan certainly didn’t want Him to rise, but He did! There was simply no stopping God from showing how much He loves us by breaking the power of death to frighten us into submission. Call off Easter? It will not happen!
Yet in the age of a deadly, easily spread virus, we may need to hold off on our communal celebrations for a while. But that’s OK. Easter has been celebrated on many different days and many different ways throughout the ages. You may have noticed some years Easter comes early and other years it’s much later. Why is that?
Well, the way we in the Western Church calculate the date of Easter is that it is the first Sunday following the first full moon following the Vernal (Spring) Equinox. That means Easter could be as early as March 21st or as late as April 18th. The Celtic Church in the days of St. Patrick has Easter coincide with the pagan festival (sabbat) of Beltaigne - a spring fertility celebration. This was one of the chief causes of discord between the church in Eire and that of Rome (Rome won out at the Council of Whitby in 665 AD). The Orthodox churches (Eastern, Russian, Ukrainian, etc.) have their own formulation and their own date - which may be a week or two off from the Western date. Indigenous churches around the world follow various datings for the day they celebrate the Resurrection.
Whenever the date of Easter is, we should also remember that this is just the start of 40-50 days of feasting and celebrating. Ascension day is 40 days after Easter and Pentecost, the next liturgical season, begins on the 50th day after Easter. Also, the reason we worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, is a constant reminder of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil (see Matthew 28:1-10).
So what day we get to have the joyous celebrations and sing our Alleluias once more is not as important as the events of that first Easter - whatever calendar day it was. We celebrate week after week by gathering on “the Lord’s Day” to hail Him as our Risen savior. Yes, we are postponing the ceremony, but not the celebration. We can rejoice in Christ’s victory - now our victory (I Cor. 15:57) every day of the year. Vain was the watch, the stone, the seal - and vain will be the novel coronavirus. Christ hath burst the gates of hell and we are given eternal life through Him, no matter what happens in this brief period we call “life”. While I long to be with you all again and celebrate Christ’s triumph, we know we will have all eternity to celebrate this victory with all the faithful from all ages. Until then let us take up the cry, “He is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.