When I pastored at my last church, Heartland, we decided we'd had enough of Easter sneaking up on us. After all, people look forward to Christmas eagerly for weeks. But most are surprised it's suddenly Palm Sunday. This is often true even if Lent is kept, the 40 days that are meant to remind us of Jesus' fasting and temptation in the wilderness. (In our town most of the churches keep Lent together, special services being held at noon hour every Wednesday, each church taking a turn leading a service and offering a simple lunch afterward. But Easter still sneaks up on those who don't attend.)
What to do to create a sense of anticipation regarding Easter? Well, in the same way Heartland and many other churches celebrated Advent in December and counted down the four Sundays before Christmas Day by lighting candles, we decided to count down the Sundays before Easter Sunday or Resurrection Day by lighting candles then as well. There are about 7 or 8 Sundays, depending if you include Palm Sunday.
We created a different wreath than the Christmas wreath - this one was a crown of thorns. Our candles were different colors too, representing different moments or seasons in Christ's ministry, and we changed those selected moments from year to year. For instance: born a baby; a toddler in Egypt; his baptism and the dove descending; the healing of people with leprosy; weeping at Lazarus' grave; weeping over Jerusalem; the Sermon on the Mount; the calming of the storm; the feeding of the five thousand. Obviously, the moments one can choose to focus and meditate on are limitless.
Nor was it simply the pastor or leadership who lit the colored candles. In fact, the only candle I ever lit was the one I gave to others to use when they lit the Easter candles or Lent candles or Passion candles (as we sometimes called them). Children lit them. Seniors lit them. The challenged lit them. Whole families at a time lit them. Couples lit them. Teens lit them.
Did we see Easter coming in the same way we saw Christmas coming? Yes, we did, because every Sunday for two months the flames burned on the wicks and we remembered something else about the strength and beauty of Christ's human journey among us. Our messages were tied into the same theme, so that for two months everything pointed to Christ on the Cross, the necessity of his sacrifice of courage and love on the lonely hill, the overwhelming wonder and glory of his Resurrection in a spring garden in Israel. The message aspect may seem like a given, but no so. Of the churches we visit now, no one is dovetailing sermons toward the Easter story. It all of a sudden happens on Palm Sunday, not before.
As a family, we miss that ring of Easter candles. Sure, we're aware that it's only a couple of weeks away, we know our son has university exams before Easter and that our daughter, still in high school, will get an Easter break. But, as she said recently, it's not the same. The same holy hush of lighting light for the Light of the Word is no longer with us. I suspect we should have set up a family altar with Easter candles. And even though I'm standing in for a pastor on Resurrection Sunday, while he ministers in Mexico alongside a Mexican brother there, it's still just the one message, not eight of them.
Still, it's a privilege to preach on Easter Sunday of Christ. And still, it's not too late to light candles in his honor before the days when we recall his betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and return. It's better to do the candles in community, I think, but family is Christian community too, and they will burn as brightly and significantly among we few as they would in any other gathering of believers, large or small.
My friends, the days of Christ's Passion are coming upon us. Do not let them catch you by surprise unless the surprise is a renewed wonder at God's love and grace. Jesus is coming. Prepare your table, prepare your heart. Light a candle, if you can, and remember the darkness has never understood the light that is Christ and can never put it out.