Tag Archives: Easter

He is risen! He is risen indeed!


image courtesy – Caeleigh Cortez

Easter time is a joyous time of year for most Christians. During this time, we take special attempts to meaningfully relate to Christ’s last week, and His death, burial, and resurrection. Many Christians attempt to establish a better understanding of the Christian life, and practice meaningful acts to bolster their faith as Easter approaches through Lent. Lent starts this holy season which culminates with Holy Week, Good Friday, Vigil, and Easter. Conversely, many faiths are proud of pointing out that they do not recognize Easter for various reasons. However, I discovered a special affinity for Easter; it has positively influenced my spiritual walk.

I’m overjoyed that so many local pastors and church communities have worked overtime to accomodate their parishioners by having online meetings, or even meetings in cars. Those churches who do so, in many cases, are reaching larger audiences than they did with their normal congregation. Easter will be an especially difficult time for so many people normally accustomed to flocking to churches to hear the Good News of a risen Savior. There is something so attractive about the resurrection story that draws people to those who proclaim the Good News of salvation! Conversely, I’m saddened by hearing of churches who insist on having services that ignore the public lockdown advice of the health authorities. Maybe this will be the new battle front in the church/state battle.

However, I’m positive much good will come out of churches adjusting to safe and sane ways of reaching their parishioners: it’s a teachable moment. We should be careful to continue to support our churches by giving, as their expenses do not cease due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many have converted to online giving portals which make giving so easy.I wish each of you a Happy Easter and a wonderful Easter Week.

At Easter time, I love to perennially share the beautiful N.T. Wright quote from his book “Surprised by Hope” for it inspires a true re-examination of the way we celebrate Easter.

Easter week itself ought not to be the time when all the clergy sigh with relief and go on holiday,” Wright says, “It ought to be an eight-day festival, with champagne served after morning prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom?

Finally, I choose to close my Easter posts with a poem by theologian Walter Brueggemann. This is taken from his Abingdon Press book of poetry, “Prayers for a Privileged People”. It is especially fitting as it brings to mind the life and death horrors of our pandemic.

Easter in the Very Belly of Nothingness

Death will be all right for when it comes.
But dying is another matter–
so slow,
so painful,
so humiliating.

Death will be a quick turn,
the winking of an eye
but dying turns and twists and waits and teases.

We have not died,
but we know about dying:
We watch the inching pain of cancer,
the oozing ache of alienation,
the tears of stored-up hurt.

We can smell the dying
of bombs and shells
of direct hit and collateral damage
of napalm spread thin and even of cities turned craters
of Agent Orange that waits years to show,
and lives turned to empty stare.

We watch close or distant;
we brace and stiffen
and grow cynical or uncaring.

And death wins–
we, robbed of vitality, brought low by failed hope,
lost innocence,
emptied childhood,
and stillness.

We keep going, but barely;
we gather at the grave,
watching the sting and
the victory of dread.

But you stir late Saturday;
we gather early Sunday with balm and embalming,
close to the body,
waiting for the smell but not;
dreading the withered site…but not;
cringing before love lost…but not here.

Not here…but risen,
gone,
awakened,
alive!

The new creation stirs beyone the weeping women;
O death…no sting!
O grave…no victory!
O silence…new song!
O dread…new dance!
O tribulation…now overcome!

O Friday God—Easter the failed city,
Sunday the killing fields.
And we, we shall dance and sing,
thank and praise,
into the night that holds no more darkness.

Happy Easter dear readers!

ct

Good Friday 2020 already? It really seems strange, But Easter is almost here.

It’s been sometime since I last posted, but I’m going to be posting articles regularly now. The last month has been a blur. Trip to England and Africa was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic. Clearly Holy Week is going to be radically different this year.

With “hunker-down” and “social distancing” in place, most Christians will have a radically different experience with Easter this year. Please feel free to share your experience in your comments to this post.

I’ve been experiencing a house church for some time. It is one of several affiliated with Great Land Christian Church. Their model is to worship in house churches every Sunday except one. The exception is when the entire church meets as a congregation at the Boys & Girls Club facility. The congregate meetings, of course, have been discontinued during the pandemic. However, I’ve attended congregate GLCC meetings and find them to be a joy. My longtime friend Pastor Ray Nadon has filled me in on why they switched to this model. I’ll be doing an indepth post on them shortly. I’ve enjoyed worshipping with the Paredes house church for a number of Sundays. They are now meeting via Zoom. The majority of their time is spent discussing the assigned scripture readings. After my return from Africa, they focused on Matthew 23-24, and the following week Matthew 25-26. It is a very personable way to study, pray, and assemble as Christians together. If you would like to join their Easter service, click on this link to obtain a Zoom meeting invitation. (https://www.glccalaska.org/)

Many churches have transitioned to having their services via some type of social media or internet meeting sites such as Zoom or Skype. I’ve talked with several local pastors this week and they shared the following information about their services this weekend. This list is not exhaustive but representative. I suggest looking at church websites for specifics for onlne worship.

Anchorage First Presbyterian Church – Pastor Matt Schulz (http://firstpresanchorage.org/)
Pastor Matt shared “I have been live streaming on my facebook page and the church facebook page since this began. I will do so this week as well for Good Friday. Sunday will be Easter of course, but livestream only, probably from my home.” Livestream link: https://www.facebook.com/First-Presbyterian-Church-of-Anchorage-Alaska-152768168262144/

All Saints Episcopal CHurch – Rev. David Terwilliger
(allsaintsalaska.org)
Rev David shares, “As far as our Holy Week/Easter schedule, we have reduced many of our usual worship activities but certainly not all.  As things stand, I have been posting videos of our services on our church website – linked from a church YouTube account. (http://allsaintsalaska.org/youtube-services)

“Fortunately, I have my household to assist me with the services – usually my wife as Lector and my daughters will Acolyte for us Easter morning.  It certainly seems strange to us to conduct a service to be viewed by our church family online – many I know are able to watch and listen.  Sadly, some, I am sure, cannot.  Nevertheless, I have had folks tell me that they find great comfort in knowing that the Eucharist is still being celebrated within our church sanctuary even if they cannot be here physically to participate.  We are relying on a teaching of the church that “spiritual communion” is available to those whose desired intention is to participate in the Eucharist but for reasons – not their fault – cannot be physically present.  In this, the sacramental benefits of Christ’s sacrifice are apprehended by faith.  This teaching has been around for a long time and is even provided for in the 1662 BCP rubrics as well.  So we are relying of Christ’s presence and our Church’s tradition to guide us during these days.  Additionally, the old Armed Forces Prayer Book offers guidance for Spiritual Communion and a wonderful prayer found here: http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1928/AFPB_Spir_Communion.htm

St Mary’s Episcopal Church – Rev. Michael Burke
(http://godsview.org)
Rev. Michael says they will be using Zoom for the Easter service at 10:00 a.m. with Twitch and Facebook mirroring the service. The Zoom link is (https://zoom.us/j/362945215) or go to the church webpage noted above for a link. The bulletin is also availabe there. Pastor Michael also shares, “People are joining us online from around the world and throughout the lower 48.Much joy despite the crushing busyness.”

St. Patrick’s Parish – Fr. Leo Walsh
(https://www.facebook.com/stpatsak/)
“We are pretty much shut down” say St. Patricks Pastor Fr. Leo Walsh.”I have been live streaming mass is at noon daily, and on the weekends on our Facebook page. Due to the governors mandate, it is impossible to celebrate the Triduum liturgies if there is only one person who lives in the household, such as myself. The Triduum liturgies for the Archdiocese will be celebrated and streamed from Holy Family Cathedral (English) and Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral (bi-lingual in English and Spanish).Mass of the Lord’s Supper, 7 PM on Holy Thursday; Good Friday Liturgy at 7 PM, Easter Vigil on Saturday at 8 PM.  Details are on the archdiocesan website.” (https://www.archdioceseofanchorage.org/)
Fr Leo says he “will be streaming Easter Sunday Mass from Saint Patrick’s at 10 AM Easter Sunday morning.” See Facebook link above.

St. John UMC – Pastor Andy Bartel
(https://www.stjohneagle.com/)
They will be streaming Good Friday services at 7 p.m. today. (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC157rFbLUFLjOH9XvQTjCIQ)

Easter Sunday services will also be livestreamed at 9:15 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. as well.
(https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC157rFbLUFLjOH9XvQTjCIQ)

This is a friendly church with a top-notch pastoral staff.

Wherever you worship this Easter weekend, may God’s richest blessing be with you as you celebrate His richest gift to a needy world.

Easter 2018 – He is Risen! Rejoice!

Easter 2018 is almost over. Of course, Easter week, according to N.T. Wright, below,  “ought to be an eight-day festival” and so believe I.  The power of the passion story is magnified by its retelling by children.  I urge you to click on this link to watch a short video of two children telling the story of Holy Week and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. https://youtu.be/FYdP7nozxUQ

At Easter time, I love to perennially share the beautiful N.T. Wright quote from his book “Surprised by Hope” for it inspires a true re-examination of the way we celebrate Easter.

“Easter week itself ought not to be the time when all the clergy sigh with relief and go on holiday,” Wright says, “It ought to be an eight-day festival, with champagne served after morning prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom?”

Finally, I conclude with theologian Walter Brueggemann’s Easter poem.

An Easter Prayer
“…On our own, we conclude:
that there is not enough to go around
we are going to run short

of money
of love
of grades
of publications
of sex
of beer
of members
of years
of life

we should seize the day…
seize the goods…
seize our neighbor’s goods
because there is not enough to go around
and in the midst of our perceived deficit;

You come
You come giving bread in the wilderness
You come giving children at the 11th hour
You come giving homes to the exiles
You come giving futures to the shut-down
You come giving Easter joy to the dead
You come … fleshed … in Jesus

And we watch while
the blind receive their sight
the lame walk
the lepers are cleansed
the deaf hear
the dead are raised
the poor dance and sing.

We watch … and we take

food we did not grow and
life we did not invent and
future that is gift and gift and gift and
families and neighbors who sustain us
when we do not deserve it.

It dawns on us, late rather than soon, that
You give food in due season
you open your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.

By your giving,
break our cycles of imagined scarcity
override our presumed deficits
quiet our anxieties of lack
transform our perceptual field to see
the abundance…mercy upon mercy
blessing upon blessing.

Sink your generosity deep into our lives

that your much-ness may expose our false lack
that endlessly receiving, we may endlessly give,

so that the world may be made Easter new,
without greedy lack, but only wonder
without coercive need, but only love
without destructive greed, but only praise
without aggression and evasiveness…
all things Easter new…

all around us, toward us and by us
all things Easter new.

Finish your creation…
in wonder, love and praise. Amen.”

I wish you joyous Easter greetings, HE IS RISEN!

Chris

Lent Drawing to a Close

As Lent draws to a close, I’ve had a chance to reflect on its value to the Christian life. For me it has offered a time of personal introspection, something I don’t do enough of.  Ash Wednesday’s reminder of “Remember that dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” based on Genesis 3:19, are sobering words, not easily ignored. Ongoing events in my life are constantly reminding me of my mortality. Lent provided the proper framework to let it all sink in.  Maybe the same is true for you.

I’ve been blessed, as I wrote last week, by participating in a single church’s Lenten soup suppers and talks on Wednesday evening. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church offered great soup, incredible Christian fellowship, and meaningful talks. Last night, Rector Michael Burke concluded these Lenten evenings with a history-based talk about the meaning of Holy Week and the various days observed during it.  He began with a discussion centering around a handout relating to the liturgical calendar of the church year.  The various cleansing ceremonies in the early church were then explained including full immersion baptism after one learned more about the faith for three years.  Candidates renounced their sin, fears, and the evil powers of this world, and were immersed three times. This was done once a year at the time our current Easter falls. Rector Michael mentioned he tries to do the same at St. Mary’s each year, and if possible to lead the congregation in a renewal of their baptismal vows.

Burke concluded this informative time with the Eucharist. Using the rudimentary service contained in the didache, a brief anonymous early Christian treatise dated to the first century, we shared the bread and wine around the circle, a most meaningful experience.

A pastor friend introduced me to Rev Dr Jill F Bradway, First American Baptist Church’s new pastor, explaining she introduced her congregation to Lent starting with Ash Wednesday. She describes her experience with it at her church.

“I’ve been in Anchorage for 5 weeks. I came right at the beginning of the Lenten season. It has been a new experience for the congregation. I hope more will choose to make the journey next year.

“Lent isn’t something that most Baptists observe. We wake up to the season around Holy Week, celebrating Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter! And as wonderful as that is, it misses the opportunity to enter more intentionally into the disciplines of prayer, self-reflection, and repentance.

“While a Master of Divinity student at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, I saw my Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal counterparts participating in Lenten exercises. It made ask myself the question, “What do they know that I don’t?” And so, I began to ask questions of them, to observe their special services, and finally to look at Baptist polity to see if there was anything to keep me from adopting these practices into my own life and ministry. Expanding my understanding to include the significance of Lent has added an unexpected richness to my spiritual journey.

Many more Baptists and other evangelicals are exploring Lent and its meaning in the Christian walk. I wish Rev. Bradway and her congregation well as they do their own personal exploration. This year, Ash Wednesday at St. John United Methodist Church was my Lenten beginning. Many Anchorage churches have ushered this poor soul into the meaning of Lent for which I am truly grateful.

 

A variety of Eastertide expressions of faith

As I visit churches, readers frequently ask me, “What church do you belong to?” This seemingly innocent question is a tell for other questions possibly lurking beneath the surface. One might be probing my religious roots, or looking for leanings toward a particular strain of theology. Quite often I respond that when I leave home on Sunday mornings, I feel God is steering me toward a particular place of worship. Unless I’m attending an event of particular significance, I want to experience the fullness of faith: the warmth of hospitality, being with others in corporate worship, lifting my voice in praise and listening to the Bible being opened in new ways that inspire and urge me to share the good news of salvation.

On major holidays, like Easter and Christmas, I enjoy the act of worship for itself, not merely as a writing assignment for this column. At times I feel a bit selfish when I do this, but I too need to hear truly fulfilling messages from time to time, in environments where I’ve been spiritually nourished in the past. As such, today’s column briefly describes several experiences I had starting with last Thursday, and ending Easter Sunday.

Seder: Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church

Last Thursday, I experienced Seder at Christ Our Savior Lutheran. In recent years, I’ve joined this fun congregation in their celebration of the Passover celebration observed by Jews worldwide. Seder commemorates the Exodus, when Jews were liberated from bondage in Egypt. Typically the service follows a prescribed format with readings, specific activities and a ritualized meal with special wine to be drunk at intervals.

Some question why Christians celebrate a Jewish tradition. Many Christian scholars believe Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples actually was the Passover meal. Last week, Christianity Today featured an interview (http://tinyurl.com/gs2k3mz) with Rabbi Evan Moffic, one of the youngest rabbis in Reform Judaism. Asked about Christians celebrating Seder, Moffic said, “The Exodus story is part of the Hebrew Bible, which is part of the Christian Bible. The Exodus story is part of the Christian story. Sometimes we learn about another religion through practicing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing a Passover Seder. You get a much deeper sense of what Passover means if you participate in a Seder rather than just lecturing about it.” This Seder, a tradition at Christ Our Savior since 1998, was pastor Dan Bollerud’s last there; he retires this fall.

Good Friday: Amazing Grace Lutheran Church

I enjoy worshipping here as this congregation seems to continually reinvent itself in worship. A rough-hewn altar had been disassembled. It was arranged in groupings of two timbers each, in a circle of seven stations in the middle of the sanctuary. The congregation split into seven groups, followed leaders with crosses to position themselves behind each timber grouping, which also contained a row of seven lit candles. A leader then recited a reading, after which a hymn was sung by all while a group member, usually a child, blew out a candle at each station. Each group then moved one station to the left for the next reading and song. By the conclusion, all candles had been extinguished and each participant left in silence to return home. I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced a more heartfelt service on Good Friday. Thanks to pastor Adam Barnhart for his leadership in new experiences.

Easter morning, 10 a.m.: Baxter Road Bible Church

I enjoy the vigor of this relatively young and rapidly expanding east side church. Led by senior pastor Bob Mather and his associate John Carpenter, they are a model of successful church growth. After a vigorous musical service, pastor Bob greeted all with, “He is risen indeed!” They served Communion early in the service in an inviting manner, following biblical wording, with the elements explained and taken together. This is how Communion is most meaningful but often ignored in many churches. Carpenter’s sermon was based on Luke 24, but focused on the events after the resurrection. You can hear it at baxterroad.org/sermon.html.

Easter morning, 11:30 a.m.: St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

St. Mary’s 11:30 a.m. service features a folk/bluegrass music format. It’s upbeat and seems to please to a wide cross-section of St. Mary’s attendees. On Easter morning I more than ready for a musical uplift. From “Good Morning, This is the Day” to the recessional, this service was one of total joy. It began with the children entering the sanctuary, each with flowers in hand, to insert them in a cross in front of the altar. The altar was accentuated by a bank of Easter lilies, each donated by members in special recognition of family members and friends, a beautiful tradition.

Rector Michael Burke set the tone for the service by proclaiming, “He is risen!” The gradual hymn was “Morning Has Broken” and seemed so appropriate for Easter Sunday. The gospel reading was from John 20, the Johanine account of Mary Magdalene at the tomb, telling the disciples it was empty, the disciples returning home, and Jesus’ revealing himself to Mary — a stirring account indeed.

At St. Mary’s, the Eucharist is called The Great Thanksgiving. Burke always patiently explained the meaning and importance of the Eucharistic service, that it is God’s gift to us, open to all. Somehow this morning it seemed truer than ever. Although I’m not an Episcopalian, I’m in solidarity with the love they show for each other and their strong expressions of faith in God. It’s always a treat to visit this warm, welcoming church but Easter Sunday seemed more so.

Each church mentioned has something special to offer to those seeking an unusual experience. Eastertide this year was very special to me. And yes, that nicely iced Champagne mentioned last week was a special toast to the meaning of this extraordinary day.

Don’t miss this!

April 1 starts Defy Fear Week, a week of events structured around the documentary “Defiant Requiem,” a film about Jewish prisoners in World War II who use music as a weapon of resistance, and which culminates in two performances by the Anchorage Concert Chorus of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin” on April 8 and 10 in the Atwood Concert Hall.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Easter’s here – it’s time for celebration

Western Christianity’s 40-day Lenten trek is almost over. Sunday is Easter, which means wonderful celebrations at many churches. Easter and Pentecost were the earliest celebrations of the Christian church, and the only two holy days they observed until the fourth century. Easter celebrates Christ’s resurrection, where sin, death and Satan were conquered. Pentecost celebrates the Holy Spirit’s descending on believers as recorded in the Book of Acts, shortly after Christ returned to His Father.

At the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., Easter Sunday was finally declared so as to regularize the date of observance. Previously, Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection was commemorated around Passover, as many of the early Christians were of Jewish descent. Many scholars believing the Last Supper was actually a Passover meal.

Some pagan customs and nomenclature have seemingly crept into Easter celebrations over the years; but many scholars contest this, maintaining those claims and practices are overstated. Scholars debate the degree to which customs from outside Christianity have become incorporated into Easter celebrations, but clearly, and unfortunately, these customs have been given life by churches to such an increasing extent that, as with Christmas, the real and the fantasy become blurred. By this I’m referring to Easter eggs, chocolate bunnies, egg-laying bunnies, elaborate feasting, personal clothing and gifts, all of which make Easter the fourth-largest spending occasion of any U.S. holiday. Easter should not be about us; instead it should be about celebrating humanity’s release from the bondage of sin by a loving Savior in a miraculous shower of grace through his personal sacrifice.

If you are a parent, Easter provides teachable moments to share the true story of Jesus and his life with your children. Past those parenting years? It’s a great time to reconnect on a personal level with the truth and power of the Passion narrative described in the Gospels. Has it been awhile since you’ve attended a church service? Easter is a great time to go. Regular attendee? Why not invite a friend to accompany you. Welcome people you don’t recognize; they could be guests or regular members, but what a great conversation starter. It’s not complicated; just approach someone you don’t recognize and say, “Hi, my name is such and such, and I don’t recognize you. I just wanted to welcome you to our church. Happy Easter!” It’s a friendly thing to do, sure to start a conversation and leave a smile. Try leaving nearby parking spaces for guests and infrequent attendees, if at all possible. (Pastors, your church communications team should have already suggested  this to members). Easter and Christmas are the times of the year when churches receive the most visitors.

Having doubts about the resurrection? Don’t fret. Personally, I believe the arguments for Christianity based on manuscript evidence and textual scholarship to be most compelling. Many wonderful books are available to build your faith in the veracity of biblical scripture. I highly recommend “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” by N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop, and Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.” A list of these and other faith-building titles are on my website.

“If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said?,” writes pastor and apologist Tim Keller in “The Reason for God.” “The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.” In another book, “Surprised by Hope,” Wright declares, “Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else. Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity; as Paul says, you are still in your sins …”

Locally, I’ve experienced wonderful Easter celebrations but tend to steer away from services where the pastor adopts a self-aggrandizing approach, appearing larger than life. Easter is very important to me but gets lost when it’s treated as a subject for entertainment or self-building. The services I’ve loved have been warm and personable, with pastors loudly proclaiming “Christ is risen!” to which one replies, “He is risen indeed!” Participative hymns of celebration are wonderful. A 100-plus-decibel praise band usually drowns out audience participation with its blast of noise. Easter celebrations should be on the same level of personal intensity one would give a winning Super Bowl or World Series team. Sermons reminding us of the love God has for each of us through Christ’s gift of grace reconnects me to the meaning of it all. Easter should not be a time for private, personal agendas of any church or pastor.

For many of my ADN writing years I’ve loved repeating a fantastic Wright quote from “Surprised by Hope” as it inspires a true re-examination of the way we celebrate. “Easter week itself ought not to be the time when all the clergy sigh with relief and go on holiday,” Wright says, “It ought to be an eight-day festival, with champagne served after morning prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom?”

I’m looking forward to celebrating yet another Easter here with you. My champagne will be iced. May God’s grace be with you.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Orthodox forgiveness flows as Western Christianity’s Holy Week approaches

Last Sunday I attended Forgiveness Sunday services at Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church and St. John Orthodox Cathedral, both churches in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Each service was conducted with pastoral admonitions to members about the importance of asking forgiveness of each other for the sins and slights committed toward the other. Rev. Vasili Hillhouse of Holy Transfiguration said he needed his congregation’s forgiveness to continue in his role as their pastor. At St. John Orthodox, as the Rev. Marc Dunaway gave instructions for the forgiveness services, he said, “I know I need it.”

Both pastors shared insights about observing Lent in proper ways to stay focused on their spiritual journey to Pascha. The journey is aided by the Great Fast. Wesley Smith, in “First Things,” writes “The Great Fast is one of those times when we must journey alone. Yes, it helps to know in times of weakness that we are simultaneously sharing the same struggle with three hundred million others. The arduous Lenten disciplines of the Great Fast help us, again in the words of (Archimandrite Vassilios) Papavassiliou, ‘turn back to Paradise to the Life of Eden’ so that ‘like Moses, we too may see God.’”

At the conclusion of special forgiveness liturgies, congregants positioned themselves, as at St. John Orthodox, in two circles, one inside another and facing each other. Then each person would ask forgiveness of the person facing them, and be forgiven by that person. In turn, the other person would ask for forgiveness, and the other would then forgive. There were many hugs, handshakes, tears and reconciliation during this process as the circles progressed in opposite directions so that everyone had an opportunity to ask for and receive forgiveness. I’ve never seen anything like it during my many years of visiting churches.

During the forgiveness liturgies themselves, there were several occasions where congregants bowed and prostrated themselves on the floor, especially at St. John Orthodox during The Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. The prayer, in part, recited by all, says, “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Your servant. O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother; for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.”

It’s relatively common to hear pastors, during my church visits, say they need their congregation’s prayers. What’s uncommon is to hear pastors ask for their forgiveness. The words of an old Roger Miller song come to mind as I write this. “It’s my belief pride is the chief cause in the decline in the number of husbands and wives.” Likewise, I think pride is the reason we hear so few calls from the clergy for forgiveness, and fear from congregants to ask for forgiveness personally. C.S. Lewis succinctly observed, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

Repentance and forgiveness are common themes in the Old Testament. As an example, Zechariah 1:3 says, “Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.” As I watched both of these services, this text kept running through my mind. I think I understand the great emphasis Orthodox Christians place on forgiveness, as they enter Great Lent. It is a meditation on the work of Christian salvation, and the one who brought the great gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. I appreciate the sincerity and friendliness of the Orthodox traditions I witnessed last Sunday and wish them Godspeed as they transit Great Lent.

In most Christian traditions outside of Orthodoxy, liturgical churches traditionally observed Lent with periods of fasting, meditation, soul searching, giving up things, church services, Lenten sermons, and looking forward to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. For those churches, this coming week will be an important time as Holy Weeks starts with Palm Sunday tomorrow, ending with Easter celebrations a week hence.

Many evangelical Christian churches ignore Lent, for the most part, fast-forwarding toward Easter morning. That’s like skipping forward to the end of a good book to see how it all comes out in the end. Too often Christians see Easter as a great time for the kids with Easter egg hunts, beautiful outfits, thrilling sermons, music, and great dinners at home. In fact, the National Retail Federation forecasts Easter spending this year will total $17.3 billion, our fourth-largest spending holiday.

Other Christian traditions may not observe Easter at all, claiming it is idolatrous to observe it, or that it has pagan roots. Some say they observe it every worship day, but I’ve noticed many of their observances do not tend to bear out that statement.

In a Lenten homily at Calvary Episcopal Church, in Memphis, Tennessee in 2000, Barbara Brown Taylor, a writer, teacher, and biblical scholar, observed, “I actually know people who come to church on Good Friday and who don’t come back on Easter. Easter is too pretty, they say. Easter is too cleaned-up. It is where they hope to live one day, in the land of milk and honey, but right now Good Friday is a better match for their souls, with its ruthless truth about the stench of death and the high price of love. It isn’t that they don’t care about what happens on Sunday. They do. They just don’t believe that God is saving all the good news until then.”

The Lenten trek for Orthodox has just started, while the journey toward Easter is almost over for non-Orthodox believers. Whichever journey you’re taking, may God’s blessings be with you.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Monday marks start of Orthodox Lent

It’s been more than a month since Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent at many local churches. Easter will be celebrated March 27, yet Orthodox churches won’t start observing Great Lent until March 14. Orthodox Easter, Pascha (Pah-ska), is celebrated May 1, more than a month later than other Christian faiths. Why so late?

Blame it on Julius Caesar and the astronomically based Julian calendar. Some Orthodox follow the Gregorian calendar for certain portions of the church year such as Christmas. Others follow the Julian calendar for the entire year. A detailed discussion of the calendar and connected issues would consume this and subsequent columns. The three strains of Orthodox in Alaska: Antiochian, Greek and OCA (formerly Russian Orthodox), all use the Julian calendar for Lent and Pascha (Easter).

Part of Orthodox tradition is the use of fasts and feasts to mark their passage through the church year and their lives. This is not something most other Christian groups normally do.

In many other faith traditions, Lent starts Ash Wednesday; but not Orthodox. Preceding Lent, all three Orthodox groups practice a beautiful tradition you’ll rarely see elsewhere: Forgiveness Sunday. All Orthodox churches in Alaska precede Great Lent tomorrow with Forgiveness Sunday services. These services are usually conducted at the close of vespers recalling humankind’s original sin.

Describing this concluding portion of the service, Orthodox writer Wesley J. Smith, writing in “First Things,” says, “At the service’s end, our first Lenten act is to ask from and offer forgiveness to everyone present — not collectively, but individually from person, to person, to person. This is one of the most powerful moments of the Church year. One by one, each parishioner bows or prostrates, first before the priest, and then each other, asking, ‘Forgive me, a sinner.’ Each responds with a bow or prostration, asking also for forgiveness and assuring, ‘God forgives.’ Each then exchanges the kiss of peace. The service is a healing balm. It is hard to bear grudges when all have shared such an intimate mutual humbling. Indeed, Forgiveness Vespers is emotionally intense, tears often flow and hugs of true reconciliation are common.”

The Rev. Vasili Hillhouse, pastor of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox, shared that members approach each other on Forgiveness Sunday with formal greetings like “please forgive me.” A typical response is “God forgive us both” with prostration or bowing.

The week before Forgiveness Sunday is known as Cheesefare Week. Fasting, a Great Lent tradition, is already under way. Dairy and eggs are permitted, but not meat. This modified diet helps believers transition into Lenten fasting. Until the Easter resurrection celebration, Pascha, they fast. Fasting is a means to facilitate focus on spiritual things, and not celebrating one’s body. For most, no meat is allowed during Lent. Monday, Lent starts with no animal products. For Greek Orthodox, it’s vegan with just a couple of days declared as fish days. No wine or oil is allowed on weekdays, just weekends.

“When a Roman Catholic fasts (as well as many Protestants), he is making a ‘sacrifice’ for the cause of Lent,” says OCA Bishop David Mahaffey, explaining how Orthodox conceptions of fasting differ from those in other Christian churches “So you find people who stop eating chocolate, or stop drinking pop or wine; they are ‘giving it up for Lent’ in honor of our Lord’s sacrifice for us. In Orthodoxy, we understand that the human will and its related passions are a hard thing to control. Therefore, for us, it is not ‘giving up’ anything, it is redirecting our will to respond to our guided control and a ‘resisting’ of pleasures our passions want to enjoy. So the real prohibition is not only foods, it is entertainment, movies, dances, television, and other forms of enjoyment that typically allow our passions to rise and seek pleasure.”

Most Orthodox Christians are used to fasts, and regularly practice what are known as Eucharistic fasts.

“The Eucharistic fast refers to the brief time (usually Sunday mornings) that an Orthodox Christian observes a total fast from all food and drink in preparation to receive Holy Communion,” says the Rev. Marc Dunaway, pastor of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River. “The idea behind this is that on the day that I will receive Holy Communion, the Bread of Eternal Life, or the ‘medicine of immortality,’ as St. Ignatius called it — on this day I will not eat anything simply for the sustenance of this earthly body until I have first received the Body and Blood of Christ. We fast in reverence and preparation for this Communion.” Both the Eucharist fast and the Lent fast can be modified, if necessary, as needed for children, the elderly, and those suffering illness, Dunaway says.

Great Lent is observed with various services throughout the 40-plus days until Pascha. Local Orthodox churches holding Forgiveness Sunday services include: St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral (after Divine Liturgy at about noon); St. Tikhon Orthodox Church (Lenten vespers, 6 p.m.); Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church (after 10 a.m. Divine Liturgy) and St. John Orthodox Cathedral (after 6:15 p.m. vespers)

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Holy Week: The End Approaches

The Anchorage area is well into Holy Week, the culmination of Lent, which leads up to Easter Sunday. Many churches, Protestant and Catholic tradition alike, celebrate the various ritual days of Holy Week. The most important observed days, are today and ahead. In Anchorage Daily News’ Thursday paper, a double center section highlighted all the various services available, noted below, with their times.

Thursday, today, is known as Maundy Thursday. It commemorates the last supper and the institution of the Eucharist or Communion.

Friday, tomorrow, is known as Good Friday and commemorates the day of Christ’s death. A mournful day, it is a time of reflection on the mysterious nature of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity.

Saturday, known as Holy Saturday, commemorates Christ’s time in the tomb. Generally, it is observed with silence, prayer and vigils.

Sunday, known as Easter Sunday, often starts with sunrise services to commemorate Christ’s morning resurrection. In many churches, Easter Sunday services are the most attended services of the year. These services are joyful and filled with praises to God and much hope.

However, some churches do not recognize Easter by special observances. In these churches, they attempt to emphasize all aspects of Easter throughout the year as they are so integral to Christian belief. Wikipedia has a thorough discussion of Holy Week observances here. Our Christian traditions are full of meaning and hope. Please take an opportunity to learn of a new tradition of which you may be unfamiliar.

Easter is here — let’s celebrate

By the time most read this, Lent will be over, capping a period of self-examination, possibly prayer and fasting, and maybe taking up something new or giving up something truly harmful. This weekend Western Christianity celebrates Easter, while Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter (Pascha) a bit later due to differences between Julian and Gregorian calendars.

Does Easter need to be connected with spending?

One of the first things that came to my mind as I wrote this column is that Easter, despite its strong religious overtones, has become a major spending holiday for many Americans, with narcissistic displays of self-gratification. Easter is really not about us, is it? But according to the National Retail Federation, Easter spending places it in the middle of major American holidays. NRF notes shoppers are expected to spend more than $16.4 billion this year — or about $141 per person — with food, clothing, candy, and gifts heading the list. Easter spending positions it immediately after Valentine’s and Mother’s Day. That is a huge amount of money ostensibly honoring an event of religious significance, but really honoring oneself. In reality Easter is a celebration of the heart. Clearly Christmas and the other related winter holidays, which also have religious significance, score first place, topping $600 billion. Together, Easter and Christmas spending in the U.S. represents an amount larger than the national budgets of all but the nine wealthiest nations. Neither event really needs to be more than heartfelt commemorations expressing gratitude to the Godhead for dealing with the problem of sin.

What is Easter about?

For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is the event distinguishing Christianity from all other faiths. In the events of Holy Week, culminating in Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the very last events of Jesus’ life are noted and commemorated. Easter is the capstone following the last week of Lent. The prophecies and the predictions of Jesus are fulfilled in the empty tomb. For Christians, Easter represents the ransom paid for sin, and believers in the promise can live without the burden of sin and guilt. Therefore on Easter, we celebrate this wonderful event with music, song, rejoicing and sharing the good news of a risen Lord. Some celebrate with Easter sunrise services patterned after Scripture references to the resurrection being early, and some celebrate in their churches at regular worship times. An excellent volume about the resurrection is theologian N.T. Wright’s weighty and exhaustively researched volume “The Resurrection of the Son of God.” If you are a doubter, this is book may well contain your answers. Wright notes in this book that “resurrection is never a redescription of death, but always its overthrow and reversal.”

Should Easter be only a one-day celebration?

Some faiths do not observe Easter, claiming their faith daily observes the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. A few other faiths note Easter’s pagan origin, or development over time that may have incorporated other non-Christian practices, as a reason they do not observe Easter.

Again, Wright —  in his wonderful volume “Surprised by Hope” — writes, “Easter ought to be an eight-day festival, with Champagne served after Morning Prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias, extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system.” In this book, Wright devotes many paragraphs to the ways we could be celebrating Easter. Few faiths maintain such enthusiasm for the celebration beyond the day itself, but it’s a worthy goal.

Easter celebrations of note

The Thursday, April 2 edition of Alaska Dispatch News features a two-page ad of various Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter celebrations being held in our community. I’ve found it a reliable source of information about the many service options being offered locally.

I discovered that ChangePoint and ChangePoint NE were holding Easter services at UAA’s Alaska Airlines Center with services at 9:30 a.m. and noon. Five services between the two congregations can be collapsed into two at this new and spacious event facility at UAA. Reaching out to Adam Legg, ChangePoint’s creative arts and communications pastor, I asked why they chose this venue for Easter services.

“First, we wanted to make it as easy as possible for our church family to invite their friends, neighbors, co-workers and family to join them on Easter Sunday,” Legg said. “Our vision at ChangePoint is ‘Life in Christ for every Alaskan and the world beyond,’ and we absolutely believe that every person who calls ChangePoint ‘home’ is involved in that vision. Second, this amazing facility allows us the space to welcome the community to join us. Last Easter we were at max capacity at two of our four Easter services. Third, we have already found that a neutral location may cause people who are typically averse to attending a church, to reconsider. For us to step out of our building, and go to a prominent location in our city, makes it easier for people to check us out. We absolutely cannot wait to join thousands of people at the Alaska Airlines Center next Sunday as we celebrate the risen Jesus!”

I plan on attending one of ChangePoint’s services, and also a sunrise service. If you recognize me, please come over and introduce yourself.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his startling poem “Easter in the Very Belly of Nothingness,” concludes with, “O Friday God — Easter the failed city, Sunday the killing fields. And we, we shall dance and sing, thank and praise, into the night that holds no more darkness.”

That’s what Easter’s about. Happy Easter!

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.