We have a poinsettia left over from Christmas. In the overwhelm of Christmas 2020, it was gifted to us and then promptly forgotten. In mid-January, we rediscovered it in a corner, shriveled and dead-looking. But our 11-year-old took pity on the plant and has been able to bring it back to some semblance of life. Now that Lent has begun, I’m marveling at its (and her) tenacity. It still looks scraggly, but there are new red leaves blooming, reminding us of the shed blood of the Christ.
As we lead up to Easter 2021, it is in many ways an unprecedented holiday time. Last year’s Easter was in the earlier stages of the pandemic—of the isolation, fear, and grief. Now, as the vaccine is making its way into the world and many churches are gathering together once again, there is some measure of hope…but also a great deal of mourning and exhaustion.
Lent this year is a unique space of longing, of brokenness, of visceral awareness of the here-and-not-yet kingdom. As we prepare for another Easter during a global pandemic, it is so important to remember that although this season of Lent and Easter may be significantly different than any in recent history, it is not unusual from the perspective of the global church and the church universal. Nor is it something which has taken God by surprise.
A Rich Heritage
The celebration of Easter has a rich history in the ancient church. Acts 12 mentions that Herod imprisoned Peter and planned to “bring him out for public trial after the Passover” (verse 4), and it appears that Passover remained the main context for celebrating the resurrection of Jesus for quite some time. But as the church became increasingly more diverse—as the nations entered in to fulfill the inheritance promised to Abraham—the Jewish traditions became more and more a footnote to the worldwide church. The Jewish origins of Easter did not fade completely, however, but rather joined the context of other (sometimes even pagan) influences of celebrating spring and new life in the natural world.
As we contemplate those early days of the church and what Easter celebrations would have looked like, it’s important that we (especially in the majority culture) repent of the ways in which we have whitewashed the early church, stripping her of her Jewish, Middle Eastern, Asian, and African heritage. Many of the trappings that we enjoy today have their roots in the traditions of folk who were thoroughly brown and diversely creative. For those of us who are Protestants, it’s also important that we acknowledge and even learn from the practices of our Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and other church tradition siblings.
We see echoes of the modern practice of dyeing Easter eggs in the brilliantly dyed and intricately decorated wooden eggs of Romania (oua incondeiate). Our coconut-drenched lamb and bunny cakes hearken back to the decadent galaktoboureko dessert of Greek, Turkish, and Syrian origin. Many Christians of Jewish descent still practice the Passover meal (seder), as it points forward to the sacrifice and importance of Jesus.
Liturgy has long been an important part of Christian history and of passing the traditions of the church to the next generation of children, nieces and nephews, and converts to the faith. While the United States was ostensibly founded on the idea of freedom of religion, countries such as Russia and China have long had indigenous church movements which have thrived under communist rule: “the Russian church found its liturgy capable of supporting the faithful and transmitting the traditions to new generations” (González 377)1. And before assimilation into a general white culture in the United States, “there were significant numbers of Russians, Greeks, and others for whom their faith and its liturgy were a means of keeping alive traditions and values that would otherwise be lost” (378)2.
A Church Divided
The history of the American church is indeed a complicated one, especially when we contrast the general practices of primarily white institutions with the liturgy of churches in primarily minority contexts. In broader white evangelical spaces, there has been a tendency to whitewash both the history and current worldview of the church, as well as to deny “the power of liturgy and tradition” (González 383)3 that allowed centuries of surviving (and even thriving) under rulers who were hostile to the faith. There is great value to the celebratory aspect of Easter as expressed in the hymnody and habits of many majority culture churches. The pageants, the passion plays, and the Easter cantatas all preach the gospel of the risen Christ. And as previously mentioned, these church standards are often rooted in the practices of the saints of earlier centuries.
But as those of us in majority culture spaces think of how to celebrate Easter during a significant time—both in terms of the pandemic and in terms of recent racial awakenings—it’s important that we learn the lessons which the rich history of minority churches in America have to teach. And those of us in historically minority traditions deserve to be given credit for the ways in which people of color and their churches have echoed and continued the early church’s zeal and faith.
When we think in terms of what truly persecuted church traditions have to offer, we see three areas which can orient us toward the risen Lord Jesus this year. When we examine and honor the lament, perseverance, and hope of these churches, we are honoring the lament, perseverance, and hope passed down through church history. And all of these are firmly rooted in the lament, perseverance, and hope which we see played out in the life of our glorious savior.
The power of lament is richly shown in the Black church. In looking at the gospel’s relevance to injustice, Anglican priest Esau McCaulley proclaims that “God in his mercy has allowed us to continue to voice our complaints…we have found solace that God responds to Black suffering with a profound act of identification of our suffering…the answer to Black rage is the calming words of the Word made flesh” (McCaulley 130)4. In his book Prophetic Lament, Pastor Soong-Chan Rah shares how many minority churches of the Asian diaspora are rooted in the much-needed practice of lament. In looking at the 2013 typhoon which devastated the Philippines, Rah relates that in their multiethnic church affiliation, “it was the Filipino congregation that needed to lead the lament because it was their family members and friends that had been directly affected…” (Rah 173)5. Many churches which are primarily made up of refugees—such as Hmong or Karen churches, cannot help but worship with strong practices of lament as they mourn what they have lost and the ways in which their communities are still disadvantaged. Lament is a thoroughly Biblical practice, as Rah shows in his book, because the book of “Lamentations provides the biblical text and the theological lens through which we examine the themes of urban ministry, justice and racial reconciliation” (24)6.
Much of the griefs borne by minority churches also lead to great traditions of perseverance. Authors such as Jemar Tisby7 and Donna Barber chronicle the tenacity of the Black church to survive centuries of abuse and dehumanization. In her book Bread for the Resistance, Barber has a special word of encouragement for us during this pandemic time: “although the temples, chapels, and cathedrals of the world have provided sanctuary for the people of God throughout time, the place of refuge or safety we seek is not a space created below ceilings or between walls” (Barber 144)8. Coming from the tradition of the Black American church, who often had to worship God in fields and ramshackle buildings, this is a word of perseverance and of conviction, and even points us back to the earliest church, which would’ve celebrated Christian Passover in someone’s home. It is healthy to long for our church buildings, to gratefully see them built up to bring glory to God, but ultimately our perseverance comes in the shadow of God’s wings, not in any human-made structure.
And ultimately, our hope comes from the Lord, and that is what Easter is all about. Speaking of a gathering of indigenous believers from around the world, Dr. Richard Twiss shared that “as I listened to the pain and observed the tears and grief and loss of indigenous people from generations of pain and rejection, one thing was evident: there was a glaring absence of bitterness and resentment. Any hearts that still questioned and harbored ill feelings were softened by deep-seated words of forgiveness, reconciliation and healing at the heart of what was said” (Twiss 195)9. Is there anything more representative of the hope of Easter than the good news that Jesus, even as he hung dying on the cross, asked his father to forgive his persecutors (Luke 23:24)? And while we are all like sheep who “have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6) and have harmed others, who better to teach us about forgiveness and the power of the resurrection than those among us who have been most persecuted, yet still hope in Christ?
Longing for Home
We are not home yet, but we know that we’re on our way. We are headed to a fully realized, multiethnic kingdom where there is no more disease, hunger, or isolation (nor overcrowding). A place where we worship the crucified, risen, glorified and returned Paschal lamb upon his throne. As we celebrate Easter this year, we can hold tight to the testimony of that great cloud of witnesses. A story of gracious perseverance, necessary lament, and ultimate hope. Sandra Van Opstal, worship leader and pastor, reminds us that we have much to learn from a variety of traditions, among them “Middle Eastern Christians [for whom] a life of worship is about perseverance and running the race (Hebrews 12:2)” and “Latin American worship [which] is about celebrating life no matter the circumstances [and identifying] with Scriptures like Ecclesiastes that call us to laughter and joy alongside crying and grief” (Van Opstal 122)10.
Since that very first Easter when our brown11, Middle Eastern, multiethnnic12 Christ transformed the reality of death into joy for all time: through the days of the fledgling church and many martyrs, to the more recent days of modern saints’ witness to God’s faithfulness, in all eras and tragedies (and times of relative peace), we rejoice. We draw together—in person and virtually—as the church universal who moves forward in joy, just as our faithful siblings always have and always will.
Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II, Harper One: 2010. ↩
González, Story of Christianity, 2010. ↩
González, Story of Christianity, 2010. ↩
Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, InterVarsity Press: 2020. ↩
Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, InterVarsity Press: 2015. ↩
Rah, Prophetic Lament, 2015. ↩
See Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, Zondervan: 2019. ↩
Donna Barber, Bread for the Resistance: 40 Devotions for Justice People, InterVarsity Press: 2019. ↩
Richard Twiss, One Church Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You, Chosen Books: 2000. ↩
Sandra Van Opstal, The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World, InterVarsity Press: 2016. ↩
See Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity, InterVarsity Press: 2020. ↩
See Mixed Blessing: Embracing the Fullness of Your Multiethnic Identity, InterVarsity Press: 2020. ↩