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Beyond the Lone Islands

Sunday, 4 April 2010

An Easter Sermon


I think it was in the late 1980s or early 1990s that  one year for the first time I came to follow the whole series of Easter services in a church belonging to the Lutheran Church of Sweden (which was a state church until the year 2000). This experience increased my understanding of how following ritual liturgy can serve as a sermon in itself; because they also bothered to include explanations of the symbolism.  

It has not been very many times since then that I have actually been to every one of these services over the same Easter Weekend. But the connection lingers in my mind, whether I actually go or not.

On Maundy Thursday [1], there is an evening service, with the Holy Communion (also called The Lord’s Supper). This is in memory of the last night Jesus spent with his disciples, and their meal together, which took place “on the first day of the Feast of the Unleavened bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb” (Mark 14:12).

Passover refers to the Jewish celebration in memory of when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. The last of the plagues that fell upon the Egyptians (because Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go) was the death of the first born in every family. But the Israelites were told to slaughter a lamb instead, and put some of the blood on the doorframe of their house. And doing so, the plague passed them by. (Exodus 12:17-27) That was “the old covenant”. [2]

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27-28)

This time, in Christian belief… A once-and-for-all covenant.

At the end of the Maundy Thursday communion service, the altar table is “undressed”. All decorations, including the table cloths, are ceremoniously removed, and it stands there naked.

[1] The word Maundy comes from the Latin "mandatum", meaning command, and relates to John 13:34 where Jesus tells his disciples - in connection with him washing their feet before they sat down to eat (i.e. doing the job of a servant): 
"A new commandment I give you: Love one another, as I have loved you" . This origin of “maundy” I did not know until I read about it in Ginny’s blog Let Your Light Shine the other day. Thank you Ginny!

[2] A covenant is a type of contract in which one party makes a promise to the other to do or not do some action.


On Good Friday (which in Sweden we call Long Friday), the altar in the church is still bare, except for one vase with five red roses in it. The five roses represent the five wounds from the crucifixion: the piercing of the hands and the feet, and then the spear stuck in his side to check that Jesus was truly dead before they took him down from the cross.

During the Good Friday service, no music is played. All hymns are sung a cappella. And no candles lit.

“From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice --- My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46)

These words refer to the first verse of Psalm 22 in the Old Testament. This psalm is said to be a pretty accurate description of what happens in a crucifixion. Among other things, piercing of hands and feet is mentioned. Crucifixion, however, was not something practised by the Jews, not even in the days when Jesus lived and died – that’s why they handed him over to the Romans.


On Easter Eve, there is a Midnight service, starting at 11.30 PM. Before entering the church, everyone gathers in the parish hall next door, and everyone gets a candle. With candles still unlit, all walk into the church, which lies in darkness. Words from the Book of Genesis are read:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
(Genesis 1:1)

Vows of baptism are renewed (the Lutheran church practises child baptism) and everyone walks up to a big candle and light their own candles from that – or pass on the fire from one person to another.

Then all the lights are turned on; the altar table is laid with fresh linen; flowers (daffodils, which we call “Easter lilies”) are brought in; music is added; and the Holy Communion (symbolising the New Covenant) is celebrated.

At the end of the service (about half an hour past midnight), all walk out of the church together, candles still burning (representing carrying the light out into the world); greeting each other outside with the words: “Christ is risen! – Indeed, He is risen!”

“On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women --- went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” (Luke 24:1-2)


“Why do you look for the the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5)

The Easter Sunday service later on Sunday is a jubilant resurrection celebration, in full daylight, with lots of flowers and music. ♫ ♪ ♫

On Easter Monday there is also a church service, with the Holy Communion, and the texts on this day are about Jesus showing himself to his disciples after the resurrection. The Gospel of John tells us how Mary Magdalene met Jesus near the tomb. Matthew points out that there was another Mary with her. Luke says they were three women. Anyway, the male disciples found it hard to believe them at first. But later the same day Jesus appeared to some of the men as well. The common thread in all the stories is that each person at first did not recognize him, or did not dare believe that it was really he. But then he said something, or did something, that convinced them.

Jesus said to her, “Mary”. She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic: “Rabboni"!” (which means Teacher). (John 20:16)

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him… (Luke 24:30-31)


The pictures chosen to illustrate this post are from various places and none of them from the church mentioned in the first paragraph.


Sandra said...

thank you so much for this post. this is a perfect post for Easter Sunday and I have never heard all of this at one time, all of it before in bits and pieces. you did a super job of telling the whole story. have a blessed Easter.

Ginny said...

What a lovely post to inform and remind us of every part of Easter week! I did not know about the roses, nor the Monday service. Happy Easter!!


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