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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Easter Deserves a Season

Published Monday, July 26, 2021 By Michael Farley

Easter deserves more than a day. But in many Protestant churches, one day is all it gets, and I believe that it deserves greater attention. This article makes the case that celebrating Easter as a full season provides an opportunity to make the resurrection of Jesus more explicitly central to the liturgical life and practical ministry of the church in a way that better reflects the centrality of the resurrection in the theology of the New Testament.

When we examine the seasons of Advent and Christmas, we can see how devoting time to a biblical theme according to the liturgical calendar fosters theological formation in multifaceted ways through the traditions of the season. Consider how much rich theology churches proclaim every year about Messianic prophecies and the incarnation only because the seasons of Advent and Christmas have become a part of the annual rhythm of worship. Not only do congregations often receive extended sermon series annually on these themes, but the practices of observing the season have elicited a profusion of creativity that proclaims the truth of the incarnation from the ever-growing body of Christmas music in every genre and style to visual artistry and decoration to movies and plays that echo the story of Immanuel. Seasonal feasts and gifts embody the goodness and joy of God’s incarnational presence and generosity in repeated acts that prompt our reflection and cultivate those realities in our lives. It seems doubtful that the theology of the incarnation would be worked into the worship, teaching, and rhythms of the church’s life in such focused and creative ways were it not for the commitment to set aside the time each year to attend to this dimension of the gospel story according to the liturgical calendar.

As a result of the liturgical movements of the 20th century, more Protestant churches are now also observing Lent as a second season in their annual calendar. Thus, there is a growing development of seasonal practices that provide extended focus on the suffering and death of Jesus and the cruciform shape of our discipleship in teaching, daily devotional practices, and music culminating in the special services of Holy Week. Yet even in most Protestant churches with an increasing appreciation for the value of liturgical seasons, Easter remains a single day, and where Lent is observed, Easter has functionally become the closing day of Lent.

From a historical perspective, this way of apportioning time within the liturgical calendar is a great reversal. In the early church, Easter was the cornerstone of the liturgical calendar. By the second century, Easter had become the first annual Christian festival. Although it was a single day at its inception, some churches expanded it into a season of fifty days as early as the late second century to place special focus on Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit.[1] By the fourth century, when churches developed and diversified the calendar into several distinct festivals and seasons commemorating many aspects of Jesus’ ministry, the fifty-day season of Easter retained its preeminence as the longest season within the calendar.

Is it a problem that so many churches have reversed this historic pattern by giving Easter the least rather than the most amount of time and attention? Not in the strictest sense. There are no divine commands about the length of seasons within a Christian liturgical calendar, so this is not a matter of divine instruction. Moreover, every Lord’s Day is a commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection, and there are other ways for churches to bring remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection into focus in worship throughout the year.

However, every way of marking time communicates something about what a group believes and values as worthy of remembering. By what a calendar includes or excludes and by the amount of time devoted to particular events, the structure of a calendar embodies a vision of what is most important to the life of the group and the relative importance of events to one another. Therefore, if a church observes an annual calendar of festivals and seasons to highlight different dimensions of the work of Christ and the mission of God, it is worthwhile to ask what that calendar communicates, not only by what it includes, but also by its priorities and emphases.

The goal of the liturgical calendar is to draw the church more deeply into communion with Christ by annually turning the church’s focus in worship to the central events of Scripture and redemptive history with extended focus on the key events in the ministry of Christ. This purpose suggests a biblical-theological norm for the calendar, namely, that it should have not only biblical content but also a canonical shape, emphasizing what Scripture emphasizes in ways that are proportional to the relative priority of events within the biblical account of the economy of redemption in Christ.

The historical calendar reflects a biblical balance in its overall structure. Lent and Easter are the two longest seasons of the church calendar, which corresponds to the relative attention and priority that the New Testament devotes to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospels devote a disproportionate degree of attention to Jesus’ death and the events that precipitated it during the final week of his life, and the New Testament unpacks the salvific meaning and effect of his death as the final, ultimate sacrifice for sin. And yet Jesus’ death only acquires its redemptive power because of his resurrection. As Paul forcefully reminds the Corinthians, if Jesus had remained dead, then our faith is futile (1 Cor. 15:17-19). To a degree that often surprises evangelicals shaped by a crucicentric tradition, apostolic preaching recorded in the book of Acts most frequently places the resurrection of Jesus rather than the death of Jesus at the center of gospel proclamation. As scholars like Richard Gaffin[2] and N. T. Wright have demonstrated from the New Testament epistles, the resurrection of Jesus is the firstfruits and source of the salvation and glorification of the church and of the whole creation. Indeed, it is hard to overstate the centrality and importance of the resurrection in the theology of the New Testament. It is the very telos of God’s creation and mission.

So churches must ask if their liturgical practices adequately reflect the weighty significance of Jesus’ resurrection. If the incarnation and death of Jesus are worth so much time, so much extended reflection, and so many types of creative endeavors in public and private practices throughout the seasons of Christmas and Lent, how much more should we devote time and effort to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, which is the ultimate purpose and fulfillment of his incarnation and atoning death? A calendar that devotes a month to Christmas and six weeks to Lent but only a day to Easter simply does not give the resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit the liturgical focus and exposition that they deserve. As liturgical scholar Laurence Stookey rightly says, “The explosive force of the resurrection of the Lord is too vast to be contained within a celebration of one day” (53); rather, the resurrection is more fittingly and wisely celebrated when “Easter Sunday” is “the opening of a protracted celebration, even as the Resurrection is itself the opening to a vast new reality”(56).

What might it look like to employ the ancient pattern of a seven-week season to celebrate Easter and to bring to bear the church’s creative gifts in developing seasonal practices that embody the themes of resurrection in the worship and life of the church? The opportunities are numerous. Here are some suggestions about potential applications:

  • ·  The liturgy of public worship could highlight resurrection in numerous forms of worship. Churches could shape elements like the call to worship, congregational responses, sung doxologies, benedictions, prayers of petition, and eucharistic prayers at the Lord’s Table to unite the whole liturgy for a season around the theme of resurrection.   
  • ·  Sermon series could develop Easter themes with greater depth. The church would benefit from exposition not only of texts explicitly about the event of Jesus’ resurrection but also the many dimensions of theology and ministry for which the resurrection is the foundation, including union with Christ, sacramental theology, the ongoing ministry of Christ as king and priest, and the mission of the church.
  • ·  A comparison of the Easter and Christmas sections of Protestant hymnals quickly reveals that our Easter hymnody is underdeveloped. Poets, composers, and songwriters could work deliberately to help the church sing with greater depth about the glories of Jesus’ resurrection life and the renewed world that will result from his transforming work. Moreover, like the Christmas season, concerts during Easter season could also become eagerly anticipated events and elicit the work of artists.
  • ·  Daily devotionals for personal and family worship could center daily Bible reading, meditation, and prayer on Easter themes. In contrast to themes of mortifying sin and putting off the old self (Col. 3:9) in Lent, Easter devotional works could focus on putting on the new self (Col. 3:10), turning our minds to things that are above where Christ is seated at the Father’s right hand (Col. 3:1-2), and leaning into new habits that manifest life and hope in Christ, who is our life and future glory (Col. 3:4).
  • ·  In contrast with a season of Lenten fasting, Easter could be a season to delight in feasting. Dinner parties, church picnics, block parties, or other gatherings with food could make biblical symbolism a reality by inviting people into joyful community and festivity that serves as a sign of the resurrected order (Isaiah 25:6-9).
  • ·  Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit launched extraordinary energy toward the growth of the church, and the season of Easter could become an annual time for a renewal of the church’s outreach with a variety of evangelistic and service events motivated by confident hope in the presence of the risen Christ. Graduations and transitions that happen each spring could also be connected to Easter themes as the risen Christ commissions and sends his people into new endeavors in the world as bearers of his life-giving presence and power.

These suggestions are only a taste of the possibilities. My hope is that many others will take up the invitation to place the resurrection of Jesus more explicitly and frequently at the heart of the church’s teaching, community life, and ministry in the world. The liturgical calendar furnishes an ancient and catholic structure to do just this with a season of Easter that moves toward giving the resurrection of Jesus the attention and celebration it deserves.

Rev. Dr. Michael Farley is the pastor of spiritual formation at Central Presbyterian Church (EPC) in St. Louis, Missouri.  He has served as an adjunct professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University and as an adjunct professor of worship at Covenant Theological Seminary, and he has published articles on liturgical history and theology in journals such as Studia Liturgica, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Calvin Theological Journal, and The New Mercersburg Review.

[1] Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson, The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity , 69-74.

[2] See also Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Redemption and Resurrection: An Exercise in Biblical-Systematic Theology.”

  • Michael Farley

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