Though the gospel is always the same, its audience is not. The evangelical declaration—Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again—finds different ears each time it is made.
And not only different persons, but different times, different places, different cultures, different circumstances. The good news of the incarnate God must put on flesh and bone in particular contexts—a Mexican church, a Nigerian church, a Chinese church, a French church. For the gospel is not generic but particular (God became this man among this people at this time in this place), and the same goes for its hearers.
As servants of the church’s mission, wise pastors similarly direct their preaching to the particular people under their care. The good news is unvarying—the liturgy sees to that—but the sermon is fitted to the events and emotions, joys and sorrows, triumphs and travails of the faithful believers in the pews. And that is as it should be.
The question for us, then, is: Where do we find ourselves as we approach the end of Holy Week? What is the state of the church as we still ourselves before the final passage?
The one looming reality in which we all share is obvious: the pandemic. Easter comes at the end of the long Lent of Covidtide. For more than twelve months we have lived and labored in the valley of the shadow of death—as well as the shadow of isolation and unemployment, bankrupt businesses and school closures, celebrations deferred and plans put on hold. We are tired of life on pause. One more invitation to a Zoom meeting will be one too many.
This is where the mystery of Christ finds us this Holy Week. And the word from God that we find here is twofold.
Some of us need the light of Easter Sunday. We need to hear again that death has been put to death, “that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). We need to hear the Lord’s own voice, speaking directly to each of us: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17-18). The Lord Jesus, our brother, who rose to everlasting life on that glorious first Easter morning, now reigns from heaven. All the baptized—more, the universe itself—has been liberated from slavery to that ancient tyrant “who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Even as death prowls the land, this time under cover of a virus, the church may and must be free from fear, free from death’s endless attempts to reassert lordship over us. No, says Easter. We belong to another. For “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8).
That is not the Triduum’s only word for the church, however. Some of us—and that includes me—need the darkness of the empty tomb. Covidtide has brought in its train not only death and all its pomp, but the denial of death. Nor have Christians been immune to this tendency. We need the reminder that the Risen One is also the Crucified One. The God who prevails over death dies himself; not a peaceful passing fit for a king, but a humiliating public execution. On the morning of Good Friday, the same man who washed the feet of his friends mere hours prior finds himself contorted and exposed, nailed to a tree between common criminals, abandoned by all except his mother and a few other women. The body of God becomes a corpse. Like so many others, then and now, it is interred without ceremony in an unmarked grave. And on Holy Saturday, as the Lord’s lifeless corpse lies in a tomb, the earth, like the women who buried him, keeps the silence of the sabbath.
What we have to see here is that the sojourn of the church militant is one great Holy Saturday. It stretches from Pentecost to Parousia in the faith that death is past and life awaits. But faith is necessary precisely because death persists; though Death has been plundered and rendered impotent, deaths still occur. You and I will die. The shadow remains.
To be Christian is not to deny the shadow. Indeed, our own bodies ought to be marked by that darkness. Not only on Ash Wednesday, but throughout our lives, the Spirit marks us through our imitation of the one whose love for us brought him to a cross—but not before Gethsemane, when he begged the Father, in holy fear, for the cup to pass from his lips.
This side of glory, our pilgrimage from the garden of tears to the garden of the vacant grave is unending. This Triduum we approach the mystery once more. We will all of us behold the Word made flesh, the Lord become a servant, the glory of the Son crucified and risen. Likewise, we will bring with us all the toils and troubles, the trials and temptations of the past year. Lent will come to a close, as it always does, with the climactic celebration of the unchanging gospel. Soon enough the long Lent of Covidtide will conclude too, although the longer Lent of the church’s mission will endure until the Lord’s return.
What each of us needs right now, as we finish this year’s journey, will be different. But whatever we need, it is sure to be found in these three days. The gospel is spacious. Its many mysteries contain the one thing needful: the life Jesus offers through sharing in his death.
Brad East is assistant professor of theology at Abilene Christian University.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.