I got the call on the morning of Maundy Thursday: Would you be interested in giving the closing prayer at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast?
Uh. Yes. Wow. Absolutely. I actually don’t even remember what my response was, but it was probably something like that.
My feeling upon hanging up the phone — and the underlying sense all through the emotion and significance and spiritual intensity of our Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at my church — was, Who, me?
I felt the same way walking into the White House with a bunch of leaders whose names and faces I’d seen before on social media or the news but never yet in person.
The other presenters that day were Rev. Amy Butler from Riverside Church in New York City, Sister Donna Markham of Catholic Charities USA, Fr. Anthony Messeh of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church, and Pastor Ann Lightner-Fuller of Mt. Calvary A.M.E. Church, and as we met and chatted in the Blue Room while we waited for the President and Vice President to greet us before the breakfast, we shared this common feeling. Who were we to be doing this? At one point, Fr. Anthony said, “I’m just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they made a mistake!”
Eight years ago, a 25-year-old, grad-school-student, fanboy-and-campaigner-in-chief Justin would have been unreservedly and unabashedly over-the-moon about an opportunity like this — and please don’t get me wrong, I was excited. There were a lot of things I thought about saying to the President — “Big fan, sir!” or “We’re praying for you!” or “Come visit The District Church — we’re just a couple miles up the road!” or “How about that Championship game last night?”
But all that came out was, “Great to meet you, Mr. President!” And then I had nothing.
The breakfast itself was a fun thing to be a part of, too. From Vice President Biden’s opening remarks to President Obama’s reflections (and jokes, the man’s got a great sense of humor!)to the song by Amy Grant (a childhood musical hero of mine) to the scriptures read from 1 Corinthians and Mark’s Gospel to the homily on having the courage to hope and keep moving forward, the event was a thoroughly Jesus-saturated. It felt like an extension of Easter Sunday.
And I guess that’s what God has impressed upon my heart this weekend and through the prayer breakfast: we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. Before the breakfast, I met Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and we both commented on how even famous people need Jesus, how even nice suits and dresses can’t hide the things that we all have to deal with.
Last week, al-Shabab militants, aligned with al-Qaida, stormed the campus of Garissa University College in Kenya, asking students about their religion. They spared the lives of Muslims and killed the Christians. By the time the mayhem was over, almost 150 students lay dead.
A spokesmen for the terrorists boasted: “There are many dead bodies of Christians inside the building. We are also holding many Christians alive.”
This is not the first time that this has happened in Kenya. In 2013, at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, 67 people were killed in cold blood. Muslims were allowed to go free.
The dead were all Christians.
In Libya in February, Islamic State militants beheaded 21 men on the beach. Their blood freely flowed into the Mediterranean Sea.
The victims were all Coptic Christians.
The Middle East contains proud remnants of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Their churches have been in flames. ISIS has demanded that the Christians convert to Islam, pay extra taxes or be killed. In Syria in February, ISIS militants abducted scores of Assyrian Christians.
Just because they are Christian.
In the midst of my family’s Easter celebration yesterday, I decided to check Facebook. Most of my friends posted comments like “Happy Easter!” and shared pictures of their celebrations.
But this meme also appeared on my feed:
The meme is attributed to Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science and is meant to debunk Christianity and Easter as just another example of an ancient myth. The reasoning goes like this – Christianity has so much in common with other ancient myths, so how can we take Christianity seriously?
The meme shows the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian goddess Ishtar and makes a few claims against Christianity. The first is that “Ishtar” was pronounced “Easter.” The second is that Ishtar was the goddess of fertility and sex and so her symbols were an egg and bunny. The meme concludes that Easter is merely a copy of the Ishtar myth and its roots are “all about celebrating fertility and sex.”
Megan McArdle of the Daily Beast did an excellent job debunking the meme.
I’ve celebrated Easter before. My whole life I’ve dressed up, colored eggs, gone to church.
But this year was different. This year, I realized resurrection.
I’m not sure how the realization came.
Maybe it came because this was the first time I gardened. My mother once said, “Gardening is prayer.” I never believed her until I physically saw the transformation of dead earth into mustard greens and zucchini plants. I never realized how good the pulse of the sun felt on my back after months of gray. I never saw seeds push through the darkness of soil and become new life — until this year, when I realized resurrection.
Maybe it came because this was the first time I’ve ever felt depression. This winter was the first time there were no windows in the tomb. The first time I held myself crying in the shower wondering if the emptiness would stop. This year was the first time I saw Lent as a season to sit in deep sadness. The first time I realized that Mary Magdalene sat at the tomb simply because she was just so sad.
Maybe it came because this was the first time I’ve fully embraced a Christian community. The first time I’ve intimately walked through the liturgical season with the same people. The first time I shared the miracle of Christmas and the deep sadness of Lent in the eyes of other vulnerable humans. The first time I’ve attended an entire week of Holy Week services. The first time I sat in the dark on Good Friday after service ended and cried.
This year, I realized resurrection and I’m not exactly sure why.
President Obama turned both personal and preachy April 7 during his annual Easter Prayer Breakfast, which he has hosted at the White House six times since he was elected.
The long list of Christian leaders attending included Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson, Roman Catholic Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Rev. Al Sharpton, retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, civil rights veteran the Rev. C.T. Vivian, and African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Vashti McKenzie. The Rev. Amy Butler of New York’s Riverside Church gave the opening prayer.
Here are four memorable statements from the event:
1. Though he said, “I am no preacher,” he almost preached:
“Even as we grapple with the sheer enormity of Jesus’ sacrifice, on Easter we can’t lose sight of the fact that the story didn’t end on Friday,” he said.
“The story keeps on going. On Sunday comes the glorious resurrection of our savior.”
It was five years ago now. I had recently finished a few week stay in the ICU, more than two months in the hospital, and more than one conversation between my parents and doctors about whether I would pull through. Still, I had made it, and after several months of regular home nurse visits, fentanyl patches, dilaudid pills, and 12 hours a day on an IV for liquid and nutrition, I was stable but still far from recovered.
The Saturday before Easter was sunny and unseasonably but appropriately warm. My mother and I took a walk outside, over a mile, the furthest I had gone in nearly five months.
“Wouldn’t it be poetic,” I asked, “If suddenly this whole illness, everything that went wrong in the hospital, all made sense tomorrow on Easter?”
“Hunny,” my mom responded kindly, “I think that’s a lot of pressure to put on the pastor. Don’t you?”
The next day was seasonably and appropriately repetitious. I heard nothing new. The same Easter story that had been read for centuries on centuries was read again. I received no specialized message from the divine about my own pain and struggle. That morning, I realized that might be the point.
Jesus came to make resurrection mundane.
We call it Holy Week. But it was a terrible week.
His trial reeked of injustice. His own disciple sold him out for a few pieces of silver, betrayed him with a kiss … and hung himself.
As he was arrested, one of his closest friends disregarded all his teaching on love, pulled out a knife, and cut a guy’s ear off. (Jesus called him out … and healed the other guy). A lot of the stuff that happened that first holy week was pretty unholy.
Once arrested, he was passed back and forth between politicians and bureaucrats. There was Caiaphas the priest, the Sanhedrin council, Pontius Pilate, the crowd — everyone seemed to want him dead, but no one wanted blood on their hands. Even Pilate washed his clean.
They had all kinds of accusations. Insurrection. Inciting a riot. Conspiracy. Terrorism (plotting to destroy the temple). Blasphemy.
But all he did was love. And heal. And give people hope.
Despite any substantial evidence, witnesses, or signs of any crime committed, he was pronounced guilty and sentenced to die.
As he awaited his fate, he was bullied, interrogated, harassed, tortured, beaten to a pulp. The authorities humiliated him and stripped him naked. They mocked the claims of his divinity, ramming a crown of thorns onto his head and wrapping him in a royal purple robe as they laughed.
And so it went. This man who many believe was the holy one that the prophets spoke of, the long-awaited Messiah, God incarnate, love with skin on— was executed, brutally. He died with his body convulsing as his lungs collapsed, with vultures swarming overhead, hoping to clean up after the execution. There is nothing more evil than what happened that “Good” Friday.
This is Holy Week, the most sacred time of year for Christians. It is the time they mark the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, and a week that culminates in Easter Sunday, the day Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead. So what do colored eggs have to do with anything? Let us Egg-‘Splain …
Q: Is Holy Week really a whole week? I only know about Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
A: Holy Week is the entire week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Not a whole lot happens on Monday and Tuesday, but some Christians mark the crucifixion on Wednesday, and some celebrate Maundy Thursday, the day of the Last Supper, Jesus’ final Passover meal with his disciples. It is sometimes celebrated with a foot-washing ceremony, a tradition beloved by Pope Francis, and a “Pascha” or “Paschal” meal, derived from the Jewish Passover Jesus would have known. Then comes Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Fun fact: Not all American Christians greet each other with “Happy Easter.” To many evangelicals, the day is “Resurrection Sunday,” in part because they believe the word “Easter” has pagan roots.
Q: What is so “good” about Good Friday, the day Jesus was horribly tortured to death?
If you listen, each bucket has its own special sound. First are the empty buckets and their muted ting of dripping sap falling straight to the galvanized steel bottom. Next is the dop that reverberates from the slightly sweet drop running off the spile to a thin layer of liquid below. But it is the soft, and all too rare and timeless plop that I wait for. That quiet plop (or sometimes plip) signals that over half of that the three-gallon bucket is full and the tap is giving in abundance.
There is a slight quickening of the heart when the bucket is heavy enough to need two hands to pull off the hook. Then an involuntary smile to hear the pitch of the shwoosh ascend as the smaller bucket presents it’s offering to the larger. But sometimes, before I touch the bucket at all, I stop and wait to hear what it has to say. Ting? Dop? Plip? Plop?
I look at the tree and then its neighbors. I strain to hear the rhythm of the buckets around me and wonder, what makes one tap run so well when others are nearly dry?
In 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Paul says that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
I can think of many times when I’ve felt foolish. Like forgetting someone’s name, or worse, calling them by the wrong name. Or when I read The Life of Pi and thought it was based on a true story because of the voice of the journalist.
The times when being foolish has really hurt, though, were when I placed trust in people only to be let down.
Wizards! Caspar! Melchior! Balthasar!
Why fly straight to Fox Herod? Through
Unbounded night—! Bringing only news
Ripe for bloodletting. How black a star
You follow. Herod knows. How bizarre
A kingly claim. Will he oppose? Muse
Like Mary? Ha—! Mothers’ sons lose
Heads to swords & axes. Herod bars
The throne to Jesus. Who kills first?
Herod orders. Dash ’em every one—!
Every male child under two years old.
God’s son Jesus flees to Egypt. Thirst
The seasonal items aisle in the grocery store is a work in progress. Stuffed bunnies are being replaced by garden gnomes. Cans of sunscreen will soon inhabit the shelves that displayed egg-coloring kits a few days ago.
Easter is over.
Well, not completely. Boxes of purple and yellow Peeps are stacked on clearance tables in the middle of the aisle. Chocolate rabbits are available for half-price.
And tombs are being emptied.
There’s an old hymn that many Christians have sung for nearly a century. “How Great Thou Art” celebrates the glory of God while considering, “all the works thy hands have made.” It reminds me of the psalm that reads, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.”
Creation, therefore, is a witness to the wonder and awe of God. Although humanity has been given the honor of bearing God’s image, the earth shows God’s creativity and ingenuity. Over the years I’ve heard so many stories of people finding faith in God, not because of brilliant arguments, but because they are in awe of the complexity and glory of the created world.
But creation is not just a unique witness to God’s glory — it is, as the apostle Paul wrote, “groaning” waiting also for its redemption. This past Easter Sunday, Christians all over the world sang joyful songs of resurrection and renewal. Many of these songs proclaim freedom for all of creation — not just for humanity. One church I know of even sang “Joy to the World,” in celebration that the power of Christ’s resurrection extends “far as the curse is found.”
It’s hard to face, but humanity — image bearers of God — is largely responsible for destroying much of this great witness to God’s glory.
The women were there at the foot of Jesus’ cross.
The women were there when they laid him in the tomb.
The women walked through the desolate graveyard in the darkest hours of the night — the hours just before dawn, carrying sweet spices prepared to anoint Jesus’ dead body for proper burial. But they never got the chance.
They witnessed the earthquake, talked to the angel, and ran to the other followers announcing the resurrection of their beloved.
And Jesus’ mother, Mary, huddled in the upper room praying with the other women and the rest of the disciples in the days following the resurrection. Until that day, 50 days later, when tongues of fire fell on them all and Peter reminded the crowd of Joel’s ancient prophecy: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy.”
From the cross to the upper room, the women are lifted up! As the church stands in the light of Easter Sunday and now sets its face toward Pentecost, let us remember the women. And, as we do, let’s also remember the women in our pews and surrounding communities — the challenges, fears, and the very real dangers women face every day.