By Daniel Darling
When the calendar rolled around and your leadership team gathered to plan out 2020, undoubtedly you had big plans for Easter.
You’d urge your people to canvass the neighborhood, inviting friends and relatives to join them on what is still, in many places, the one time of year to go to church.
Easter is when you go all out, with activities for children, vivid recreations of passion week for the adults, and a time to lean in on the central truths around which Christianity is formed.
But alas an unseen enemy came roaring in, making its way around the world. And those best laid plans for this holiday aren’t happening.
In what nobody could have predicted, even in the wildest, weirdest end times fiction scenario, churches are closed on Easter, celebrating the Jesus’ death and resurrection at home, online.
It’s a painful season as we read the news and the seemingly endless stories of sickness and despair ravaging our communities, as we root for hospital workers, grocery store employees, truck drivers and first responders while they face this deadly virus head on.
It’s also difficult because our heart aches to gather with our brothers and sisters in our weekly rhythms of worship, to see the familiar volunteer handing out bulletins and to hear the boisterous pew mate who sings off-key.
We miss church and we especially miss going to church this week.
But it struck me that as we face a sobering and tragic week of death from COVID-19, we’re also headed toward Good Friday in which we lament the unjust death of Jesus and yet celebrate at Easter, the death of death.
So we might stop viewing this week as a terrible disruption and recognize that the message we gather to celebrate every spring is the exact message the world needs right now.
Let’s consider these pandemic themes that help us process this most unusual year:
1. God hates death.
On Good Friday we pause and ponder the excruciating and unjust death of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we sanitize the cross, as if it’s a cute symbol of our very cool faith, but the cross was a cruel instrument of Roman execution, a vile and inhumane way to administer punishment.
Jesus was beaten so badly he would be unrecognizable, stripped naked and nailed to an ugly piece of wood outside the city. But we pause and ponder this moment because in the death of this innocent man is the death of death.
We must remember that God hates death. In 1 Corinthians 15, we are told death is the “final foe,” an evil that has marbled its way through creation and infected human hearts since Eden.
Death brings viruses and violence, murder and medical tragedies.
Sometimes Christians paper over death as if it’s just a window into eternity, but we see that Jesus wept and was angry at death when he peered over and looked in on the corpse of His friend Lazarus.
Good Friday reminds us just how much God hates death and all of its diabolical cousins, like coronavirus.
This Friday, when you read Jesus’ gasping words, “It is finished,” know that in His agony is hope that one day, not long from now, viruses like COVID-19 will lose their sting.
2. Jesus Was Alone So You Will Never Be Alone.
The most tragic reality of this moment is that many are forced to be alone in the most trying of times.
Funerals where loved ones can’t gather to mourn loss, bedsides empty where those gasping for air are denied comforting touch, and elderly are isolated from meaningful community and friends.
We’re intensely social creatures, not made for isolation. And yet we can see in the agony of Jesus in his dying moments a true loneliness we don’t have to experience.
Jesus—the blame of humankind’s worst evil thrust upon his sagging shoulders—felt the cold shoulder of the Father, who turned His face away. Jesus was alone so you would never be alone and could enjoy communion with the One who created you.
Jesus felt the sting of isolation so you could be baptized into a body of believers in Heaven and earth. Jesus took upon himself your sins so you could enjoy intimacy with your Father.
I don’t want to make this trite and pretend to erase the crushing weight of loneliness that’s gripping people across the country. It’s real and you’re right to lament your situation.
But we’re not without slivers of hope. There is One who broke through the sting of death, who defeated sin and who ushers you into communion with God.
3. Jesus rose again and so will all who know Him.
This is where our theology gets real. To the grief-stricken sisters of Lazarus, who succumbed to death, Jesus gave this promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25).
Jesus isn’t only saying that He would rise again. He would and He did. Jesus is saying more than that: He is the resurrection and the life.
When He walked out of that borrowed tomb three days later, He put death to death. It means that the curse that takes mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children and grandchildren, coworkers and neighbors isn’t eternal.
It’s hard to see it now, in a week filled with fatality rates. But if the resurrection really happened, then it means this reality isn’t forever. There’s a new world coming, a new creation.
Too often on Easter we only celebrate the fact that Jesus came to save our souls. He did, but He also came to liberate our bodies from death.
Easter is the sign that a new world is coming, that one day God will take rotted dust particles, ravaged by disease and decay, and will reconstitute them into real, physical bodies fit for eternity.
This cycle of pain and sadness, viruses and death has an expiration date. This is the reality of Easter. And this is why, of all years and all days, the message we preach matters.
God doesn’t need colored plastic eggs and helicopter drops to get the attention of the world.
And He doesn’t need our best-laid plans to make the gospel relevant. In the midst of a crisis, where death is on our minds, Easter is the balm we need.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling)is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution.