Celebrating Easter in the Shadow of Death

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Death invaded heaven on this day 2,000 years ago. Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross and lifted up so that all who look to Him may be forgiven of their sins and reconciled to God (John 3:14–16). The body of God incarnated was broken for our transgressions, and His blood was poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Metaphorically reenacted in the ritual of communion, Christians across the nation are today reflecting upon the death of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, even as they eagerly anticipate Easter (Matt. 26:26–29).

This year’s solemn ceremony, however, is different because we are living in the midst of a global pandemic, and most Americans have been ordered to remain in their homes. This year, Christians are using wine or grape juice and pieces of bread from their own pantries as their pastor facilitates the communion service via internet live stream. Even more significant is that we are living in a season where even the youngest among us are confronted with the possibly that death could come upon our families unexpectedly. For many this is the first time they’ve contemplated the death of Jesus on Good Friday even as they themselves stand in the shadow of death.

It is easy to think abstractly about Jesus’ sacrifice and his promise to resurrect the dead, but it assumes new meaning when we ourselves are facing the reality of death. In some ways, the significance of Jesus overcoming death and offering eternal life in a resurrected body can only be appreciated after death becomes a very real threat. I myself experienced this last year when I commemorated Good Friday the day after receiving news that my younger cousin was unexpectedly killed in a motorcycle accident while driving to work. Last year Good Friday and Easter stopped being theoretical and became an anchor for my hope.

Painful as that experience was for me, it also brought perspective and compelled me to rethink my priorities in life. In the same way COVID-19 can be a blessing for us today because it has made death a reality for a nation that strives to not think about it. This disease has stripped away our numerous distractions, forced us to slow down, and demanded that we consider the fragility of life. Moreover, it has prompted us to differentiate between what is essential and non-essential.

Today presents a prime opportunity for us to reconsider where we have truly placed our hope. When faced with the prospect of a second world war and the question of whether university education would continue, C.S. Lewis preached a sermon in 1939 titled “Learning in War-Time.” Lewis concludes that the threat of war—or in this case COVID-19—is valuable because it can disillusion God’s people:

All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.[1]

 

Jesus is the only one who can truly satisfy our souls (John 6:35). Sometimes we forget this, and we become overly focused on “building up a heaven on earth,” as Lewis put it. Because we are mortal, we will lose everything that we build on this earth (Luke 12:15–21). COVID-19 can be a blessing because it can force us to remember death, prompting us to look beyond this world. According to Lewis:

What does war [COVID-19] do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering … Yet war [COVID-19] does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventyfive do not bother us is that we forget them. War [COVID-19] makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality.[2]

 

According to the wisdom of King Solomon, it is a good thing to contemplate our mortality, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure” (Ecc. 7:2–4, NIV). Similarly, Moses asked God to help His people learn to number their days, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. … So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psa. 90:10, 12).

It is never fun to consider one’s own mortality, but doing so brings perspective. Moreover, there is something about difficulty and suffering that forces us to look beyond our own strength. What better day to do this than Good Friday? It could be that COVID-19 has prepared our hearts to experience Jesus in a whole new way this Good Friday and Easter weekend.

Do we long for Jesus’ salvation the same way we long for a cure to COVID-19 and relief from the threat is poses? Faced with uncertainty regarding tomorrow, are we clinging to Jesus? As we rethink how our days are structured, are we prioritizing things that will matter in eternity? If not, then our prayer ought to be that God will teach us to number our days so that we can gain a proper perspective. We ought to pray that on this Easter weekend the tyranny of death will become real to us.

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Timothy Zebell

Timothy Zebell

As a former missionary to Asia for twelve years and the author of several books, Timothy is passionate about helping people understand the relevancy of God's Word in today's world. His goals are to help Christians discern truth from error, empower Christians to speak into cultural matters with relevancy, and to help Christians capitalize on the opportunities that these matters provide for sharing the truth about God and His gospel message.
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1. Lewis, C.S. “Learning in War-Time.” Sermon preached in Saint Mary the Virgin Church, Oxford, October 22, 1939. Bradley G. Green, n.d. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://bradleyggreen.com/attachments/Lewis.Learning%20in%20War-Time.pdf.

2. Lewis, C.S. “Learning in War-Time.”

 

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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