I’ve been a Christian since I was eight.
That’s thirty-one years. That’s thirty-one Good Fridays and thirty-one Easters.
And when you have lived thirty-one Good Fridays and thirty-one Easters, you experience a lot of different types of Good Friday and Easter services. I have watched The Passion at church as a way of celebrating Easter. I have attended brunches and sunrise services. I have watched many, many Easter plays.
At many of these services, the message and the methods are designed for maximum emotional effect. I have heard more sermons than I can count on the precise type and sort of wounds Christ suffered during His dying. At one of my previous churches, a man in full centurion’s garb narrated the Gospel story while all the believers in church stood in a long line to nail their sins and regrets to a giant wooden cross that had been erected in the sanctuary.
The message is clear: feel something! This is really meaningful! Feel something!
Often, I do. I’ve shed tears on a lot of those thirty-one Easters in both sorrow and joy. Some years, I don’t, and I have wondered if that is actually because I feel so pressured to produce some sort of emotional response that I end up experiencing a sort of jaded weariness instead.
But this year was strange.
The Good Friday service was normal, even a bit spartan. Congregants dressed in black stood and read the account of the Passion. The readings were accompanied by a prayer here, a video there.
I don’t know how to describe what happened at the service, except to say that during the account of the Garden of Gethsemane I became so intently focused on the Scripture being read that I lost track of the service entirely.
The church had shared a simple image during one of the readings: a crown of thorns with a drop of blood in the center. It was very simple, but I found myself staring at the thorns, and thinking of the thousand untold sorrows of the passion. Of how very lonely it must have all been to endure. Of the ordeal in its entirety—not just the cross, but all leading up to it, the thousand small rejections and hurts leading up to the greatest one.
And I don’t know how to say that I wasn’t trying to think of any of those things at all, but rather it was as if God breathed those Scriptures into life in my mind. I have never experienced reading or hearing them in this way before, in a way that left me resonating with the singular thought: Behold the Lamb that was slain, along with the desperate desire to follow Him anywhere.
When I started paying attention to the service again, they were playing some sort of contemporary song and the drumbeats that started felt like an assault on my ears. At the end, they asked anyone who felt led to come up and recognize their guilt and sin by nailing nails into a cross. I felt both out of place and out of time, listening to the whacks of the hammer like they were coming from another world, circling back to that crown of thorns over and over and over.
I have been thinking of it since. Easter was a marvelous and worshipful day, but I keep returning to Good Friday. I do remember that I had prayed beforehand hoping I would meet Christ at the service in some way—and I suppose God saw fit to answer that request in a way that I still cannot fully explain, nor accurately depict here, and did not expect.
And I am writing this down because I wanted to share two things relevant to that experience that feel important to me:
It is necessary, even for those of us who have been believers a very long time, to allow God to startle and surprise us in how and what ways He chooses to reveal Himself. The older we get the easier it is, I think, to grow inured to the truths of the faith and of the Gospel and perhaps not to expect them to meet us as radically as they first did when they were new. But that’s not the case.
The second is a truth I am coming to more slowly, and it is that God will show Himself to us when He is ready and in His own time. We cannot always summon up His presence to affect us the way we want when we want it, even with really good showmanship and resources and careful use of Scripture.
A scholar and a thinker by nature, I am used to pursuing God. Looking for Him, thinking about Him, trying to find new ways to think about Him. That’s a good thing. But it doesn’t account for how God might want to pursue me, nor does it account for the sort of experience that cannot be reached cognitively or any amount of thinking or meditation or study.
Why now, I wonder, should I encounter Christ in a way I never have before? What does that mean? Thirty-one years in, and I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck in the best way. A glimpse of love. A glimpse of deep sorrow. A glimpse of Christ that I haven’t had before. Somehow.
But, then, that’s Easter for you. A wellspring of joy waiting around the bend.
Here is what I pray for you: that God finds a way to meet you today, however and wherever He deems best, in a way that you have not experienced before and by which you will unmistakably know that He is there.