Easter is my favorite holiday. I have hopes of passing my church calendar favoritism along to my children. In the past I have done this by trying to make the spring-time food and presents and songs seem even larger and louder than Easter’s celebratory competition, Christmas. Easter is the height of the church calendar, a day of great feasting, and I want the joy of the resurrection to settle in the bones of my children. But how do I do that when there is no flour on the shelves, no toy stores open, and no wiggle room in the budget? Easter is about Christ’s victory over death and the hope we have in a future resurrection. This year, I need more Easter than ever.
I turned to my brothers and sisters in the faith who have gone before, way before, for wisdom.
In the early Roman Empire, the Romans had two different waves of plagues. As the Roman Empire navigated smallpox and then probably measles, Christianity was still a small, unknown sect that had converts from different cultural backgrounds and had a reputation for being a little weird. The church had already faced persecution.
At the height of the second wave when 5,000 a day were dying in Rome, one church leader in Alexandria named Dionysius said this of Easter: “Other people would not think this a time for festivals . . . but far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy . . . Love leaps out in utmost eagerness to confer some benefit even on an unwilling object.” In a time of distress, there was still joy. It was not blind joy. Dionysius describes the plague like this: “Out of the blue came this disease, a thing . . . more frightful than any disaster whatever.” If their crisis was great and there was feasting nonetheless, what am I to learn from them?
It was still time for celebration because their hope was not mere sentimentalism. Hope that is sentimental does not have something concrete attached to it. It is forgetful. It is nostalgic. James K.A. Smith describes nostalgia like this: “That memory substitute that remembers only backward, and selectively. Nostalgia is the selective memory of traditionalism. Instead of drawing on the past like a well to nourish our imagination going forward, nostalgia mourns a mythical ‘golden age’ while conveniently forgetting the injustices in that history.” The early church was not putting hope in nostalgic Easter traditions.
City Church had a series in Deuteronomy this past fall (which feels like twenty years ago). The commands to remember were a plenty while Israel wandered in the wilderness, and the commands were written in the future tense. The resurrection provides an object for our hope, Jesus makes hope “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb. 6:19). We remember forward and backward on Easter because hope is a person.
I try to imagine the Christians in the Roman Empire as I reimagine what it looks like for us to celebrate this year. I made a short list of things we would do in our house to celebrate Easter:
I did not have an explanation for the dancing when I first scribbled down my list on the back of a discarded art project. I just knew this bodily form of joy needed to be a rhythm for our day. Dancing was what came to mind when I read of my brothers and sisters who came before leaping out “in utmost eagerness to confer some benefit even on an unwilling object.” And then I heard Shauna Neiquest put words to why I had put that on my list.
She mentioned how in Jojo Rabbit, a Taika Waititi movie set in Nazi Germany, there is a theme of the mother dancing. At some point the son, who is in Hitler Youth, chides the mother, who is hiding a young Jewish girl, for how it is inappropriate to dance during wartime. The mother replies, we dance when we are free. Neiquest researches further to discover it is an ancient Jewish tradition dating to the Old Testament to dance in the hope that one day, they would be free. This sounds like Easter hope during COVID-19. In a season when lament is a close companion, what a time to invite others to a time of hope. What a time to invite neighbors to a distanced dance party in our own respective driveways.
One day we will be free from the need for social distancing. One day there will be flour on the shelves. One day the brokenness that plagues our bodies and our systems will be no more. One day there will be an ultimate feast when the glory of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea. So while we endure this disaster and we wait for our ultimate hope to come, we dance. He is risen. He is risen indeed.