'Yes, He is Risen but...'
- Adventists and Easter
If you go into an Adventist church on Easter Saturday it is by no means guaranteed that the worship service will focus on an Easter theme. It may be totally unrelated to the closing scenes of Jesus’ life. If you visit the church on Easter Sunday morning the doors will probably be as closed as the sealed tomb. Very strange! Adventists have a rather ambiguous relationship with Easter, a festival which you might expect us to celebrate with a whole heart.
We gladly affirm the words of 1 Thessalonians 4:14 (NRSV): ‘ For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died’. The events commemorated by Easter are foundational to the whole Adventist Christian view of the world. The story of Jesus’ gruesome death on Calvary, the wonderfully baffling events of Sunday morning, and the salvation mysteriously effected by that judicial killing, are core matters which Adventists will preach, sing, write, theologize, talk about for the rest of the year but not somehow with the rest of Christendom.
So why this silence which, to some observers, may seem close to denial? Why do we fast-forward from the crucifixion to the second advent? Why treat the resurrection principally as a pre-condition of the second advent?
Adventists have often had a problem with the celebration of Easter when they come from cultural backgrounds deeply influenced by religious traditions with a strong emphasis on the liturgical calendar – Catholics and Orthodox. For these Adventists, Easter somehow belongs to the ‘others’. For them, it has seemed important to remain distinct from the prevailing religious traditions which may have been less than welcoming towards them. Further, Adventism has a concern for its identity as a Christian group which has separated from the ancient traditions. According to Adventist teaching those traditions have compromised the faith in various ways - theological, ecclesiological and ethical. It is important to set up boundary markers - so the argument goes. Adventism is a reform movement, after all.
Some of these Adventists have undoubtedly been treated badly by those in authority. Some stories of hostility may be imagined but I have heard reliable stories of Adventists being denied jobs, promotion and the opportunity for academic progress, and worse, because of their Sabbath observance.
Then, by contrast, there are those Adventists who ignore Easter for other reasons. They may feel that the pagan roots of the Easter festival should warn us off. Crosses and palm fronds get too easily confused with cuddly bunnies and chocolate eggs. Where I live the meaning of Easter is lost not so much in a pagan festival but in a commercialized binge – it’s just another retail opportunity.
Baby and bath water
I wish to treat with respect those who have suffered for their faith in a way which I, as a UK citizen, have never been required to do. I also wish to acknowledge the importance of maintaining a distinct Adventist identity. But I cannot help thinking that we may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
If you do worship with an Adventist congregation on Easter Saturday and there is an acknowledgement of Easter, you may encounter another surprise. There may be a premature rush to resurrection and you may find yourself singing ‘Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!’ By the end of worship on Sabbath morning, Christ is, to all intents and purposes, already risen! We feel compelled to do this because we do not normally meet again on Easter Sunday to proclaim that ‘He is risen’. We have either to pre-empt the resurrection or not celebrate it at all. Not a good choice! It all rather misses the point. I have been fortunate to be a part of an Adventist congregation which meets early on Easter Sunday in a garden to proclaim the risen Lord. And so I have been able to experience the tension of Easter Sabbath. It is rather rare.
We Adventists have a unique gift to offer. We come together regularly on Saturdays to worship, including Easter Sabbath. For the first disciples that devastating Passover Sabbath was a time of waiting, waiting behind closed doors too scared to venture out. It was a time of anxiety, of keen disappointment of hopes, of not knowing the outcome, of feeling like giving up, of darkness.
All of this has great significance for Christians – actually, for most people. We all experience our share of pain and loss, despair and disappointment. Adventists can offer to others a time and place in which to wrestle with the tensions of waiting. Easter Sabbath is the perfect moment. So often the meaning is in the waiting.
Easter Saturday is a time when we can share with others the difficulties of waiting in hope or in despair in everyday life - waiting for some important news of medical tests, examination results, waiting to see a loved one after a long absence, waiting without a loved one by your side, waiting for words which never come…waiting, waiting.
It is strange, in my opinion, that a group which is so disciplined in the business of waiting – waiting expectantly for the coming of Christ – should not seize this moment to acknowledge the role of waiting in the lives of all people. According to I Cor 15.17,19 (NRSV) “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…we are of all people most to be pitied”. If Christ is risen, then we should surely celebrate it. If we celebrate it, why not celebrate with others and so fulfil our Lord’s wish that His followers be one?
Easter Sabbath is a treasure not to be treated lightly. It teaches us to wait…and wonder. It teaches us that, in the spiritual life, things often move more slowly than we would like. It teaches us above all to hope.
With all Christians, Adventists can confidently proclaim the great truth of Easter:
‘He is risen, he is risen indeed! Alleluia!