Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reflections on Easter in Ukraine: Tradition and Resurrection Life

The Easter festivities of childhood carry a magical quality, and we often re-enter wonder through our children. We lived in Lviv, Ukraine when our girls were growing up. The city bloomed with Spring flowers and girls in diaphanous, floral dresses days before everyone came out with their woven Easter baskets carrying freshly-baked Paska bread covered with brightly-embroidered cloths. I searched the outdoor art bazaar where artisans sold their crafts for an Easter cloth that depicted Christ instead of pisanky (Easter eggs). I bought one with purple embroidered flowers surrounding a cross with the words “Christ is Risen” in gold. It’s one of the few items I still have from Ukraine. Through Scripture reading and worship, we kept Jesus Christ at the center of our celebrations.

Traditions, when they reiterate eternal, powerful truths, point our hearts toward God. But it’s possible to get caught up in the traditions and festivities of Easter and miss the point. In Ukraine, people beat their rugs, hose down the sidewalks, and sometimes forego pleasures during Lent in preparation for Easter, but do we prepare our hearts by meditating on who He is and what He has done for us? On Holy Friday, church bells in Europe ring a somber death knell all morning in remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross. We need to pause and look deeply into its significance.

And when we do, we need to bring the dreams that shaped our childhood. We need to bring the longings of our hearts. Our deepest longings and needs are fulfilled on the cross, though not in a way many would suspect. Also, we need to bring our fears and sorrows, our disappointment, shame of failure and rejection. The cutting words that hurt us still. The Judas who betrayed us. The sudden death of someone we loved. He conquered them all on the cross, which gives us victory and hope.

Then, turning away from our self-centered worlds, we need to bring the hopes and sorrows of others. The millions who are trafficked and enslaved, the children orphaned by sickness or war, the politicians who compromise while the world stands by and watches injustice, the grief of parents whose children died on the ferry off the coast of Korea. Think of God's dreams for his creation, and His sorrow at its ruin. As we consider the cross, look at the face of Jesus who bore our sin and suffering, yet was without sin. If the story ended at the cross, we would be without hope. Yet He was not like any other man.

The waiting on Saturday after Jesus died must have been excruciating, but who would expect the resurrection? His followers were most likely despondent rather than hopeful. He failed to become their earthly King. His followers weren’t sure what His promises meant but, if true, they were earth-shaking and would take the world apart and put it together again in an entirely new way.

In Ukraine, early on Easter morning before the break of day, the church bells start ringing in triumph as the joyful sound fills the streets. Religious people tried to keep Jesus safely dead as some people do today, but guards placed at the tomb couldn’t hold back God who conquered death and hell. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:56-57) He is the resurrection and the life. When asked whether he was an optimist or a pessimist, the British theologian and missionary, Lesslie Newbigin, answered “I am neither an optimist, nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!” This one great truth can radically reshape our thinking and living. We need to ask ourselves during this season, has it reshaped our thinking and living? Surrender to Him, and then watch Him transform everything with joy and hope. The same power that raised Him from the dead resides in us who believe.

One Good Friday in Kiev, Ukraine I visited Sophia’s Cathedral and saw a mosaic of the face of Mary covering an entire wall. As I walked closer, I realized that the mosaic was made of 15,000 colorfully painted Easter eggs. While I enjoyed the beauty of tradition, I didn’t want the focus to be taken away from Jesus. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 2:5) And we are strengthened when we "fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." (Hebrews 12:2-3)

My favorite Ukrainian Easter tradition was the way everyone greeted one another on Easter Sunday. Everywhere we went that day, people said, “Jesus is risen!” We would respond, “He is risen indeed.”

Let us live each day joyfully trusting in the power of His resurrection.

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