Lviv, Ukraine 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 art bazaar where artisans sold their crafts for an Easter cloth that depicted Christ instead of Easter eggs. I was pleased to find 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 Good Friday, church bells in Europe ring a somber death knell all morning in remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross.
One Good Friday in Kyiv, Ukraine I visited Sophia’s Cathedral where I 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. 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.” (Hebrews 12:2-3)
We need to pause and look deeply into the significance of His death on the cross. When we do, we need to bring our fears and sorrows, our disappointments and failures, our prideful attempts to act as if we are God, our sin and shame, the Judas who betrayed us, the pain of loss. Jesus bore the wrath of God for the world’s sin, for our sin and shame, on the cross.
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 war’s atrocities, the politicians who compromise while the world stands by and witnesses injustice. Think of God’s love for his creation, and His deep sorrow at its brokenness and sin. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
We need to bring the dreams that shaped our childhood, the longings of our hearts. Our deepest longings and needs are fulfilled on the cross. As we consider the cross, we need to look at the face of Jesus who bore our sin and suffering, yet was the only man who ever lived who was without sin. If the story ended at the cross, we would be without hope. Yet He was not like any other man.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24).
The waiting on Saturday after Jesus died must have been excruciating, but who would have really expected the resurrection? His followers were most likely despondent rather than hopeful since He failed to become their earthly King. His followers weren’t sure what His promises meant but, if true, they were earth shaking and transformational in reconciling man to God and man to man. They were about to witness a pivotal moment in history when death was swallowed up in life.
In Ukraine, early on Easter morning before the break of day, the church bells start ringing in triumph filling the streets with joyful sound. Religious people tried to keep Jesus safely dead as some people do today, but guards placed at the tomb couldn’t hold back God. 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!” Everything hinges on the resurrection.
God stamped “Paid in Full” across the full spectrum of history through the resurrection of Jesus. We need to ask ourselves during this season, how has this reshaped our thinking and living? The same power that raised Him from the dead resides in us who believe.
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!”