If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound? It’s a riddle that does not seem to have an answer. It brings to mind another question; if it’s Easter Sunday and nobody comes to church, will it be Easter just the same? We will get to find out because this may be the first Easter in history that arrives with empty pews. The best we can hope for, is church broadcast via internet with the priest presiding over an invisible congregation.
I think the answer is yes, Easter will survive and maybe because it is not the first time. In fact, not being there might be at the very heart of Easter.
Observance of Easter is closely rooted with the first Jewish Passover. It all began with a series of great plagues in the land of Egypt. Darkness, the pestilence of frogs and the visitation of boils, crops despoiled by locusts and water that putrified and became undrinkable. But the worst was yet to come. While the Egyptians lay shuttered in their homes, what they feared most was the mystery which lies at the heart of Easter. Death is the fact of life that makes people avoid Good Friday services in the first place. Too morbid. No one wants to enter into the realities of Good Friday. Give us a celebration of life, instead of a funeral march.
But we now find ourselves in the heart of that sobering reality. Just like the Jews in the first Passover, we are hidden in our homes from a great scourge and hoping to be spared. But not so the Egyptians. The story in the Bible describes the death of the firstborn child as a judgement on the gods of Egypt. In the most dire of circumstances, what the Egyptians worshipped could not save them. With the death of their firstborn, their promise of a future vanished. They needed some intervention capable of delivering them from the fruit of their own misplaced priorities.
On that first Passover told in Exodus chapter eleven, the Jews chose a lamb without blemish, roasted it and ate in haste, with their “loins girded and staff in hand”, ready for whatever was next, once the world they knew was broken in two. They were told to brush the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the threshold and lintel of every household as a sign so that the Angel of Death would pass them by. But in every Egyptian household, death prevailed. With the first Passover came “a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more” (Exodus 11:6)
It could be that what we feel all alone at home may be more real than anything given voice to in the congregation of a church where noise and busyness can drown out the chance to think. The Passover now upon us is the reality we have forgotten for two thousand years. We are now leaning more heavily than ever on a hope that yet remains unseen.
Empty churches share a profound truth with the first Easter, that the tomb was also empty; grave clothes neatly folded, unused. No hint of corruption. And the world held its breath in awe-filled silence, and stood still because he was not there. He was risen so that what was told by the prophets could be fulfilled. “For thou wilt not... suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” Psalm 16:10
May you be passed over. And may you grasp the hand of the Lamb of God who took on the power of death and broke it in two. Easter is upon us, the hope of two thousand years, come to life again. The Church invisible, the community of Saints, has outlasted pestilence, war, and the authoritarian regimes which have tried to crush it through the ages. The Church will survive because its power rests on Christ the risen one. Yes, it may be Friday, but Sunday is surely coming. The churches may be empty, but so was the tomb.