“Joyfully to celebrate the paschal feast”

Audio here.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

By His death and resurrection, Jesus cleanses our hearts to prepare us to celebrate His Passover from death to life, bringing us along for the ride. In the Proper Preface for Lent, we pray that we might be “prepared joyfully to celebrate the paschal feast.” But it’s a little ambiguous. Are we prepared joyfully? Or are we prepared to celebrate the feast joyfully? Is it the preparation that’s joyful, or the celebration? You, like me, are probably going to say “both.” And I think that’s the right answer, but it’s more easily said than understood. It’s easy to see that the celebration is with joy. Easter is full of the praise of the Lord for the work that He has done. That word that we don’t say during Lent—you know the one—returns with a forceful urgency at the resurrection of our Lord. We celebrate to bursting—sometimes physically, depending on the Easter dinner.

So it’s easy to see that the celebration would be with joy. But is it as easy to see that the preparation should be joyful? “Joyful” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you and I think of Lent. It comes naturally to us to think of Lent as somber and Easter as joyful. Lent is sad and Easter is happy. That’s probably why many people only attend Good Friday and Easter morning: they like that sharp transition between “sad” and “happy.” Jesus is dead. Now He’s alive. All one way and then all the other. No slow transitions. No waiting, no watching, no patient listening to the whole story.

And it’s not that that’s bad or wrong. It’s just incomplete. And incomplete can sometimes lead to false dichotomies and understandings. False understandings, for example, like Lent is sad and Easter is happy; Lent is somber and Easter is joyful. The Proper Preface for Lent challenges us because joy paints the threshold between Lent and Easter: “that we might be prepared joyfully” and “joyfully to celebrate the paschal feast.” It is not only the fulfillment that is joyful, but also the preparation.

It’s true, our joy is more muted during the preparation and we sing it more fully in the completion. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that we rejoice now in Jesus’ preparation of us. We know very well that we are not all that we should be, all that God created His human creatures to be, all that Christ is. That means that even when we get to Easter, we are still not there. We are not, even then, at the fulfillment of all Christ has prepared us for. We are prepared to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, but we have not reached the celebration of our own resurrection. We have that only by hope and by faith.

We are prepared to celebrate our Passover feast, just as Israel celebrated their Passover every year. Because God passed over the houses of the Israelites, painted with blood, they were prepared to go out of Egypt and into the Land of Promise. And they were to celebrate that Passover every year as a reminder of God’s great and powerful deliverance. But more than that: the Passover feast of Israel was always intended to point beyond itself, beyond the Exodus, to an eternal feast and an eternal Exodus. So it was that the water from the rock in the wilderness pointed to Him who gives Living Water. And the bread from heaven—which Israel ate and still died—pointed to Him who is the true Bread from Heaven, who gives eternal life to the world.

Just as Israel was prepared for her Redeemer and Savior, as her God took flesh, so our celebration of that singular deliverance event of Jesus’ death and resurrection prepares us for its visible fulfillment on the Last Day. God fed them with temporary bread in the wilderness and gave them everything they needed in Canaan. But still they were overrun by foreign and idolatrous people and their own rebellion and sin. They still had to wait for God’s final deliverance. God feeds us with eternal bread in the wilderness of this world and gives us everything we need for here and now. But still sin, death, and the devil continue to attack and scatter us; still we wait for the end of sin, death, and hell’s power in this creation.

That first Passover feast that Israel celebrated was not the end of their preparation. In fact, they ate it with their belt fastened, their sandals on their feet, and their staff in hand. They ate it in haste, because they were about to go out. God’s deliverance was sure, and there must have been an electric atmosphere charged with expectation. But they still hadn’t gone. They had yet to see Pharaoh’s armies drowned. They had yet to see the Land God had promised them. Joyful celebration, yes, but not without tinges of fear and death and opposition. And maybe that’s why the Greek word “paschal” means both “Passover” and “suffering.” In this world, death and the release from death go together.

So we are not there yet. Our waiting and preparation, often sorrowful and fearful, is punctuated with joyful celebration. But the goal is that we are eating our feasts on the way out. We are not yet to the Land where all creation is restored. We are subject to our enemies and the opposition of the flesh. But it is precisely in the hope of God’s promised deliverance that we eat, both in Lent and in Easter. We are joyful, but not fully so—even on Easter. We are being prepared—but the preparation is ongoing. We are delivered, but we haven’t seen it yet. Christ has prepared His new creation within His own body, but we have seen only the barest boundaries of that Land.

So we still need Lent, because what it is at its best is the working out of our baptism. We have been joined to Christ’s death and resurrection, His Passover. But we haven’t seen that resurrection ourselves. We live in the joy of baptism done. We live in the preparation of baptism not yet completed. We live in the joy of the new creation because our flesh has been crucified. But we live in the preparation as our flesh keeps trying to crawl out of its grave. We live in the joy of Jesus having crossed over from death to live; He cannot die anymore. But we live in the preparation of waiting for our full inheritance of that eternal life, no longer being dragged down and backwards by the sin that clings to us. We are prepared joyfully, and we will celebrate joyfully in a couple weeks. But the day is coming when the joyful preparation will be over and the celebration will be all in all, just as Christ, our Passover Lamb, is all in all.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/2/19

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