This year Easter is April 16. In our ward, there will be a musical number, flowers on the podium, and a couple of talks to mark the occasion. It will not be surprising if the lessons in the auxiliaries and Sunday School go on with the pre-set lesson schedule and make no mention of the holiday (holy day). It would be a big surprise if talks the week before Easter made reference to Palm Sunday. There will be no mention made of Good Friday, and most Mormons wouldn’t understand a reference to Maundy Thursday.
Granted, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday all come out of a religious tradition that the early Mormons consciously broke from. Coming from the New England states they would have had a horror of anything that had a scent of “popery” about it. Our church has deliberately favored simplicity and lack of ritual in our Sunday services. I am wondering if we have taken it too far. I wonder if Mormons attend the only Christian church that doesn’t have a group of members who only come at Christmas and Easter.
A young woman whom I know was dating a Mormon, admittedly a not-too-active one. As their relationship progressed they decided to go to the local ward on Easter Sunday. As she continues to talk about it, I can only assume she has never gotten over getting to church and finding everyone watching TV. It was one of those years when Easter coincided with spring General Conference. I am sure many of the talks had an Easter theme, but I can certainly understand her shock in finding the Mormon celebration of Easter was vicarious and passive.
In a recent Dialogue article, Robert Rees discusses this subject of Mormons and their celebration of Easter at length. ( “Why Mormons Should Celebrate Holy Week,” 37, No. 3 [Fall, 2004] You can read this article at the Dialogue website under Past Issue Selections.). I fully agree with one of his conclusions:
One of the costs of our not focussing on Holy Week is that our Easter celebrations tend to be flat and mundane. Perhaps we don’t make more out of Easter because we haven’t spiritually prepared ourselves for this day of joy and gladness by preparing for it during the week before. Rarely are our Easter sacrament services marked by more than the singing of a few Easter hymns (and we have only a few) and a ‘talk’ on an Easter theme. For the most part, we pretty much go about doing things in our usual way. In doing so I believe we rob ourselves of the opportunity to bring Christ more fully into our hearts.
He also makes an interesting argument for a peculiarly Mormon Holy Week, saying it is possible that the First Vision took place on Easter, and that when Jesus Christ appeared to Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836, it was Easter Sunday.
If ritual is discussed in our church, it is often preceded by the adjective “empty.” And certainly ritual can be empty. But simplicity can also be empty, when it is a mask for laziness and indifference. And for lack of initiative. One response to criticizing our lack of institutional observance of Easter would be to say there is nothing to stop us from enriching our observance in our own homes. I am sure there are homes where the Easter story is reviewed in Family Night, and where maybe even the concept behind Lent, that we do something different in our lives as a way of honoring the Savior’s sacrifice, is acted upon. But there is strength to be derived and beauty to be found in celebrating as a group–that is the reason we go to church. And that is one of the beauties of ritual: it provides a form for a group and we as individuals can feel inspired to provide and understand content.
In our church I think “correlation” has discouraged initiative. The directives about what musical instruments are or are not appropriate has narrowed the musical outlets for expression . All the cautions about the use of sources in lessons and talks discourage initiative. I think bishops and teachers are reluctant to step outside the directives and be creative even when they could. I think we are caught between thinking we are capable of putting together a meaningful service, and fear that we will step outside some unwritten line. I know that wards are not equal in their resources. Some wards have very little musical talent. Some wards have few people who are comfortable planning and implementing a “program” for Easter. But in the church we are used to accepting sincerity in place of skill and polish. It seems to me the congregation would respond to any energetic attempt from any source to celebrate Christ’s resurrection.
Why, for example, do we sing from Handel’s Messiah at Christmas, but not Easter? A crucifixion story, even with a happy ending, is tough competition for a baby in a manger with angels and shepherds and stars in supporting roles, but after all, the resurrection is more central to the message of Christianity than the birth of the Savior.
I do remember a day when little girls (and women) had an “Easter” dress–the new clothes a symbol of the new start. I remember when people who were motivated to participate in the choir at Christmastime were also motivated to participate at Easter. I think as our church emphasizes Christ more and more, our congregations long more and more for a richer observance of Easter. What do you think? Are you satisfied with Easter observance in your ward? If not, who is responsible for changing it?