Easter. It’s a well-known fact that it’s one of the annual great opportunities to reach people who normally don’t attend worship on a regular basis. Statistics show while attendance goes way up on Easter, the spike is often short-lived and numbers revert soon after the big day is over. Such an opportunity should not be squandered with the “same old, same old.”
We’ve been designing worship for fifteen years and every year we face the Easter challenge. For us, it’s been always been difficult to find new and fresh ways to creatively and visually present the story. Once you get past all of the standard imagery of empty tombs, crosses, and lilies, where do you go? Is it possible to create powerful worship for Easter that inspires, retains and even transforms the influx of visitors that will walk through our doors on that special Sunday morning?
Telling the story through metaphor
Consider metaphor. Metaphor allows us to tell stories in a ways that connect with the everyday experiences of individuals, believer and nonbeliever alike. We’ve come to define metaphor as a tangible way to express an abstract story, thought, or idea. Metaphor allows us to make the foreign familiar. It puts the gospel into everyday language both oral and visual.
Metaphor is sometimes perceived as an advertising industry buzzword that has little or no place in worship. Those who fail to explore the power of communication that comes through metaphor fail to understand that it was the exclusive method of Jesus’ public ministry.
Mark 4 relates a story from the early part of Jesus’ public ministry, in which he tells the parable of the sower. It’s a long parable, the longest in the Gospels (vv. 3-9). Afterward, when the crowds had left and the disciples were alone with Jesus, they revealed to him that they had no clue what he had been saying. He took the time to explain the entire parable to them, actually spending more time on the explanation than he had on the parable itself (vv. 10-20).
What is really interesting is what happens next. Instead of concluding that such a creative presentation of the Good News didn’t work, and returning to the religious style he had learned in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52), he continued to speak in parables, telling the parables of lamp on the stand (vv. 21-25), the growing seed (vv. 26-29), and the mustard seed (vv. 30-32). He was on a roll!
The best moment comes in verses 33 and 34: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.”
Parables were Jesus’ exclusive public style! He didn’t simply use parables as an alternative for the dumb ones in the crowd. Metaphorical teaching was his only public method. Jesus understood that to communicate ideas with effectiveness he had to present his teaching in a means that made sense to his audience. Our audiences today aren’t any different. People listen best when spoken to in a familiar language. This is the essence of metaphor.
Applying a metaphor to an Easter story
For many, the idea of an omniscient deity sending his only son to earth to die for the sins of humankind, only to be resurrected from the dead, can be rather difficult to grasp. Through metaphor, we can frame the story with familiar objects, settings, and experiences that make the story easier to understand.
A few years ago we began brainstorming metaphors for an upcoming Easter season. We were focusing on John 20:1-18. In the story Mary returns to the tomb on Sunday morning, distraught that Jesus’ body has been removed. After encountering two angels, she turns toward who she believes is the gardener and pleads with him to tell her where the body of her Lord has been taken. He responds by calling out her name, revealing to Mary that he is in fact Jesus. Overjoyed, she cries out “Rabboni” (“teacher”) then, we inferred, reaches out to embrace him.
Some might say Jesus’ response was a bit harsh. He responds to her affection with, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the father.”
Why were his first words to push Mary away? Was he still the Rabboni, even after his death? After much discussion, we began to get excited with the idea that Jesus was telling Mary to let go of what she formerly knew of Jesus. No longer just the earthly man she had known, now he is the risen Christ.
Implicit in Jesus’ statement to Mary is the human tendency to try to hold on to our experiences of God. Call it “camp high,” if you will. We have a fear of losing our awareness of a connection with God, or what some even perceive as losing God or having our connection invalidated. It is ironic that for many, the very fact of grasping onto these memories devalues them. Faith is about living in the daily presence of God. It is through a mutual journey toward the cross that our connection with God is daily renewed. We must be willing to let go of former experiences, no matter how powerful, and continually redefine what it means to be a follower at every stage of our life.
Further, faith for Christians is a communal experience. Our faith experiences are meant to be shared, not bottled up. Jesus says to Mary that life for her will come not just from remembering that experience, but also in sharing it with others.
To capture the bittersweet feeling of having to let go, and after much brainstorming, we decided to use the metaphor of a child catching and releasing a butterfly. If we selfishly hang on to old notions of spiritual highs, religion, church and faith, whether in personal devotion or in our church communities, we can starve them of life, to the point they are no good to anyone. But just like releasing a butterfly from a jar, if let go of them, we open ourselves up to new experiences – fresh, vital, risen Lord experiences.