Susanna had been preparing for this day for two years. It was not a simple matter to join the Christian Church in Antioch in the third century. Even for one who had been brought up in the Jewish synagogue, as she had, who already knew God as creator of the world, giver of the Law, active in history; who knew the standards of right and wrong as laid out in the Hebrew scriptures, there was a period of instruction and preparation for becoming a church member that lasted two years—2 years!—which still wasn’t as long as some churches, where it was three years. During that time, Susanna had been able to join with the church members in hearing the Word read and preached, but had had to leave the service every week before the period of common prayer, the kiss of peace, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Those were activities for church members alone.
Susanna had worked hard to be patient during this period, and to be attentive to her weekly classes on becoming a Christian. She had shown up faithfully and on time for each of her “scrutinies,” those meetings in which her conduct of the past weeks was examined by church leaders, and each time she had been approved. She wanted to join with the Christians. She wanted to hear more about Jesus instead of just the Hebrew scriptures. She liked meeting on Sunday mornings instead of on Sabbath Saturdays. She wanted to be recognized as a full and equal member of the church, rather than put behind the screen as an observer only, as the women were at the synagogue. While she would never be permitted to be a bishop or teacher, she otherwise would be treated as equal to the male church members in the Christian church.
Susanna had to admit, however, that her patience was running out, and the news that came to her after her January scrutiny arrived just in time: that she would be admitted into the advanced class, to become a member of the church this coming Easter.
On the Wednesday six weeks before Easter, the first day of Lent, that advanced instruction began. For thirty-five days, three hours every day, Susanna attended the class, learning more about the church, and about what the members believed. Among other things, she learned why it was that the congregation met on Sunday instead of the Sabbath, even though Sunday was a work day and the people would have to go straight from church to their fields or shops. It was partly because Sunday celebrated the creation of the world – on the first day God began the creation process, saying “Let there be light,” and Sunday is the first day of the week. But more important, Sunday was the day of resurrection, the Lord’s Day, the day Jesus had risen from the dead and reappeared to the disciples, the day the powers of sin and death were proved to be defeated. Every Sunday there was a “mini-Easter,” a celebration of the resurrection – most of all, it was a statement of faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the midst of many unbelievers. And just as Sunday became the most important day of the week in honor of the resurrection, Easter became the most important day of the year. The whole Christian year pointed toward Easter; the activities of the community were structured around Easter, around the celebration of the resurrection. The important events of the church were saved for Easter, including the initiation of new members – including, this year, Susanna’s own baptism and confirmation.
So Susanna learned many things about the church, and along with her instruction, Susanna underwent each day a ceremony of exorcism, to try to remove any evil inside of her. At the end of five weeks, she was given a creed to memorize, and after a few days the bishop came to her, and asked her to repeat it one line at a time, asking her questions about the meaning of each line. Finally satisfied that she had done her homework well, he gave his approval, and she prepared for the final two days which would lead up to Easter, to the Day of Resurrection.
Susanna, with the other prospective members, fasted all day Friday and all day Saturday, and stayed constantly in prayer. And as she thought about all she had learned, one key question kept coming back to her mind – not a faith-threatening question, but a great curiosity: Susanna had learned that it was Jesus’ death that meant salvation and eternal life for all who believed in him. In going to the cross, he had taken the sins of all people onto himself, and had paid for those sins with his life. He had died instead of her, and instead of all Christians. That act of dying on the cross, on Friday, had saved them.
Yet when it came time to celebrate Jesus and all he had done, the center of the church’s attention was not Friday, not Good Friday, not the day Jesus had died and saved them, but Sunday, Easter day: two days after the actual event of the salvation. This is what Susanna was wondering about: shouldn’t we be celebrating the event of our salvation, Good Friday, most of all?
Susanna thought about all she had learned of Jesus’ teachings, of Jesus’ action, of Jesus’ significance, and kept coming back to the cross. That seemed to be where he did his greatest work for us; that seemed to be the act which saved all of us disciples.
Disciples. Disciples! An idea occurred to Susanna, and her mind began to run with it. The disciples had all run away and hid on Good Friday. When Jesus died, they scattered, sure that their dreams had failed, that their cause was lost. They hadn’t known that Good Friday wasn’t the end of the story. They hadn’t picked up on Jesus’ hints that he would come back, rise again. Maybe they should have gone on believing, given what he had said, but they didn’t; their faith and understanding weren’t strong enough.
And I wouldn’t have gone on either, thought Susanna. I would have given up too; I wouldn’t have known that his death was in fact a victory, that it was my entrance into a life with God and eternal life. My faith would have been just like theirs – it wouldn’t have gone on without the proof of Easter Sunday. We people are all alike that way – we need that proof; that evidence that Jesus was God. And that proof didn’t come until Sunday – Easter Sunday.
The reasons for Easter’s importance soon fell into place now for Susanna:
- It’s on Easter that we got the proof we needed to believe.
- It’s on Easter that we finally knew for sure that we had been right to believe in Jesus, when so many people were mocking him and us.
- It’s on Easer that we finally got the proof that Jesus was stronger than the enemies – than the Romans, than our sin, than death.
- It’s on Easter that Jesus demonstrated new life in a way we could understand.
Sure he had said it before: “I am the resurrection and the life” – but we never believed it until we saw it for ourselves. And so it was on Easter that we got our fresh start, that the faith we hadn’t been able to sustain on our own was reborn by seeing Jesus alive; that our lives got a fresh start too; that we felt reborn, with a new life ahead of us. It was as if when Jesus died a big part of us disciples died too, because we just can’t seem to keep our faith going on our own.
And when he came back with new life, we got our new life too, because that’s when we finally realized who he was and what he meant for us. Maybe we should have believed in him well enough to know that Good Friday was good, was our salvation, but we don’t – we’re weak, so we need Easter to prove it to us. And prove it, it did. That’s why we feel reborn on Easter – that’s when we get the proof we need.
Susanna smiled, pleased with herself both for her good question and for figuring out a good answer, and glad that it would be on Easter Day that she would join the church. Glad that she would share in Easter joy just as she would have shared in Good Friday despair and faithlessness and need for proof.
The rest of Saturday went by quickly, and on Saturday evening she began her all-night vigil with her teacher, reading Scripture and receiving more instruction. She maintained her attention well, being distracted only when she could not keep herself from looking out the windows, searching for the first traces of light in the dark sky.
Suddenly her instructor rose and told Susanna to follow him. He led her outside, through the dark, and down to the river, where she heard prayers being murmured over the waters, and oils being poured and stirred. As the first gray light began to appear, a deacon approached her, and she helped Susanna undress. The bishop came over and asked each candidate individually whether they now and forever renounced evil – “the devil and his pomp and his angels.”
Susanna answered “Yes” and was led to the river’s edge, where she was washed thoroughly with oil, the predecessor of soap. As they day turned gray and trees began to become visible, she heard a cock crow, just as one must have done on that first Easter morning 250 years ago. She was led into the water, and asked the first question, and she gave the response she knew so well, the one beginning, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and
Earth . . .” And she was pushed down under the water, and lifted back up. Then the second question and answer: “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost . . .” The second dunking. And the third: “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church . . .” The third time she was held under the water a little longer, and when she came up she noticed that morning had arrived now, that it was Easter Day.
She came out of the river, was anointed with the oil of thanksgiving, and wrapped in a new white robe, a robe she would wear for the next eight days as she finally – finally! – received her instruction on the secret “mysteries” of the faith, the sacraments – the knowledge that was reserved for baptized members alone.
Susanna walked with the other new members back to the house where the church had assembled for worship. The bishop came up to her in her turn, and laid his hands on her head as a sign of the coming of the Holy Spirit into her, and gave her for the first time the kiss of peace. Then Susanna joined the other Christians, for the first time, in the common prayer and then in the eucharist, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Easter had finally arrived – she was a new person now. The old Susanna had gone down into the water, as into a grave, with Christ, and emerged in the first light of Easter morning with him into a new life. Her sin had been scrubbed away, evil pushed far from her heart. She had stated what she believed, and stated it with the confidence of one who has examined it thoroughly, and can stand behind every word. She had new garments – clean, white garments. And she had received the Holy Spirit, which would help sustain her intentions of a holy life. In future years, Susanna would experience that sense of a fresh start every Easter, every time she was among the members welcoming the new initiates into the church; but never with quite the intensity, quite the thrill, quite the awe, of that first Easter morning, that first morning of her new life.
Let us pray: God, thank you for welcoming each of us into your church. Thank you for this day of new life, new beginnings, new chances to re-commit ourselves to your church. And thank you for your presence as you help us, individually and as a congregation, strengthen this body of the risen Christ. Amen.