Easter, Lent, and “Easter in My Heart”

Once again we celebrate Easter, commemorating our Lord’s resurrection on April 7, A.D. 30. Given that Easter is one of the two holiest days in the Christian Church, it is surprising that there is such widespread confusion about what Easter is and is not. Indeed this recent question was addressed to me on Facebook: “Please tell me what Lent is.” In this blog, I am answering that question.

First of all, however, let’s find out how Easter began in the first place. It almost didn’t because the idea that special times might be considered sacred in themselves did not even exist in Post Apostolic Christianity. Instead, they continued to observe the Jewish festivals, though with a different emphasis: for instance, for Passover, Christ was considered to be the true Paschal Lamb.

As time passed and more and more Christians observed Easter, pitched battles were continually fought over when the Resurrection should be celebrated, the Gentile Christians espousing one time and Jewish Christians another. Not until the Council of Nicaea in 325 was there a consensus: that Easter was to be kept on Sunday, and the same Sunday around the world.

Lent, quite simply, is a period of fasting during the 40 days preceding Easter. For instance, in the 2011 calendar, Lent (Ash Wednesday) began on March 9, and Easter Sunday (at the conclusion of Easter Week), will be celebrated on April 24.

Initially Lent was considered to be a season of preparation for baptism, of absolution for penitents, or of retreat or recollection, but there was little uniformity in practice. During the medieval period Lent fasting was vigorously enforced among the faithful; that consensus, however, broke down during the Reformation. By the eighteenth century, strict observance of the Lenten fast was generally abandoned.

Today, many devout Christians are returning to the earlier strong emphasis on fasting during the forty days leading up to Easter Week.

EASTER IN MY HEART

As an anthologizer of Christmas stories for nineteen years now, I never cease to be amazed at two realities: Where Christmas stories are concerned, I have untold thousands of stories to choose from; but where Easter stories are concerned, I have almost none! Why is it that Christians respond so differently to the two equally high days?

I really became aware of this discrepancy in 1999 when I signed a contract with WaterBrook/Random House to put together a collection of spiritually-based Easter stories for the Christian community. I was staggered to discover that they just plain didn’t exist! In fact, I seriously wondered if I’d have to tell my publisher that the book was impossible to produce. Finally, I took the matter to the Lord, asking that if it be His will that such a book ought to be, He’d open doors I knew not of.

I now quote from this precious book of Easter stories that almost wasn’t: “I never cease to be amazed by God’s incredible choreography. A number of years ago, when Christmas in My Heart was in its infancy, a friend of mine, the Reverend Dr. Darrell Richardson, called me up and told me that he was in town for a convention and had brought me a present. It turned out to be a large box of old (most over half a century old) inspirational magazines, all filled with stories. As the years passed by, I looked into the box once, picked out a Christmas story or two, then forgot all about it.”

Now, after earnestly praying to God, reminding Him that my final book deadline was almost upon me, and to “please help me find such stories—and quickly! . . . , one morning, the conviction came, Find that box of old magazines! In due time, I found it then searched through the entire collection. In the process, I found more great Easter stories than I had encountered all through the years! How incredible, and humbling, to realize that years ago, God knew the day was coming when those stories would be needed—and had them sent to me ahead of time! I no longer believe in coincidence: I have experienced far too many instances of divine scripting and choreography. But only recently did I find a biblical base for that assumption (Psalm 139:1-5, 15-16), one of the most life-changing passages in all Scripture.” (Easter in My Heart, 12-16).

* * * * *

Easter in My Heart

Sadly, Easter in My Heart is no longer in print, but we still have copies available for those who seek stories that will reveal the deeper spiritual meaning of Easter for their children or for incorporating into Easter services in their churches.

For information on how to order, log in at and if you let us know right away, we’ll fire off a copy to you in time for Easter week.

Do let me know your thoughts, reactions, and responses to this blog.

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THE OTHER SIDE OF “POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE”

            All across America right now a rite of passage: Graduation, is taking place.  For the 34 years of my teaching career, every spring, as a member of the faculty I’d have a ring-side seat when the long black line solemnly came down the aisle.  “Solemn” at the beginning —“euphoric” at the end.  “Solemn” because instinctively each graduate sensed that when the ceremony was over a door would be closing on that portion of their life story.  Ironically, in ancient Rome, especially in the decedent late period, unwanted children were routinely booted out of their homes into the streets to survive as best they could—and they called them “alumni.”

            Just so today, in these recessionary times, I’d guess many of the graduates we see march down the aisle in May and June, without solid job prospects, the very thought of being cast out into a cold world makes them shudder.

* * * * *

            When I took early retirement in order to write full-time, I didn’t realize what it would feel like to not be there at the front of the auditorium in my doctoral robe every spring.  I’ve always reveled in medieval pageantry and, let’s face it, our graduation ceremonies re-immerse us into medieval pageantry every spring.

            To tell the truth, I really miss not being there—far more than I would have believed possible.  Every spring, to see each of those now beloved students I’d taught and associated with for four long years come down the aisle toward me, would bring a catch to my throat.  For my in-loco-parentis rights ceased when they marched back out: my children were about to leave home.  Of course they’d come back on alumni weekends—but it would never never never be the same.

            Perhaps that’s why I wrote these words on April 5, 1991 when I was professor of English at Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University) in Takoma Park, Maryland.  I am hereby setting these lines loose into the world:

“THE OTHER SIDE OF
‘POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE’”

The years. . .they flow by like rivers,
     Every one bridged by a song;
Every spring that I can remember
     Haunted by that Elgar tune.

Oh incongruous sight:
     That long black line,
     In the morning of their lives.

I don’t know why this sentimental heart of mine
     Never seems to learn:
          All it takes is that first chord of “Pomp and Circumstance”
          And chills go up my spine;

          All it takes is that long black line flowing down the long aisle
          And tears—I can hardly see.

Why does my heart catch in my throat
     When these eagles of the morning
     Fly down to me?
          Could it be because there is yet no rank
          And only God knows who will storm the peaks,
          Who will merely circle above the valley,
          And who will cease to fly at all?

 * * * * * * * *

You are so solemn, caught up in the pageantry of it all,
     Only now realizing that the Camelot you thought
          Rose dimly in the mists ahead
          Is now only organ notes from being behind. 

Occasionally you will look up, see me, and shyly smile;
     I smile back . . . signaling it’s all right.  I’ve been where you’re going
          Too.
     But deep down, I know I haven’t:
          The other side of “Pomp and Circumstance”
               Is always new.

Our eyes, our eyes remember
     The thousand days we’ve spent together
           The long stretches of sea and sand,
           The rugged peaks spearing the azure;
               Together we viewed the edges of the world;
               Together we climbed celestial stairs to God.

And now it’s time for you to go,
     And we must stay behind,
          For 8760 hours from now
               Another long black line . . .
               Will complete its circle too. 

But never again will there be another just like you,
     And part of us will have left with you:
          For your success will be our success
          And your failure ours as well;
               Laughter and tears,
               Sunlight and shadow
          The part of us that is now you . . . we’ll share. 

* * * * *

Oh Lord . . . the only thing which brings solace
     To my already lonesome heart . . . is the thought . . .
          That in Thy celestial city
          Once again we’ll hear those haunting strains
               Of “Pomp and Circumstance” . . .

                And all of our college children . . .
               Will come home to Thee.

               —Joseph Leininger Wheeler (© 1991)

ALUMNI WEEKEND TIME

Yep, it’s spring, so it must be alumni weekend time.  I’m certain of it, for we just returned from one in California.

By now, I’ve accumulated enough years on my vintage [in mercy, we won’t say how old] life odometer, to be a veteran of these springtime rites of passage we call alumni weekends.  In our case, they are inescapable because not only do my wife and I have collectively nine alma maters to keep track of, I’ve also taught at five educational institutions (three universities, one high school, and one junior high), over a period of 34 years.   Each of these can be counted on to schedule an alumni weekend each spring.  Translated: it means that rare is a spring when a particular alumni weekend fails to belt out an irresistible siren call.  And it’s all because of numerology.  Actually it’s an insidious attempt by society to keep us broke by reminding us (by snail mail, e-mails, telephone, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, et al) that somewhere, every year of our lives, a five-year-multiple of some sort has reared its ugly head.  And rejecting such a summons is almost a sacrilegious act: akin to burning a Bible—or a National Geographic magazine.

Well, as I said, we’ve just returned from another one.  And this one was impossible to resist: a West Coast high school class was circling its wagons for their big 4 0 reunion.  And I received an invitation that—oh, let me tell you how diabolically wicked it was!  One of those long-ago students e-mailed me, informing me that way back when we were both young and foolish, I’d been one of her favorite teachers, and she’d never been back to an alumni reunion because I wasn’t there and that if I didn’t show up for this one she’d boycott that one too—Did I really want to have such a dastardly crime on my conscience?  And she called in reinforcements for added insurance.  “Trip insurance,” I believe they call it in the cruise industry.

So, of course, we packed up our bags and went.  And it was worth many times over what we paid for it.  I must confess to you that, in life, I’ve had more than my fair share of honors and degrees, but none of them can compare to this tender-hearted former student of mine, who after agreeing to introduce me to the alumni crowd, sat there with me on the front row racked with anguish and embarrassment, declaring over and over in a shaking voice, “I just can’t go through with this, Dr. Wheeler!  I just can’t!”  And the closer we got to our place in the program, the more she shook.  Almost, I thought we’d lose her.

But of course we didn’t: the most moving heart-felt tribute a teacher could ever receive.  Complete with a conch shell in which she had somehow some way, I don’t know how! beautifully inscribed these words inside: “Dear Dr. Wheeler, you will always remain in our hearts”—words no one but me could see.

Of course I hugged her!  Indeed, for a time, I could not speak.  Not until afterwards did we discover she’d been given a standing ovation.  Because, in the brief terrestrial passage of this thing called “life,” rarely are we moved to such an extent that we’re incapable of speech.  All the way back, on our return flight to Denver, I dissected that precious moment to find out why.  The closest I can get to an articulate explanation is this: If we are lucky enough to live a rich full life and be the recipient of honors, the ones that mean the most come from the lips of those who have known us the longest, and say, in essence:

I knew you when—.  I knew you when you were young and crazy like us.  When you loved us unreservedly even when we were most unlovable.  There were times when you lost your temper, when you did and said stupid, even inexcusable things, just like some of us did—but we loved you all the more because we knew the love you had for us was Velveteen Rabbit real.  And it’s because of all that, that we haven’t been able to forget you—that we can’t even imagine not having you with us when we celebrate our 40th alumni weekend.

This is what alumni weekends are really all about.  For we are unreservedly vulnerable only once in life—when we are young.  And though we may be considered successful by the great world later on, if our long-ago peers don’t consider us to be successful (with qualities that really matter, that stand the test of time), when we go back to the old campus on alumni weekend, when we pick up where we left off all those years ago—then we are not really successful at all, no matter what the world might say.  And this is the reason that, if I should somehow live a thousand years, never could I imagine so undeserving, so heartbreakingly beautiful, a tribute as the one I just received.

May God bless her!  And bless all those others who shakily stand up in front of their long-ago-but-forever classmates, to express that rare kind of love that comes—if it comes at all in life—but once.