Since I spent nearly 30 years in Panama as a missionary, I have a perspective on Easter that I trust has taught me some valuable lessons.
First off, Holy Week in the early years (1970s-1980s) tended to be influenced by Roman Catholicism, the predominant religion in Panama. The entire week was somewhat subdued, with less emphasis on the commercial aspects of life. Good Friday was somber and solemn; television and radio stations could only play, funeral-like music, dirges, and the like. Churches had mass to commemorate the passion. There were no sports or entertainment. (After those early years, Good Friday became more “secular,” and has remained so. It is possible that some radio stations may have special solemn programming, but not the TV stations, by and large. Some of the older people, staunchly Catholic, complained, but basically the day has become a “holiday,” not a “holy day.”)
Strangely enough, Easter Sunday was pretty much business as usual. Though it was called “Domingo de Gloria,” (Sunday of Glory), there didn’t seem to be a lot of celebration of Christ’s resurrection, and folks went to the beach, had picnics, visited family, etc., pretty much like any other time when they were off work. But neither the solemnity or the frivolity seemed to touch people very deeply. The solemnity didn’t cause people to come to Christ for forgiveness of sin, and receive a Savior who would change their lives. The frivolity wasn’t Christian joy, based on the the certainty of the Risen Lord who had conquered death.
What a difference I discovered in the evangelical church! For one thing, many churches had a special Good Friday service which featured the seven last words of Christ he uttered from the cross. I took part in many of those over the years, sometimes preaching just one of the seven words, as in a joint service, and sometimes all seven. It could make for a very long service, but focusing from a theological as well as a practical perspective was helpful and challenging.
We sang songs (in Spanish) like “There is a Fountain,” and “Nothing But the Blood.” We also sang songs about the passion such as “Oh Qué Amor,” (Oh What Love), and “¿Sabes qué Murió Jesús?” (Do you Know that Jesus Died?”) this last one sung to the tune of the 1960s pop song “Sealed With a Kiss.” Beautiful, melodic songs about our Savior’s death on the cross that really touched my heart, but unknown to English-only speaking people.
Easter Sunday was always a special day in Panama. We’d sing, in Spanish of course, songs like “Low in the Grave He Lay” with volume and emotion, and hear the resurrection message delivered on that day of days.
We introduced to the church in Bethania, where we served for about 15 years, the “Sunrise Service” concept. I think some other churches already were doing it, but it was new to many of the people we’d seen come to Christ, and over time came to be one of the most popular and inspiring things we did each year. An early service, often around 5:30 or 6:00 a.m., followed by a breakfast fellowship meal, and then Sunday School, made for a glorious day in the Lord, and with His people.
I remember our first Easter in Panama, in 1978, when we met at the church on a Sunday night. It would have been March 26. Our main service was held on Sunday night at the beginning of the church plant. We sang. We prayed. I preached. At the end of the service a young man in his early 20s came forward to receive Christ. His words to me were these: “I knew there had to be more in life than what I had found, and tonight I found it in Jesus Christ.” Christ arose! He lives! He is risen. He is risen indeed!