Ian Harris Otago Daily Times April 11, 2014
Easter approaches – but does Easter really matter any more? This is, after all, a secular country. Only the vestiges of Christian observance remain in public life, as in shops closing and ad-free radio and television on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Some retailers and broadcasters resent even that – they ask why anyone should be allowed to get in the way of their sacred duty to make money? The case could be made that all restrictions should be lifted and the holiday abolished as irrelevant to our secular world.
Everything hinges, of course, on how Easter is interpreted. For Christians the festival will always be central. But among the secular majority a mix of ignorance, apathy and scorn is seeing it sidelined as a quaint relic of a supernatural past. In Christian history Jesus’ resurrection is pivotal. It is the equivalent of the Big Bang in the story of the Earth. Without the Big Bang there would have been no planet Earth as we know it, no life on Earth, no us. Yet although scientists can trace the Earth’s evolution back to the beginning and draw conclusions about energy, matter, gravity, electromagnetism, time and much else, the moment of the Big Bang is still shrouded in mystery. We know it happened from its effects.
Likewise with the resurrection. Without the experience of resurrection by Jesus’ followers there could have been no Christianity, no church, none of the Christian cultural legacy of the West. We know it happened from its effects.
Attempts to define just what happened range from the ingenious to the bizarre. The view that resurrection means that Jesus’ dead body sprang back to life to walk, talk, eat and drink is shared, strangely, both by fundamentalist Christians (who affirm it as the core of their faith) and fundamentalist atheists (who use it to reject Christianity as untenable). Bodily resuscitation is clearly one interpretation that can be drawn from the various New Testament accounts. And the notion of God restoring the crucified Jesus to life was not outlandish in the Jewish and Greek worlds where it took root.
But it is outlandish in ours. We stand 20 centuries, several cultures and a scientific revolution away from the moment of resurrection experience which, for all the zillions of words that have been written about it, remains at base a mystery. All that is certain is that Jesus’ earliest followers experienced something that transformed them from a dejected, dispirited band into the vanguard of a confident, dynamic movement that was to transform the lives of billions. As with the Big Bang, the reverberations from that experience are undeniable.
The experience triggered the conviction that Jesus was not finished and done with after all. Everything he had come to mean to his disciples still stirred in them – in fact, the more they thought about it, the more they saw in him the fulfilment of all they valued most in their Jewish religious heritage. So they did not find it strange to say “Jesus lives.” More, they found their experience of Jesus somehow reflected their experience of Godness. They summed this up in the earliest creed: “Jesus is Lord.”
But how were they to convey the new reality to others? By composing stories that others could relate to – that was the Jewish way. This meant giving narrative form to their internal experience by telling who went where in the days following Easter, what happened to them, how they responded. During the 1st century those accounts became steadily more concrete in their portrayal of the resurrection, culminating in an empty tomb, a resuscitated physical body, and shared meals. None of these is present in the earliest record, that of the apostle Paul. And despite the elaborations, the heart of Easter remained the Big Bang of their experience, not the stories written to communicate it.
The next step in the process was to interpret the narrative theologically. This came first through imaginative links with key moments in the Jews’ religious history. It was then expanded to take in Greek philosophical understandings. Much later came creedal statements.
A former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, identifies the nub of it: “The resurrection of Jesus is best understood, best used, as a symbol or sign of the human possibility of transformation. That transformation can be experienced at both the personal and social level; and one can lead to another.”
That, in modern parlance, is the good news Easter exists to convey – and it’s still worth a holiday to give it wings.