April 04, 2010

He is risen!

"Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance."
John 20:1

It is still dark as I compose this early on Easter morning. The sun is barely a red glimmer on the eastern horizon. By the time I finish, it will have risen full and yellow. Most people are still asleep. A few parents who did not do so yesterday will be hiding colorful eggs for their children to find. In some homes the last egg will not be found until it starts to reek of sulfur long after Easter has come and gone. Millions of Americans who normally spend their Sunday watching television or holding a barbeque, will make the effort to get out of bed early, take a shower, dress in their finest, and head off to church to celebrate the day. Some of them will still have a barbeque in the afternoon, while others will still find time to turn on a sports game.

Jewish families, on the other hand, are mid-way through the Passover week while Pagan families celebrate the coming of spring with feasts designed around early vegetables. For most people, regardless of their religion, spring is a time of renewal and hope for a better future, especially this year.

This year, Easter falls on April 4th. In 1968 on this day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and although James Earl Ray was convicted for this crime, there are some who feel he was not guilty. Oddly, it was on this day in 1967, exactly one year before his death, that Martin Luther King, Jr. publicly declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam. In 1973 the Twin Towers were declared finished on April 4th, only to come crashing to the ground less than thirty years later after terrorists slammed into them with hijacked airliners. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization officially came to life on this day in 1949, and despite the passing of the enemy it was meant to counter (the U.S.S.R., naturally), NATO is still with us today. In 1818 Congress finally got around to settling on an official design for the American flag, thirteen stripes of alternating red and white with white stars on a blue field, one star for every state. Down through the centuries many things have ended on April 4th, while many others have begun.

I have not gone through my archive, but I'm reasonably certain this is the first time I have ever sat down to write a post for a particular holiday. I try very hard to avoid holiday posts, because so much is said about them in so many different places that I feel anything I can add to the discussion would be trite. But this Easter feels different, so here I sit, trying to figure out what has drawn me out of my warm bed to sit in front of my computer and type these words.

I suppose, since this is the celebration of Christ's resurrection, I should focus on it. Most people know how Mary and some other women came to the tomb in order to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. This was a common practice among Jews of their day and they had not done it sooner because the various feasts and regulations of Passover Sabbath had prevented them. They came, wondering who would roll the stone aside for them, wondering if the centurions posted by Pilate would let them pass, only to arrive at the tomb to find the centurions gone and the stone rolled away. The tomb itself was empty. Jesus then appeared and announced his resurrection.

Many non-believers point out that the four gospels do not agree on many key details about the resurrection. Myself, I am always somewhat mystified by this criticism. How many women there were, who ran to tell the disciples, whether Jesus first appeared to the women, to one woman, or to the disciples all gathered together, none of these matter. Historians can argue about them for days but none of that changes anything at all. Something happened. Something so profound that it changed the lives of everyone connected to it and eventually changed the entire history of our world. Without the resurrection there would have been no Christianity, no Catholic Church, no Crusades, no Reformation, no Enlightenment, no Renaissance, no funding for Christopher Columbus, nor for Cortez, no pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, and no United States of America founded by men whose deep faith and Christian ethic convinced them their King was not fit to rule.

Something profound happened the day after the Pesah Shabbat at a family grave outside Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. Ordinary women, going about an ordinary chore, were so stunned they dropped what they were doing and ran for their menfolk. The men, in turn, ran to the grave and could not understand what they found. Within a few short months all of them, men and women alike, were traveling around telling the world that their teacher Yeshua had sacrificed himself so that all people, Jew and Gentile alike, could be granted entrance into heaven. Hundreds were baptized into this new faith, then thousands, then millions, until the political government itself became alarmed and sought to crush it entirely, only to find that for every believer burned as a human torch or fed to hungry animals ten more appeared. Then one of the leaders came into the faith. He, for his part, brought together elders from all over the civilized world in a council that met annually for over a decade to formalize the rituals, doctrines, and texts this new religion would observe.

It is impossible now to say what the world would look like if it were not for Easter Sunday. That, and that alone, should tell us clearly that if he is not risen, our world has no meaning whatsoever. Our culture, our values, our sense of right and wrong all depend upon a miracle in the rocky hills outside a crowded merchant city in the Middle East. If he is not risen, then history has no meaning. If history has no meaning, then life itself has no meaning. If life has no meaning, then why are so many people working so hard to sustain it, corrupt it, enhance it, enjoy it, or revile it? Since life has meaning, history itself has meaning, and since history itself has meaning, Christ must have risen and be even now seated on his throne in heaven.

It is the beauty of life that proves the lie of atheism. It is the ugliness of life that gives strength to the lie, but only if we accept that the pain and suffering life brings is somehow unnatural. It is only through pain and suffering that we learn to appreciate beauty. Without sorrow, happiness has no meaning. The women who approached the tomb felt their own sorrow as deeply as any of us feel it. All of them were intimate friends of Christ, and one of them was his mother. Their pain became shock, their shock became joy, their joy became us. We are what we are because of three women going about an ordinary task who stumbled on a miracle.

And that is the real meaning of Easter. Three women, racked with sorrow, who saw their sorrow transformed into joy. Those three women, even more than Peter and Paul, are the true founders of Christianity.