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RETHINKING NOTIONS ABOUT EASTER

April 16, 2022

Eostre was the name of a fertility goddess of spring. She was the goddess of the dawn celebrated by the ancient people of Northern Europe. St. Bede, an English monk, and historian from the 600s, wrote that the Christian celebrations of spring took on many of the traditions of the pagan celebrations of Eostre. The Christian holiday of Easter has held on to its pagan name for centuries, along with other fertility symbols such as eggs and rabbits. Who among us does not enjoy a Cadbury Egg, a chocolate bunny, or jelly beans? Those confections do not define Easter.

Christians gather to worship on Easter morning to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is so easy for us to lose sight of the fact that Jesus is the reason for this season. The truth is that some Christians do not attend church very often. Most know that Easter Sunday is a special day in the Church year. Declaring that Jesus is the risen Lord is right at the center of all that Christians believe.

We often become preoccupied with the timing of the Easter season. I do not know how often I have heard people say, “Easter is late this year.” Gardeners have said, “My…Easter comes late this year, and it has messed up my spring planting.” 

Sometimes conflicts arise between the dates selected for spring break in the school systems and the observance of Holy Week. I remember one year when Easter came toward the end of April. The director of District 7 orchestras scheduled the finale on Maundy Thursday.

I called the director and said, “We have a real problem with this date for the finale. Some of your students in the program have parents who will be serving in our church that evening. Other families with students in the orchestra will also want to participate in Maundy Thursday services.”

The director asked, “Why did they move Easter so late this year?”

Determining the date of Easter is tricky. Easter is observed on Sunday, which follows the appearance of the first full moon after the vernal equinox. This year, that full moon appeared yesterday, April 16. The Jewish celebration of Passover and the Christian observance of Easter usually align closely because they both follow the lunar calendar. This year Passover began on April 15, which was also Good Friday.

The earliest date on which Easter can occur is March 22. Easter last happened on that date in 1818. Easter will fall again on March 22 in the year 2285. The latest date on which Easter can occur is April 25. That happened in 1943 and will occur again in the year 2038. This year, Easter comes on April 17.

Martin Luther King was assassinated during Holy Week of 1968. Dr. Charles Bodie, the distinguished president of the Peabody Institute in Nashville, Tennessee, was the guest preacher during a series of Holy Week services at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. On the night of King’s assassination, the church was at capacity with people wondering what this outstanding African-American preacher would say. I shall never forget his opening words when he stepped into the pulpit: “This year, Easter comes just in the nick of time.”

Easter always comes right on time. For my family, Easter is not one bit late this year. We have been through a period of grief following my brother’s death, and we need to celebrate the resurrection.

Some people fail to hear or share the Easter story because we assume everybody knows the story. Dr. Fred Craddock, a professor of homiletics, said that we have a bad habit of overhearing the Gospel. We hear the stories so often that we do not listen to them anew. We need to listen to this story of Easter with fresh ears. We need to read this story with fresh eyes. Maybe it would help if someone read the stories to us so that we could study them anew.

Several years ago, through the season of Lent, our son Kris recently displayed fourteen paintings of the scriptural Stations of the Cross at the Oxford Chapel at Emory University. Eight of those works were painted on canvas and six on lumber wraps, pieces of sheeting wrapped around lumber to keep it dry during its shipment from the west coast.    Kris and the chaplain of Oxford Chapel developed a guide for viewers, including references to the Scriptures.

Kris learned that among the many viewers of his display were a woman, who was very sick, and her seventeen-year-old daughter. The woman had wanted her daughter to become involved in a church and its youth group. The girl was resistant and did not want anything to do with church. The mother had convinced her to view these paintings because of her interest in art. This teenager slowly moved from station to station, stopping to read the guide and to look at each image.

The chaplain noticed that the girl was crying when she reached the last station. The chaplain asked, “Are you alright? Is there anything I can do for you?”

She answered, “I just don’t know why nobody has ever told me this story.”

This seventeen-year-old girl lived in Atlanta, Georgia, and she had never heard the Easter story? We need to make sure that our children and our grandchildren hear this story. Please read it to them around your table. Do not just assume that you know this story. Read it yourself from the Scriptures during your own time of devotion.

You have heard people say, just as I have, “In Christianity, I have trouble with the first and the last, with the incarnation – the idea that the human Jesus was somehow God, that there was a virgin birth – and trouble with the resurrection – the very idea that somebody can come back from the dead.”

Some regard the resurrection as a mystery that must be solved. In our western way of thinking, we look at the empty tomb as a crime scene – CSI: Jerusalem. We want to gather all the evidence and understand what happened there. We want to make sense of this case of a missing body.

One problem is that each of the four Gospels gives varying accounts of what the eyewitnesses saw. One Gospel refers to two angels, but another mentions only one angel. The Gospel of Luke tells a beautiful story about the road to Emmaus, but not one of the other Gospels mentions that episode. The Gospel of John speaks of Mary Magdalene’s coming to the tomb alone. Other accounts differ. Trying to synchronize all of these stories would drive a crime scene investigator crazy.

The point is not to make sense of all the accounts and get the stories aligned. The fact is that the stories all agree that Jesus rose from the grave. Christians serve a resurrected Christ, a living Savior.

The Gospel of Matthew reveals that some individuals questioned the resurrection experience. They suggested the existence of a Passover plot, signifying that the disciples had concocted a story about this resurrection when they had removed the body of Jesus from the tomb and hidden it in another location. 

When I was in seminary, the controversial book entitled The Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield was published.

If these resurrection accounts were a plot, these disciples would have said, “Let’s get our stories straight. We cannot have any discrepancies here.” The fact that the resurrection accounts all differ provides proof against a conspiracy. 

They did not do that. The single best evidence for the resurrection is what happened in these people’s lives. We are not to solve the mystery. If we do anything, we are to restore the mystery. We are to let it stand as a reason for awe, for reverence.

 We tend to jump too quickly to the joy associated with Easter. I know that notion sounds strange. I first came across this idea in Dr. Edmond Steimle’s Easter sermon “Disturbed by Joy.” This distinguished Lutheran pastor said that we should pay close attention to the responses of those involved in the resurrection accounts.

My grandfather was finally convinced to go to a presentation of Handel’s “Messiah.” I cannot imagine my grandfather, who never had a class in music appreciation, sitting through that lengthy oratorio.

After the presentation, my grandfather went outside and lit up a Tampa Nugget cigar. When somebody asked him what he thought about the “Messiah,” he responded, “It wouldn’t have taken so long if they had quit repeating themselves.”

Can we sing too many hallelujahs? Can we be too overcome with joy during the Easter season?

Let’s consider those first Christians. They should have been prepared for the resurrection, not surprised because Jesus had told them what to expect. When the resurrection occurred, they were not filled with joy. They were frightened. The dead rising from the grave was spooky. Their emotions were more appropriate for Halloween.

We read that they are amazed, confused, and baffled. They are astonished. The word fear appears six times in the Gospel accounts of the resurrection.

In the days that followed, these same Christians began to take in what had happened. As we continue the story into the book of Acts, their lives have changed significantly. Instead of hiding in an upper room, they became empowered by the Spirit of God. Acts 17 tells us that they had turned the world upside down, bringing many converts to Christianity. They were convinced that with the resurrection of Christ, the vicious circle of sin and death had been destroyed. The last enemy – death itself – had been put under the feet of Jesus. He was victorious.

Another assumption is that the resurrection is all about heaven and the hereafter. Yes, I do know that paradise is wonderful. We have much to look forward to, but the resurrection is not only about heaven.

I did not fully understand the concept that resurrection requires some impact on life until I read Mill Hands and Preachers by Liston Pope. Though the book was written about religion in Gastonia, North Carolina, it helped me understand religion in Spartanburg, South Carolina, as well as anything I have ever read. The idea is that mill hill communities always had a church. Often the mill owners selected the church pastor, who preached about faith in heaven, belief in the “sweet by and by,” faith beyond the oppression of this life.

Billy Sunday, a former baseball player who became an evangelist, was well known for his “sawdust trail” campaigns or revivals, which ended with an altar call. In his sermon “The Ideal Christian Life,” Sunday said that the ideal Christian life would consist of walking down this sawdust trail, getting on one’s knees to repent and accept Jesus Christ as Lord, walking back up the sawdust trail, stepping out into the street, getting run over by a Mack truck, and going straight to heaven.

Is that the “ideal Christian life”? It seems that something must happen between accepting Christ and going to heaven. That “something” is this life we live. Resurrection is about this life. Our faith walk is about living the resurrection now.

Eternal life is not just what happens after death. It is life with an eternal quality. It is life that is qualitatively different than the life we lived before we knew Christ Jesus. Eternal life, the resurrected life, is life here on earth now.

The resurrection is not about immortality. Only God is immortal. Humans are mortal. To affirm that Jesus was human is to know that he was mortal. Jesus did not pass away. He died. He didn’t vaporize or dematerialize as in a science fiction movie. Jesus was as dead as the proverbial doornail. 

The Gospels proclaim he was dead and is now alive!

John’s Gospel gives us the upper room scene, but it is bracketed by the personal encounters of two early disciples –a woman and a man-Mary Magdalene and Thomas.

Mary Magdalene was a marginal person, a woman for whom Jesus had cast seven demons. I do not know whether that meant that she had a terrible mental illness or that her life was pock-marked by sin. Regardless, Mary had been redeemed. The Gospel of John tells that she came to the tomb and recognized that Jesus was the resurrected Christ.

Thomas said to the other disciples, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” Thomas was from Missouri. Then Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Doubting Thomas. But only for one week. Doubting Mary? Doubting Peter? Doubting John? They all doubted. Then they all believed.

Then Jesus gave Thomas the last beatitude. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”                       

We all have our doubts. Gaps in our faith. Faith is never perfect; it is always a work in progress. Like Mary Magdalene and Thomas, our doubts enable the growth of our faith. Kathleen Norris in The Cloistered Walk says that doubts are the seeds of faith.

My Easter greeting to all of you comes from an old hymn.                  

You ask me how I know he lives.

He lives within my heart!

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a storyteller, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to the charity of your choice or to the religious organization where you worship. As a retired pastor, I can assure you that your contributions are always appreciated.

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