On Easter Sunday, a couple of weeks ago now, I was in my parish church, St. Peter’s in Morristown, New Jersey. I was not alone. Into that church, at one of its four Easter services, came about 300 % more people than we normally would have on a regular Sunday morning. I have no reason to think that the same thing was not experienced in other churches across the Christian world. Easter is the best attended day of worship in the entire Christian world. Have we ever wondered who these people are? Do we ever ask them what draws them, or what it is they are seeking? Have we ever wanted to know what they experience on that one great festival Sunday? Did their yearning to be in church on Easter Sunday express anything more than nostalgia? Were they really looking for life, hope and meaning? Do the churches of the Christian world use that Sunday to seek to answer the deeply human question posed best by the biblical character we call Job so many hundreds of years ago: “If a man (or a woman) dies, shall he (or she) live again?”
How many of our clergy sought to address that human anxiety in their Easter sermons? Do we, as a profession, still believe that the Christian Church can speak to the anxiety of mortality? Have Easter sermons become “word games” in which we substitute pious clichés for conviction? Has the word “resurrection” come to be nothing more than a symbol for a developing consciousness; something that speaks to our social needs or the human desire to find some way of transcending our very finite limits? Do we still grapple anywhere with the original meaning of Easter? Do we even know what that meaning is? By now are we not all well aware that the way we, who live inside the Christian church, have traditionally spoken of the resurrection of Jesus, is no longer believable?
Deceased bodies do not return to physical life on the third day after being buried! Can we imagine a brain, deprived of oxygen from Friday afternoon until the dawn of Sunday, being restarted? Can the process of physical decay ever really be reversed without time being made to run backward? Was the resurrection of Jesus ever a physical event? Was it ever the resuscitation of a deceased body? If it was not physical, can it still be real? Were the biblical stories of Jesus’ resurrection ever meant to be accounts of an objective event or were they always subjective visions? Apparitions? Hallucinations? Is the truth of Easter found in the supposition that maybe Jesus did not really die and actually “came to” in the grave only to escape it and to be seen literally by others? Is any of that possible? Is any of that believable? Is it some aspect of this hope, still deep in our finite natures, which draws us into Easter worship once a year? Are those hopes ever realized? The fact is that the Sunday after Easter is probably the most poorly attended Sunday of the church year. It is called “Low Sunday” for a good reason.
In the more liturgically-oriented churches of Christianity, Easter is not just a single day, but an entire season. Following the lead of Luke’s gospel, the season of Easter is designed to be celebrated and observed for forty days. Show me the congregation that takes this practice seriously. There are six Sundays in the Easter season. That season, called “the great forty days,” is supposed to be terminated by the experience, again only described in Luke, called the ascension. Ascension is then followed ten days later in the liturgical calendar by the celebration of Pentecost. It was as if the church knew that one day was not enough to explore so deep and intricate a subject as life beyond death. The fact is, however, that the message of Easter is never stretched much beyond the day itself.
In this column throughout the entire Easter season and even beyond it, I want to do better than that. I want to probe the biblical content that stands behind the packed houses of worship on Easter Sunday. I want to ask searching questions about that content. They are questions church people seem loath to face in a significant way. Is Easter real? Is it just a myth? Did something objective happen at Easter or have we allowed our imaginations and fantasies to run wild? Was Jesus literally raised from the dead in some tangible way? Or is resurrection just a figure of speech? Do we know the Bible’s Easter stories well enough to have an opinion?
Paul, for example, did not seem to think that resurrection was a physical thing at all, but he never seemed to find the words that enabled him to say what it was. Paul was the first person in the Bible to write about Easter, but his witness does not seem to be conclusive. Do any of us really know what he says?
Are any of us similarly aware that the first gospel to be written, Mark, never records a story of Jesus appearing after his crucifixion to anyone at any time? Are we aware that accounts of the raised Christ ever being seen do not enter the Christian tradition until the 9th decade? What does that mean? Are we aware that as the years went by between the event of the cross and the writing of the Easter stories, accounts of the resurrection grew more and more magical, more and more supernatural? If the resurrection is to be regarded by 21st century believers as a literal event that actually happened in time, in space and in history, why are the details surrounding the description of that event in the Bible so filled with contradictions?
Are we sufficiently aware of the biblical stories of the resurrection to know that they disagree on such basic questions as: Who went to the tomb? What did they see? Who was the first to discern Jesus as raised from the dead? Where were the disciples when Easter dawned on their consciousness? Do we realize that even that location is disputed in the gospels? How could the same resurrected body that walked through locked doors in one gospel also in that same gospel be probed physically by the hands of Thomas? How could a body that could materialize and then vanish into thin air still eat a physical meal in the village of Emmaus as another gospel asserts?
Can a body capable of appearing and disappearing also do such physical things as eating, drinking, talking, walking and interpreting scripture? Is the phrase “three days” a measure of time or is it a symbol? If it is a symbol, a symbol of what? Are we aware that no one saw the risen Jesus in Mark’s gospel; they only got a promise that they would see him in Galilee? Are we aware that Galilee was a seven to ten day journey from Jerusalem? What does “three days” mean in that scenario? Have we who claim to be Christians ever isolated the various narratives of the resurrection from one another and looked at them in the light of contemporary biblical scholarship? If not, why not? Are they not important? Is it possible that we are afraid that if we study them, we will no longer believe them? Pious clichés will never be a proper way to deal with profound questions.
I think that people come to church on Easter hoping to hear something convincing and real. They do not find it and so depart from church only to give it one more shot the next Easter. I want to do better than that in this column. So, next week I will begin a study of what the sources in the New Testament actually say about Easter. I will begin with what Paul said and believed about the meaning of Easter. I suspect the results will surprise you. In subsequent columns, I will look at what Mark said and at what Mark believed about Easter, then in turn at what Matthew, Luke and John said and believed about Easter. Finally, I will try to put the clues together and recreate the way Easter must have dawned in human history. I hope it will be revelatory and I hope it will carry you far beyond what you learned about Easter in your childhood Sunday school training or in your annual Easter visit to church in your adulthood.
Let me now prepare you for that study by asking you to embrace a clear distinction. An experience and the explanation of that experience are not the same. An experience is and can be timeless and eternal. An experience can open us to a transcendent dimension of reality that changes life. An explanation, which is required if that experience is to be shared, will, however, always wrap that experience inside time-bound and time-warped human words that can never be eternal. Words reflect the subjectivity of language, the level of knowledge available to the one explaining, the time that one lives in history and the meanings that one shares.
When knowledge changes, language shifts to reflect the new knowledge or else the explanation becomes recognized as mythological in nature. It is our experience that the sun always emerges in the east and sets in the west. The Egyptians once explained that by suggesting that Ra, the Sun God, drove his chariot across the heavens each day to survey all the world. We explain it today as the earth spinning in its elliptical orbit as it circles the sun every 365 1/4 days. Those two explanations are vastly different; the experience being explained, however, is identical. The problem with most religious systems is that we have literalized our explanations. Every explanation is finally inadequate and finite so every explanation is destined to die, the victim of expanded knowledge. If religion is made up of literalized explanations, religion will die.
The resurrection of Jesus was an experience. It obviously had power. It changed lives, it expanded the understanding of God and caused a new holy day to be born. That is considerable power. When that experience was explained, however, it entered time and space and those explanations became quite mortal. If we identify the experience with the explanations of that experience then the experience will die when the explanations die, as all explanations inevitably do. That is where we are today in relation to the story of Easter. Can we separate the experience of Easter from the dying explanations of antiquity? If we cannot, Christianity is doomed. If we can, Easter will mean something radically different from what we have believed. It will be a dangerous probe. I hope you are willing to join me in it.