Making sense of Easter
Whatever our Easter weekends are currently turning out to be, and wherever we are in whatever faith we may possess, I suspect one thing is for sure, for everyone this is an Easter like no other. For many, it’s a weekend of letting go of preconceptions – of what Easter celebrations should be like – visiting friends and family, traveling, shopping, etc, and for others, it’s an Easter that’s similar but different – many key workers will be used to having their Easters disrupted by the need to work, but in this one there has never been so much intensity nor potential threat as they go about their services to look after others.
As I seek to make sense of the confusion and uncertainty around, it’s driven me to look at the Easter story afresh. I must confess, that I have found it a little too easy over the years to fall into the Easter pattern – reading the same verses, hearing often the same messages, and the story itself had started to take on less meaning. It’s been a really good time to re-explore – just what does Easter mean?
In this season of isolation and uncertainty in April 2020, when everything has been turned upside down, it seems a very good opportunity to look afresh at the Easter message and wonder what its relevance is at this time? Is it even still relevant? Is Easter just about the traditions that we’ve placed around it? Or does the message go far deeper than that? Is it actually filled with incredible relevance for such a time as this?
Easter is best appreciated from a place of discomfort
I’m ashamed to confess, that over the years it’s been a little too easy to get stuck in the rhythm of Easter – a little like Christmas. Hearing the same readings, and often the same messages shared year on year, can have a slightly numbing effect, even when considering the miracle of the Easter story. And yet, to understand Easter’s true message, it can only really be appreciated from a place not of comfort but a of discomfort.
To understand that a little more, it’s worth looking at the characters in the story and the roles that they play. For many of them, the Easter story is filled with people going through an intense period of uncertainty.
The characters in the story
The disciples had been following Jesus, believing him to be the Son of God, and had seen him complete countless miracles that showed to them who he was. They had also heard him preach a life-changing gospel of grace, authenticity, and compassion – not only had he preached with his words, but this had been preached through all his actions. The disciples had seen their leader challenged at many points, and yet stay constant to the message that he brought. They felt strong when he was with them, but the stories in the New Testament show us that they often were so weak when he wasn’t around. As they watched the days over the Easter story unfold, they must have viewed them with an uneasy sense of uncertainty and even fear. Their leader that they knew to be God, was showing vulnerability like they had never thought possible. Their maker of miracles was not saving himself.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, had been used to unexpected events in her life – not in the least getting pregnant before any intercourse had taken place, and outside of marriage. She had witnessed Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana, and she had been witness to some of his activities – as he pulled in crowds, often thousands at a time, to hear him speak. She must have felt quite proud of everything that was prophesised over Jesus (we know after the wise men and the shepherds that she treasured everything in her heart), and yet watching the story unfold towards the events of Good Friday, must have been more than any mother could bear. The pride turning potentially into fear and then dread, as to what was happening.
The wider crowds
For many who followed Jesus, they had placed their hope that he would free the occupied Israelites from the Roman regime. For many, Jesus’ message when he spoke about a ‘new life’ would have been confusing, and uneasy for them to see exactly what he meant, and so many may have placed the hope that this meant freedom from their current difficult circumstances – Roman taxes, Roman rules, etc. However, for them, as the Easter story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that their hoped for saviour, was not going in the direction they wanted.
The Roman rulers and soldiers
It’s clear from the story that the Roman leaders and soldiers weren’t really sure what to do with Jesus, but they did know that they wanted to restore order. The whole region was on the outskirts of the Empire and could be quite tricky to manage at the best of times. For leaders such as Pontius Pilate, I suspect that they would have just wanted an easy way of disposing of this man who had caused a little too much unrest for their Empirical liking.
In essence, each of these groups was to go through a significant amount of discomfort and loss over the days of the Easter story.
Good Friday – dying to one’s own self
In the events of Good Friday, we see Jesus, for many the Son of God, tortured by Roman soldiers, brought to the very extremes of the weakness of the human body through intensive whipping, and then made to carry a splintered, wooden cross to the place where he would be executed.
For many of our characters, as they watched this play out, it would have pulled the rug away from everything they believed that Jesus stood for. They saw him as a strong leader who they had hoped would be with them for a long time, and suddenly, over the period of days, this strong leader had submitted to the authorities, and undergone the most intensive physical punishment imaginable.
In Jesus’ death, there is a sign of what is to come – there is a darkness, thunder, and the temple curtain tears in two. These are all signs that there is still some form of hope, but in the darkness of the day, I imagine it would have taken a lot of strength to hold onto it, and even to understand it.
This was not the life our characters had imagined. They would have each have had hopes and dreams of life continuing in the way they had grown accustomed. Jesus had taught them countless times about dependency on God, and needing to live out their faith without his backing, but I suspect that until they saw it being played out, they may not have taken it so seriously.
The mourning period
After Good Friday comes an intense period of mourning for many of our characters. The disciples are scared, and retreat – some even denying they were part of Jesus’ followers. The friends and family are uncertain in what to do next, and also grieving the loss of a loved one. The wider crowds dissipate, and even some of the Roman soldiers are uncertain that they did the right thing.
There is so much strength for us in this day, particularly for this present time. Sometimes, there are storms that we just have to go through. We all know from knowing the full story, that the disciples were so much the better and stronger for having gone through this period of intense discomfort, but at the time, it must have been awful for them. They had suddenly lost their fearless leader and were left unclear of what the next few days, weeks and months would bring.
Easter Sunday – a life that’s very different
The absolute miracle of Easter Sunday brings to our characters the amazing message – Jesus is alive! Over the course of the next few days, he is to appear to many of his friends, family and followers to show them the true message of Easter – death was not the end. After the uncertainty of the days before, they again begin to hope – their view of the future becomes a lot more positive, and they start to believe afresh that this man Jesus, was really who he said he is.
However, this rebirth does not come looking exactly the same as life did before the mourning. Jesus does not come back to re-assume the routines that were set before, he comes back to help the disciples establish a new way of doing things, and sets the seeds for a rapid period of growth in the early church’s history. He needs the disciples to learn from the season and to change – to grow stronger in both their faith and also as a community so that they can have the most impact in the world around them. He also needs them to step up. He will be there no longer in physical form to guide them – they need to develop their own voices and roles.
What Does easter mean for the characters of the story?
For all of the characters in the Easter story, as the events of Easter unfolded, it’s clear that the way that they hoped the story would play out, was not going in the way that they wanted. In what we celebrate over a number of days, they would have gone from a sense of security in the fact that Jesus was their compassionate and charismatic leader, to a man that was being led to torture and death.
The days of mourning must have been difficult, and we see the disciples hide away over this time – afraid of what any repercussions on them. We can take a lot of hope from this – it is ok to feel scared, it’s ok to feel uncertain, and it’s ok to feel like the very foundations on which you stood have been taken from you. And it’s ok to take time to process.
However, it’s not ok to stay in this place.
What Jesus was showing them, was that for a significant change to happen, sometimes we need to die in a significant way to ourselves. And sadly, that can sometimes be physical death as well as metaphorical.
The true excitement of this story, as we visit the Easter message afresh, comes from Easter Sunday. That glorious day where there is a revelation of new life – of life reborn, but not in the way that the audience had hoped for. It’s a completely changed life, that requires that each of them to take a much more active role going forward than they had done in the past.
In this, we can find a huge amount of strength for the current season, but we can also use it, if we are willing, to let it prepare us for the next season.
What does easter mean for us?
From this exploration of the Easter story, I have gained a renewed sense of hope, hope in the short term that there will be an end to the current struggles and suffering, but also hope that out of the grief and the distress, may come a new season. A re-birth of the church which better understands the tools and the communities around it and seeks to look to new ways to live out our faith in the communities around us, and also one that knows that it needs to change. The key message of the Easter story is the fact that the disciples had no option but to change from their established ways of being if the church was to flourish.
This current season has brought with it a fresh need to reach out to and appreciate those in our communities. The key workers who have been so little thought of so often, are now the very people that are on the front lines of this crisis; the disabled and vulnerable who are left trapped in their homes; the families needing to stay apart so that this horrid virus can slow in its spread. For each person in this season, this is a season of loss.
I can’t imagine that there is a single person who won’t experience loss in some way over the current weeks. This brings with it a fresh need of the church to be relevant. We can’t just offer platitudes from the sidelines (just look at people’s reactions to the phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’ on Twitter), we need to be in this with our communities, and for that, we need to understand them.
This current season has also brought with it a need to adapt to digital tools – tools that have been developing around us for 15 + years, and yet the church in many places has been slow to adapt. This isn’t arguing that digital is the only answer, but by learning to use the tools that we’re so heavily reliant on in the current season well, the church will see a new season where it can connect both physically and virtually to its communities.
The Easter message has never been so relevant
In this time, the Easter message that is full of so much hope out of a time of darkness, and that leads to so much significant change from previous preconceptions, certainly seems more relevant and more needed than ever. I hope that this short exploration can help bring some fresh hope and vision of what could come from this current season.
This re-visit of the Easter story has shown me that Easter is a time when the disciples and followers were released both in authority and faith to continue Jesus’ work and to grow the church. If we are sensible, we will use this current season to do the same – the Easter story shows us that every single person has a role to play in this and to adapt to change. It’s time to let go of some of the things we’ve held on to, and embrace a fresh exploration of what community and church can look like.