The meaning of Easter

Cocoon to butterflyIn the northern half of our planet, Easter comes in early Spring — rebirth and new growth after Winter is obvious and seems to announce the meaning of Easter. But in the southern hemisphere where I now live, it is early Autumn and things are dying rather than growing. This Easter Sunday, after reading Jesus of Nazereth by Pope Benedict XVI during Lent, I can now see more clearly that both dying and rebirth are essential to understanding the true meaning of Easter. Let me explain.

We celebrate transformation on Easter Sunday

One of the most basic ideas about change is that there must be an ending before there can be a new beginning. As a simple example, before you can really engage in a new health and fitness regime, you have to let go of your old “couch potato” habits. The same idea applies to the transformational purpose God has for Easter. Before Jesus’ resurrection, he had to die on the Cross. An ending and a new beginning are necessary to accomplish God’s transformational purpose.

What has God transformed? There are two levels to an answer to this question. At one level, through Jesus’ death and resurrection he has transformed man’s relationship with God. Down through the ages God slowly taught human beings how to relate to him. In the Old Testament period he taught Israel that, rather than the idols everyone else worshiped, God is one and desires that man relate to him as he desires. Israel slowly developed the idea of sacrificing anaimals to atone for their sins against the Law he had given them through Moses and thus be able to please God. But there was also a continuing feeling in Israel that animal sacrifices were not what God desired. [See Psalm 40:6] Even the Gentiles began to question this mode of sacrifice. “The Greek world also sensed more and more acutely the inadequacy of animal sacrifices, which God does not require and in which man does not give God what he might expect from man.” [1]

In Easter, God once and for all ended the old way of man’s relating to him. Rather than the old animal sacrifices, God, through his son Jesus sacrificed himself, once and for all wiping out the sins of mankind. The New Testament is based on a fundamentally different way of relating to God, opened up by Jesus’ sacrifice of himself for us. Why did Jesus need to atone for our sins? Benedict — a German who lived during Hitler’s horrific era — puts it this way: “The reality of evil and injustice that disfigures the world and at the same time distorts the mage of God — this reality exists, through our sin. It cannot simply be ignored; it must be addressed. But here it is not a case of a cruel God demanding the infinite. It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation, and in the person of his Son takes the suffering on himself. . . God himself ‘drinks the cup’ of every horror to the dregs and thereby restores justice through the greatness of his love, which, through suffering, transforms the darkness. . . The incarnate obedience of Christ is presented as an open space into which we are admitted and through which our own lives find a new context.” In Jesus’ death and resurrection each of us experiences an ending of our own inadequacy and sinfulness so that we can enter into a new relationship with God, confident that we will be received!

But there is also another meaning to Easter. God, through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection has transformed humanity. As Benedict so clearly puts it: “In Jesus’ Resurrection a new possibility of human existence is attained that affects everyone and that opens up a future, a new kind of future, for mankind . . . Christ’s Resurrection is either a universal event or it is nothing, Paul tells us.” [1 Corinthians 15:16, 20] It was not a matter of Jesus’ corpse being resuscitated, like Lazarus (who had to die later on again). No, Jesus was transformed into “an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming but lies beyond it — a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence.” Jesus made an ending to the old humanity and created the radically new possibility we now experience. This reality exists in the midst of the everyday world in which we live — “a definitive otherness in the midst of the continuing old world . . .” How can this be? “The resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience, something new, something unprecedented — a new dimension of reality that is revealed.”

We may think at this point, “Well, the apostles experienced this new reality but I don’t.” That is precisely where the church comes into our life. In the years immediately after Jesus’ resurrection, the early Christians pondered what had happened and gradually came to understand that the new dimension of reality was present to them also, not just to the disciples who had actually witnessed Jesus’ new life. They began to understand what Jesus had taught them. [Read the story of the road to Emmaus.] Rather than trying to summarize that for you here, I’d like to end this post with my favorite quote when it comes to experiencing the new reality of God — “Be still and know that I am God.” [Psalm 46:10] If you seek God, and wait, he will surely find you and open up your eyes to this new reality.

[1] All the quotes in this post are from Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI, Volume 2, From the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection

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