Wednesday, May 23, 2007
WHAT EASTER IS ALL ABOUT
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.
(G M Hopkins, 'The Wreck of the Deutschland')
Most early Christians were Jews who were used to celebrating religious festivals at various times in the year (Passover, Tabernacles, Pentecost etc.). So Christians were encouraged to follow the great events of our Lord's life at various times in the year. We begin the 'Christian Year' with Advent as we prepare for Christ's coming. Advent also completes the cycle by reminding us of Christ's second coming to judge the world. The Christmas festival celebrates the Incarnation of God in Christ, when 'the Word became flesh'. Some churches commemorate the coming of the Wise Men at Epiphany (January 6); others the baptism of Jesus. Lent reminds us of Jesus' temptation and sufferings, preparing the way for the celebration of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the contemplation of his Passion and death on the cross on 'Good Friday'. Easter is the celebration of Christ's resurrection. Then we have Ascension Sunday. Pentecost, seven weeks after Easter, is the anniversary of the coming of the Holy Spirit. (It is sometimes called Whitsunday, the Sunday on which baptismal candidates were dressed in white). Last of all Trinity Sunday recalls the key doctrine of our faith: there is one God, in three Persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In the forty-day season of Lent (46 if you include Sundays) we take a spiritual inventory. Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted for forty days, so from the fourth century the Church has observed Lent as a time of inner examination, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Fasting is more than 'giving up candy for God'. It is the sharpest way we know of making ourselves pray, and pray more intensely. For Jesus and his disciples this was a time of tension, a time of expectancy and excitement. In Lent we prepare ourselves to experience the mighty meaning of the Cross. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when in some churches ashes are put on people's foreheads to remind them of their mortality: 'Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return'. Lent comes from the Old English lencten, the 'lengthening' of the days of Spring. Lent anticipates new life. It's when 'the daffodils come before the swallow dares' to quote one of Shakespeare's loveliest lines.
Beyond the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus weeping over that city, his anger at the exploitation of the poor as he overturned the Temple money-changers' tables, his anguish in Gethsemane, the mockery of a trial... Jesus the Son of God is crucified on a cross between two criminals. And they call that Good Friday.
Good Friday? Yes, for three reasons: reasons associated with the three greatest needs humans have - to be loved, to be forgiven, and to find meaning in the face of their inevitable death.
(1) When Jesus died he was demonstrating that the God who was his Father entered our life and loved us even to the point of death. The death of Jesus, says Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers from Prison is the ultimate symbol of the suffering of God in the life of the world. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to a cross. Only a powerless and suffering God can really help us... God did not come to save us by an act of terror so that we would be cowed into belief, but by a great act of love. Abelard, a twelfth century philosopher and theologian, believed the cross primarily demonstrates the greatness of the love of God, a love that should move us away from our sin and to love God in return. God so loved, that he gave (John 3:16). The Son of God, says Paul, loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20). Our response? Obedient love - even if we suffer too (1 Peter 2:21).
(2) There's a theme running through the Bible which is somewhat foreign to Westerners, that of animal sacrifices for human sins. John the Baptist recognized Jesus as 'the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world' (John 1:29,36). Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers describe how animals can 'bear the sins' of humans. These animal sacrifices (eg. of bulls and goats) were repeatable, but, says Hebrews, Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many (9:28). Jesus thought of himself as the Suffering Servant (see Isaiah 53) offering his life as a sacrifice, as a ransom for others' sins (eg. Mark 10:45). Anselm, an eleventh century Archbishop of Canterbury argued that sin is an insult to the majesty of God, and at the cross God's honour was 'satisfied'. The Protestant Reformers emphasized more our sin breaking God's holy law, we deserved to incur the penalty - death (Romans 6:23) - but Christ died in our place, paying the penalty and setting us free. We are so important to God that what is destroying us is of ultimate concern to him, and he acts to offer a way out of our misery. We are invited to repent, turn from our sins, and be forgiven, because we have been pardoned!
(3) Gustav Aulen, a Swedish theologian (Christus Victor) says the cross is mainly about a cosmic drama in which God in Christ does battle with the forces of evil and defeats them. Jesus' death on the cross not only demonstrates God's amazing love for us and saves us from our sins, but it also saves us from death and all the evil powers as well. Through his death he destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free us from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14,15; see also Colossians 2:13-15, 2 Timothy 1:10).
The three traditional theories of the Atonement, a demonstration of love, the bearing of penalty, and victory over evil may have had more appeal to earlier ages than our own... Australian New Testament scholar Leon Morris has suggested that today we might also see the cross addressing problems of futility and frustration (see Romans 8:20, Hebrews 2:8-9); sickness and death (Isaiah 53:4, Matthew 8:17); ignorance (Jeremiah 17:9, 1 Timothy 2:4); loneliness (Genesis 2:18, Mark 15:34, Romans 8:38-39); and selfishness (Luke 9:23, Galatians 2:10, Romans 6:4).
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident, was working twelve hours a day at hard labour. He had lost his family and had been told by the doctors in the Gulag that he had terminal cancer. One day he thought, 'There is no use going on. I'm soon going to die anyway.' Ignoring the guards, he dropped his shovel, sat down, and rested his head in his hands.
He felt a presence next to him and looked up and saw an old man he had never seen before, and would never see again. The man took a stick and drew a cross in the sand in front of Solzhenitsyn. It reminded him that there is a Power in the world that is greater than any empire or government, a Power that could bring new life to his situation. He picked up his shovel and went back to work. A year later Solzhenitsyn was unexpectedly released from prison and went to live in the United States.
Good Friday? Yes. When God's human creatures are bad, God is good. When we are at our worst, God is at his best...!
The French thinker, August Comte, once told Thomas Carlyle that he was going to start a new religion to replace Christianity. 'Very good', replied Carlyle, 'all you have to do is to be crucified, rise again, and get the world to believe that you are still alive. Then your new religion will have a chance.'
Easter is the annual celebration of the resurrection of Christ, and is the most important date in the Christian year. In the early church the Easter celebration included the lighting of a candle, prayer, readings from Scripture, and the joyful celebration of the Lord's Supper. It was also a common time for baptisms, with resurrection life symbolized by white robes. Over the centuries some pagan spring customs have been added, including Easter eggs and rabbits!
The death and resurrection of Christ are the key events and doctrines of the Christian faith. In an early creed (1 Corinthians 15:3 ff.) Paul reports several eyewitness accounts to substantiate his claim that if the resurrection had not occurred, the whole Christian faith is false (verse 14) and inneffective (verse 17), Christian preachers are wasting their time (verse 14), our sins aren't forgiven after all (verse 17), we die without hope (verse 18), we are the most miserable of people (verse 19), and so without resurrection let's 'live it up' for tomorrow we die (verse 32).
The dominant note in the celebration of Easter is joy. 'Make people laugh and you open heaven to them', says a rabbinical proverb. 'The risen Christ makes life into a constant celebration' writes the 4th century bishop and theologian Athanasius. Some Greek Orthodox Easter worship services include the Rite of Laughter: 'Now let us laugh. Let us worship God by laughing together...!'
Easter turns despair into hope. The American playwright Eugene O'Neill lived tragically, and shortly before his death he wrote poignantly: 'I can partly understand how God can forgive humans, for we are so weak and ignorant. What I can't understand is how he can ever forgive himself?' We have each, in our darkest moments, probably wondered the same thing ourselves. But Easter, if it has any message for us at all, says that human tragedy is never ultimate. He who vacated the tomb is alive, and has not vacated his throne! All powers-that-be will become powers-that-have-been (1 Corinthians 2:6). Easter reminds us that God is is control of the universe. The Easter-event is about a God who loves eternally, individually and sufficiently.
My dear Saviour, let me ask Thee
since Thou art nailed to the cross
and since Thou sayest Thyself: It is finished!
Am I now set free from death?
May I, through Thy suffering and death,
Has salvation come for all the world?
True, Thou canst not speak for pain,
yet Thy head Thou bowest
And tacitly Thou sayest: Yes!
Jesus, Thou Who wert dead,
now livest forever;
in my last agony
nowhere will I turn but to Thee
Who hast redeemed me.
O my beloved Lord!
Give me only that which Thou hast won,
more I do not desire.
Aria and chorus from J.S.Bach, St. John Passion
'Yes' and 'no' are little words, Lord, but they are very powerful. The Son of God said 'yes' and submitted himself to the joys and pains of our life. Mary said 'yes' and submitted to the mystery of bearing the incarnate God. Jesus said 'yes' and submitted to Gethsemane and arrest and trial and death on a cross.
But Jesus also invites us to say 'No'. If we will come after him we will deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. This is the only way of saying 'Amen' or 'Yes' to him. To deny ourselves is to love him, and our neighbour. To die to self is to live for you, Lord God, and for others.
Remind me, Lord, that life is only lent to us. So may Lent and the Cross be truly Life to me. I truly and earnestly repent of my sins.