In today’s world, everyone makes much more of Christmas than Easter. It’s become a quasi-secular festival, full of joy and fun, especially for kids, and has strong echoes of earlier pagan festivals marking the middle of winter for northern hemisphere types and the summer solstice for us lot down south. But for all that, the Christmas story still resonates for many who do not consider themselves especially “religious”, with its gentle story of new life and new hope, even if many of the traditional elements of the story are actually not strictly Biblical.
But for those who truly explore the Christian story, Easter is by far the more significant celebration. In the open tomb we see the actual point of the Christ story, which is that death is a mere interruption of an eternal life, no more to be feared than any other event. This is why Christians cry out “He is Risen!” with such excitement. In Christ’s victory over death there is a triumphant answer to the most frightening and indisputible fact of all – we will all die. Every single one of us.
But if death is a mere transition to a new form of life, then one can live without that fear, even if we mourn the passing of those who have been dear to us.
We don’t die when we die. It’s a stupendous, incredible thought. It seems impossible, of course, which is why Jesus went to such lengths to impress upon those he met outside the tomb that he was a real person … a real body, not just some spectral form or spirit.
He got up and walked out of the tomb, requiring the stone to be rolled away so he could get out, in a new body, miraculously transformed from the beaten and broken one deposited in the tomb on Good Friday.
For every individual, a choice must be made as to whether the story is true, and it is a huge leap of faith, to be sure. What a staggering suggestion it is. We don’t die when we die. We live on, transfigured, healed, and contented. Quite whether this occurs at the moment of death or at some “end time” is the matter of theological debate but the essential point is the actual survival of the individual. With their own memories and experiences. It alters our whole view of the Universe. Of reality itself.
Some will say, of course, that the end of the Christ story is simply made up, a fiction to put a good gloss on the end of a social movement that was in danger of collapsing in ignominy. But without the literal truth of the story, the rest of the Christian tradition becomes meaningless. Read from beginning to end, the whole Christ story inexorably leads up to his death and rebirth. He kept it from his closest supporters – it was the most dramatic and unexpected coup de theatre. Along the way he warned them that they didn’t really understand what was going on, but also told them not to worry, because they would, one day.
And that is the ultimate message of Easter. That one day, we will all actually know what is going on. In our own death, we will be awakened to the actual truth of what the Universe is all about. No matter how stressful, how frightening, or how terrible the world may be, something better awaits us all.
As they hung on the cross, in unimaginable agony, Christ’s instinct was still to tell the world not to be scared. “Fear not,” he says to the dying thief hanging next to him, “tonight you will be with me in Paradise.” In extremis, he is still trying to reassure us of the miracle that we cannot yet see.
In two millenia of Christian theological debate, it seems that humankind can manage to argue endlessly about anything. The sterile and ultimately pointless debates about whether the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ cost many a principled man and woman their head. Today’s endless musing over Creationism is another mindless distraction, as is our obsession with sexual niceties.
At Easter, we are given the opportunity to stop and refocus on what truly matters. Imagine if every Christian in the world turned to every other non-Christian tomorrow and said “By the way, do you know that you don’t die when you die?”
Now THAT would be Good News.