In times of discouragement, or even despair, hope asserts that our circumstances will change. In the rhythms of life, an unseasonable frost may intervene, but winter assuredly, eventually gives way to spring.
And Easter is the celebration of spiritual spring. As much as autumn plantings picture death, the tender green shoots of spring break forth as signs of life and rebirth.
Scholars disagree over whether the name “Easter” is derived from Eostra (a Scandinavian goddess of dawn or spring) or Ostern (a Teutonic fertility goddess), both pagan figures honored at festivals celebrating the vernal equinox. Traditions associated with these festivals include the Easter rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and Easter eggs, painted with the bright colors of spring, signifying growth and new life. The Christian holiday builds on the traditions of the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach (the derivation of Pascha, another name for Easter), celebrating deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.
Pope Victor I (c. 189 - 198) standardized Easter to a Sunday holiday, and in 325 the Council of Nicaea set Easter’s date in relation to the paschal moon. The Gregorian calendar correction of 1582 placed Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, falling between March 22 and April 25.
This Holy Week 2000 contains a remarkable confluence of events and commemorations culminating with Passover, Good Friday and Easter. On April 17th, 1961, 200 Cuban patriots died attempting to free their land from Fidel Castro’s Communist tyranny, but were unsuccessful when expected U.S. support never materialized. April 18th marks the 225th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride to warn his countrymen that the British soldiers were on the way to seize the firearms that defended the colonials’ freedom. The day after, Patriots Day, saw the colonials’ failed skirmish with the Redcoats at Lexington, followed by their success in beating back the British at Concord. A total of 57 colonists lost their lives in those battles. This year’s Patriots Day is the seventh anniversary of the Waco conflagration, when Attorney General Janet Reno’s agents set in motion actions that eventuated in the burning deaths of over 80 men, women and children, as well as the fifth anniversary of the senseless bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 of our fellow Americans perished. And on April 20th, 1999, two sociopathic Columbine High School students murdered 12 classmates and a teacher before committing suicide.
This week we remember much death and many sacrifices. And could the irony be more poignant, that in a rush to ascribe meaning to deaths last year, we are being urged to so discount and so dishonor the sacrifices of our freedom-loving forebears of two and a quarter centuries ago, as to accomplish by our own acquiescence what the British tyrannizers intended for us?
These are fitting days to contemplate whether as a nation we still accord any respect to sacrifice.
How eagerly we ignore those Cuban patriots of 39 years ago who surrendered their lives to bring liberty to Cuba. And how easily forgotten has been the sacrifice of Elian Gonzalez’s mother, who died delivering her son to freedom!
Indeed, sacrifice may be an entirely discarded notion in our age of complacent materialism. Sacrifice requires the voluntary surrender of something precious or dear, in service to a purpose assessed as more valuable than the loss. These days, when we are overtaken with acquisitiveness and consumption, freely taking a loss may seem like a foreign concept. But we are only following the lead of our leaders in this.
Although Janet Reno assumed full responsibility for the deaths at Waco, she sacrificed nothing in that tragedy’s aftermath. And her boss has behaved similarly in the wake of his impeachment: While claiming to have suffered and learned, Bill Clinton has made no sacrifices for having broken faith with this country. Can either now claim to be a true agent of justice?
And that illuminates the nature – and necessity – of sacrifice. Justice in certain cases demands it. To comprehend sacrifice fully, we must turn to the ultimate sacrifice, the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which we memorialize this Good Friday. In one sense, this act was the greatest injustice ever. Interviewing Jesus to ascertain criminal guilt, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, turned from asking “What is truth?” to say, “I find no crime in this man ” (Luke 23:4; RSV). Upon learning that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore under Herod’s jurisdiction as king of Israel, Pilate transferred the case. However, also finding no fault in Jesus, Herod sent Him back and Pilate then stated, “Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him.”
In another sense, though, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was the fusion of perfect love and perfect justice. Because we owe God complete obedience, we have no means to make restitution for our sins. Doing what we ought to do in any instance merely zeroes our balance for that accounting entry; we have no coin or currency that will repay the negative sum of our accumulated sins. And so, only God Himself could rectify that debt on our behalf, in a sacrificial act that is simultaneously purely loving and purely just.
We cannot fathom the despair that engulfed the disciples of Jesus after the Crucifixion, as they saw only the injustice of the act. Looking back, because we know the rest of the story, we can scarcely imagine the unexpectedness of the Resurrection. Mere days before, their Leader had entered Jerusalem triumphantly, as a King should. But on Good Friday, he had been put to death in a most ignoble manner. On the third day after the Crucifixion, walking along the road to Emmaus, a pair of Christ’s disciples explained their despondency and sorrow over the death of Jesus: “We trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel” (Luke 24:21). The turn of fortunes and the shattering of their expectations could not have been worse.
The disciples mistook His realm for an earthly one, although He had told them His kingdom was “not of this world.” They believed His death meant the end of their hopes for redemption.
No wonder, then, that the Resurrected Lord’s appearance to some of His followers was met with disbelief and confusion among others. And it has been thus ever since. The historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts has been well established. Eyewitness reports of meetings with Jesus after His death are numerous, mutually corroborative – and convincing. No other possibility besides true resurrection can adequately explain the behavior and beliefs of the Christians living at that time. Still, some observers dispute that Jesus could have risen from the dead.
But the Resurrection is the central fact that distinguishes Christianity. Only Christianity claims that its founder was more than a representative for God, but proved He was God Himself. Only God could raise Himself from the dead, and only God could have standing to ransom us from our sin-indebtedness, through a substitutionary sacrifice.
As the apostle Paul noted several years later, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is vain. …And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. …If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (I Corinthians 15: 14-19).
Nevertheless, if Christ is risen indeed, then we Christians ourselves are fundamentally and radically changed – and our value as precious in God’s eyes is both acknowledged and reinforced. Our identification with our Master makes us citizens of Eternity, in a land still bound by Time. Even more than that, we are purchased, redeemed and adopted; once slaves of our sins, we are reborn in our Lord as children of the Most High God.
But like little Elian Gonzalez, our status is in contention – we have been delivered from slavery to freedom, yet many around us would reimpose our chains because they refuse to recognize the validity of the sacrifice made on our behalf. As Pilate did before them, these claimants to moral equivalency dispute truth, attempt to evade responsibility, but cannot then escape acquiescence in taking innocent life.
When Jesus cried out from the Cross, “It is finished,” our redemption was complete. Our Risen Lord returned, resurrected, to prove that His sacrifice was not in vain. The hope of our noble national experiment in liberty, defended so honorably 225 years past, is based in the belief that we are valuable as moral beings created in the image of God, thus as worthy of sacrifice as we are also called to sacrifice. The hope of Easter is that we turn from despair and meaninglessness to humbly acknowledge our debts to our Creator as we accept the free gift of resurrection to eternal life through our Risen Lord, Christ Jesus.
“The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection.” –C.S. Lewis
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