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April 5, 2007

Resurrection Day 2007: The Road to the Cross

“[W]e are confirmed in the opinion, that the present age would be deficient in their duty to God, their posterity and themselves, if they do not establish an American republic. This is the only form of government we wish to see established; for we can never be willingly subject to any other King than He who, being possessed of infinite wisdom, goodness and rectitude, is alone fit to possess unlimited power.” –Instructions of Malden, Massachusettes for a Decleration of Independence, 27 May 1776

Spring seems, on a superficial view, to be the gentlest of the seasons. Yet as poet T.S. Eliot proclaimed, “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land.” Indeed, the new life rising around us is a hard miracle.

At this season, Christians memorialize the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday, and His rising from death on Easter morning. The Resurrection is the central fact that distinguishes Christianity from all other faiths, and we meditate these days on the way to and from the empty tomb.

In Christian theology, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was the fusion of perfect love and perfect justice, vanquishing evil, in this sense: Because we owe God complete obedience, we have no means to make restitution for our sins. Doing what we should in any instance merely zeroes our balance for that act; we have no way to repay the negative sum of our accumulated sins. Only God Himself could rectify that moral debt on our behalf, in a sacrificial act that is simultaneously purely loving and purely just. One death thus gave each human life forever after an incalculable value, because of that exchange.

Jesus further commanded His believers to follow Him in self-sacrifice: “And when He had called the people to Him, with His disciples also, He said to them, ‘Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me’” (Mark 8:34). “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:38). Clearly, Jesus calls His followers to lay down the life of this world and follow Him on the road to the cross.

What lay behind, in the shadow of the cross, was a barbaric world. Life during Christ’s time on earth was cheap, treated as suitable for sport and spectacle. The execution of Jesus by crucifixion typified the cruelty and capriciousness of Roman rule. The Jewish chief priests, arguing for the death of Jesus, clamored, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, knew that Jesus was guilty of no capital crime, for he said, “I wash my hands of the blood of this innocent man” – yet, fearing political repercussions should Caesar hear rumors of Jesus as a rival claimant to authority, Pilate permitted the death sentence to be carried out.

Innocent life taken for political expediency – does this sound familiar? We dally with such devaluation today, in embryonic-stem-cell research, abortion, euthanasia, terrorism – all treated as justifiable to relativists. How unseemly, how grotesque, that the devaluation of human life now runs under the banner of “choice.” The question is not whether but what you choose. Among the choices, the hardest path is the road of the cross, following the example of Jesus. Yet if that stony, stumbling course is the hardest, it is also the best.

What swept over the world, after the Resurrection, was a vast transformation. The Apostle Paul took up his cross, in a prisoner’s chains, and brought members of Caesar’s household into the fellowship of Christians – so that they had “no king but King Jesus.” No other possibility aside from true resurrection can adequately explain the acts of the followers of Jesus.

Historically, commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection, as with His birth, has echoed various pagan rites that seem – though not so explicitly and directly as Old Testament prophecies – to presage events in His life. Scholars variously attribute the name “Easter” to derivation of Eostra (a Scandinavian goddess of dawn or spring) or Ostern (a Teutonic fertility goddess), both pagan figures honored at festivals celebrating the vernal equinox. Eostra is one of many similar names of Euro-Mediterranean pagan goddesses, with the form Ishtar most often associated with the region around Mesopotamia’s Euphrates River. Traditions associated with these festivals include the Easter rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and Easter eggs, painted with the bright colors of spring and 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 the Israelites’ deliverance from bondage in Egypt.

Jesus Christ crucified is likened to Passover’s sacrificial lamb: “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7); and “[Y]ou were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

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 22 March and 25 April. This year, Holy Week coincides with Passover, and as the Gregorian and Julian calendars agree on setting Easter’s date, Western and Eastern Orthodox churches are celebrating Resurrection Sunday on 8 April.

Easter occurs during the season in which the War for American Independence began in earnest: Within two weeks, we commemorate the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which commenced hostilities between colonial Americans and soldiers of the British crown. One culmination of the infusion of Christian respect for life into human beliefs was the Revolutionary War rationale that mankind is deserving of liberty.

In parts of colonial America, Easter was a two-day celebration, over Easter Sunday and Easter Monday. Current-day customs in the U.S. were set soon after the end of the Civil War, mingling religious elements with commercial ventures. By 1870, Easter was a holiday for new spring fashions, flowers and special confections, including sugary eggs and chocolate bunnies. (The White House Egg Roll, dating to 1878, takes place on Easter Monday.)

Many, possibly most, of our Founders were Christians, or else steeped in a political philosophy rooted in the Christian view of human nature. They believed, as we still do, that each individual human is a morally responsible being created in the image of God, and that the only government capable of enduring well is the one that honors this nature by ensuring liberty; the one that is dedicated to principles rooted in the Easter view of human worth. “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time,” wrote Thomas Jefferson; “the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”

At the far end of the road to the cross lies the empty tomb – the promise of resurrection and eternal life. Even today, the empty tomb beckons. Will we travel the way of the cross, or take another road?

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