A good friend of mine who loves to text at all hours of the day—or night—which is one of the reasons I keep my cell phone on silent all the time—texted this question to me Holy Thursday morning: What does Easter mean to you? I guess I was in a bit of a grumpy mood or maybe just thought ‘how the heck I am going to respond to the central belief of Christians for two millennia by text’?
I got no response which I guess was the appropriate response. But the question of the text really nailed it. What does Easter mean to me or any of us today two thousand years after the historical events we commemorate in the Easter celebration?
So here it is, this fundamental question about Easter (from my chair):
- What does it mean?
- How can we really believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus?
- For those who believe this, what impact might this have on our daily lives?
Witnesses, Missing Body and God’s Invitation
All four Gospels state that on the second morning after Jesus was laid in the tomb, it was women–Mary Magdalene and some others—who were the first to arrive there to care for the body of their beloved friend but that his remains were there. Now this would be a strange account for the male apostles to have concocted. In Middle Eastern society of the time, women were not regarded as reliable witnesses, and in a court of law a woman’s testimony was almost always heavily discounted. Why then would have the original followers of Jesus attributed such testimony, which was foundational to belief in Christ, to people whose testimony was so often disregarded? Well, maybe because that was exactly how it happened. Women were the first ones to find the empty tomb and they led others—the men—to come to see and believe that the Lord had been raised.
The absence of the body does not de facto mean that Jesus was raised. Maybe the disciples went to the wrong tomb; or they lied about the missing body; or even maybe someone stole the body and hid it.
Yet if Jesus’ body had been available, it makes sense that those who opposed the teaching of Jesus’ resurrection would have found it to embarrass the disciples. If the body had indeed been taken by Jesus’ disciples or they had gone to the wrong tomb, the reality of Jesus’ body itself would have come to light and the location of his dead body would have put an end to all claims of resurrection.
Faith Grows from Freedom
But even if we can accept on an intellectual level, in our heads, that the resurrection of Jesus was not concocted and that there is a reasonable historical evidence that it was true, how can our hearts have faith in it, come to believe it in a way that is meaningful and transformative? For this, let us go back to another fundamental Christian belief.
It is the firm conviction of the Church that God never overpowers, never pushes the human person into anything. God always respects our freedom and is never manipulative. Nowhere is this more true than in what is revealed in the resurrection of Jesus.
The Gospels assure us that, like his birth, the resurrection was physical. It was real. And it was not just some alteration inside the consciousness of believers. After the resurrection, we are assured, Jesus’ tomb was empty, people could touch him, he ate food with them; he was not a ghost. But his rising from the dead was not a brute slap in the face to his critics, a non-negotiable fact that left skeptics with nothing to say. In fact, it had the same dynamics as his birth. After he rose from the dead, Jesus was seen by some, but not by others; understood by some, but not by others. Some got his meaning and it changed their lives, others were indifferent to him, and still others understood what had happened, hardened their hearts against it, and then tried to destroy him and the message of hope and justice he was bringing into the world.
Notice how this parallels, almost perfectly, what happened at the birth of Jesus: The baby was real, not a ghost, but he was seen by some, but not by others and the event was understood by some but not by others. Some got its meaning and it changed their lives, others were indifferent and their lives went on as before, while still others (like Herod) sensed its meaning but hardened their hearts against him and all that for which his birth stood.
What’s Love Got to do With It?
Why the difference? What makes some see the resurrection while others do not? What leads some understand the mystery and embrace it, while others remain in indifference or hatred? As in most anything in life that has meaning, it is about love.
Love is in the eye. When we look at anything through the eyes of love, we see correctly and properly appropriate its mystery. The reverse is also true. When we look at anything – or anyone – through eyes that are cynical, jealous, or bitter, we will not see correctly, will not understand, and will not properly appropriate its mystery.
We see this in how the Gospel of John describes the events of Easter Sunday. Jesus has risen, but only the person who is driven by love, Mary Magdalen, goes in search of him. The others remain as they are, locked inside their own worlds. But love seeks out its beloved. Mary Magdalene goes out, spices in hand, wanting to honor the body of her beloved friend. She finds his grave empty and runs back to Peter and the beloved disciple and tells them the tomb is empty.
Peter enters the empty tomb, sees the linens that had covered the body of Jesus, but does not understand. Then the beloved disciple, enters. He sees and he does understand. Love grasps the mystery. Love is the eye. It is what brought the first believers to lets us see and understand the resurrection and it is what brings us to that same reality today.
That is why, after the resurrection, some saw Jesus but others did not. Some understood the resurrection while others did not. Those with the eyes of love saw and understood. Those without the eyes of love either didn’t see anything or were perplexed or upset by what they did see.
May we have the eyes of love to see the resurrected Lord in our midst in the many ways the Risen Christ continues to come into our lives and hearts.