But What Exactly is Easter?

“Christ, the Son of God, rose from the dead.” In that brief sentence, if we look carefully enough, we can discover the whole order of being and our place within it.
Detail from "Resurrection" ("Воскресение", c.1892) by Mikhail Nesterov [Wikipedia]

I.

As a general principle, an honest man will want know what something is, or is said to be, before he decides whether he thinks it is true or that he must do anything about it. Take one’s relation to a doctor. Insofar as we deal with a doctor qua doctor, we want him to tell us the truth about what is wrong with us. If we didn’t, we should not bother him. We do not, if we are normal, want him to lie to us. Unless we know what the problem is, we cannot decide what, if anything, we need to do about it. And if we decide the doctor is incompetent, we still have to find one that is.

Definitions are good things. They are intended to tell us what a thing is in words we understand. Generally, we want to know what a thing is whether we like it or not. Indeed, we need to know what things can harm us and which ones help us. We understand that it is dangerous for us deliberately to choose not to know the truth about something. On the basis of what they are and of what we are, our knowledge relates us to everything that is not ourselves.

In the Easter season, someone who does not know much about what it means might well ask: “What exactly is Easter anyhow?” Accurate knowledge of it is not always easy to come by. Indeed, we have the impression that many people do not want to know what it really is lest it make a demand on them they are not willing to consider. Still, what would be a fair and accurate answer to an honest inquiry about Easter that had no further purpose but to hear accurately what this word and the reality to which it refers mean?  On hearing the explication, the inquiring listener might say: “So that is what it means!” or “Makes no sense to me!” or “I had it all wrong” or “It’s really complicated” or “Run that by me again…” In any case, the question—“What is Easter?—is a worthy one.

II.

The word Easter can have several origins—an Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, a Frankish way of referring to the East and the rising Sun, a reference to the Jewish Passover. For Christians and anyone who wants to know about its meaning, it recalls the day on which Christ rose from the dead. Each of the three words—Christ, rose, dead—refers to a specific reality.

Taken in itself, “Christ rose from the dead” is a straight-forward statement of what Easter means, of what it is to which the sentence refers. Spelled out, it recalls that a young Jewish man, called Jesus Christ, claimed to be the Son of God. He was executed in Jerusalem under Roman authority about thirty years after his birth in Bethlehem. Contemporary witnesses maintained that three days after his execution on a Cross, he rose again from the dead. The same witnesses initially had a hard time believing this event, but they also had more difficulty in denying what they saw and touched. So they concluded that it was a fact that they witnessed.

“To rise again” means that the same individual, who was actually dead, reappeared, identified himself as the same person who died, though in a transfigured manner. Deadmeans what dead means. Life had ceased in him.

Once we understand what Easter means, we are not asked to accept this unexpected truth as if it had no justification. No one denies that most dead men stay dead. Even the two dead men whom this Christ was said to have brought back to life—the widow’s son and Lazarus—subsequently died. This did not happen to Christ.

Throughout subsequent history, many efforts have been made to explain how this event and its testimony could not be true. These efforts have their value. Each time this Resurrection is denied, something new about its reality comes to be understood. Muslims, for example, maintain that God cannot suffer. Therefore, Christ was not God and was not crucified. Some Jews just after Christ’s death were worried that the disciples would claim that he rose again, as he said he would, so they paid some soldiers to testify that the body was carried away at night. The disciples, in this scenario, only pretended that it rose again.

Many different theories were subsequently developed to explain what happened as if it did not or could not have happened. It is a difficult reality, so we can expect many efforts to keep insisting either that Christ did not rise again or that he really did not exist in the first place. The disciples were said to have “wanted” Christ to rise so badly that they “imagined” that He did. But the record shows that the actual disciples themselves were, to put it mildly, “slow to believe”, as well they might have been.

The disciples were not finally convinced by their imagination but by the facts of what they saw and heard. We can, of course, maintain that they were ignorant fishermen—what did they know? But it is more likely that these supposedly ignorant fishermen, who were used to catching and cutting up fish, were quite well aware that what they saw went against all common experience. They just knew that it happened. They did not deny their experience under pressure. Only later did they and their followers came to reflect on how and why it could have happened in terms that kept the truth of what they saw intact but did not at the same time contradict reality.

III.

Let’s then grant that we understand, in basic terms, what is meant by Easter, by the Resurrection. One does not have to be a believer to understand what is being said. That is precisely what anyone who wants to know the meaning of things would want to know. But so what? Does it make any real difference? Why not just let this information go at that? We do not have to worry our heads about it.

That would be a perfectly reasonable position if the Resurrection of Christ was intended to include himself alone. All along, this Man who rose again kept insisting that what happened to him could happen to everyone else who bore the same human nature that he assumed. Now for anyone who has ever thought of the end of his own life, whether it just ends in death, this Resurrection is a pretty consoling doctrine. It means that our lives do not end when they end in death. It looks more like they really begin when they end in death.

One further hitch arises. It seems that our lives are not just an uneventful unrolling of the number of years during which we were alive. Different people live different kinds of lives. Some lasted longer than others. Many never really got much of a start. Quite a few never made it out of the womb. The resurrection of the body connoted the putting back together of what belonged together. Death, in fact, may not have been intended from the beginning. And if this Christ was really the Son of God, as he claimed, what was he doing becoming man? The usual answer to this recurring question is that he wanted to save sinners.

It takes a while for that idea of saving sinners to sink in, especially since it was affirmed that Christ himself was sinless. He did not have to become other than he was within the Godhead. It seems that the One that he called his Father asked him to take on human nature. He was obedient and accepted whatever followed. And what followed in the end was pretty gory. The Roman method of executing criminals was devised to be as cruel and final as possible.

IV.

Again all of this seems odd. Why would God have to go through this convoluted way just to redeem sinners? Why not just a word and be done with it? Were the dalliances, bickerings, and betrayals that men imposed on each other so bad? Evidently, the Father thought them so. Christ maintained that, in the end, every mortal person would follow his path to resurrection of the body. The whole person would be restored. Every person was initially intended for eternal life, not just for a few years in what came to be called, in a graphic expression, a “vale of tears”.

Good philosophers tell us that the world need not have existed at all. If the world did not need to exist, it follows that none of us ever needed to exist either. But the fact is that both the world and we ourselves in it do exist, though we seem pretty finite and fragile. This consideration pushes the question back to the Father again. If he did not “need” these creatures of his creation who seemed so frequently to wander off the reservation, why bother with them? Obviously, it was not just so that he would have something to do to keep busy.

It seems, when all the fog has cleared away, that the Father wanted to invite each of the creatures who knew he was mortal into the inner life that he shared with the Son and Spirit, the Persons of his own one, divine life. It turns out that the world was not something that needed to happen, but something that was chosen to happen in order that, within it, human persons could be invited home, to a place in which they did not belong but into which they could be invited.

But like any invitation, the one invited needs to accept the invitation. If he is forced to accept it, he is not really invited in any proper sense. Moreover, any invitation can be turned down. Why is this possibility of turning an invitation down important? It is because the life within the Godhead into which we are invited can include only those who want to be there, who want to share the life that is already there. Any rejection of the invitation is self-chosen. The consequences that follow are not indifferent or inconsequential. The one who rejects the invitation is left with himself as the alternative to a life of participation within the Godhead. In effect, on the basis of the invitation, the world is divided into two cities, as Augustine said.

When we set out to inquire about what the Resurrection of Christ is, it turns out to include an inquiry into the question of what we ourselves are. We do not really have the choice of becoming nothing. Since we are immortal and ordered to resurrection, our most fundamental choice is to accept or reject an invitation to be more than we are by our given nature.  We did not, in fact, have a choice about whether we would exist or not in the first place. It is impossible to imagine being given a choice to exist before we exist.

Existence was given to each of us, and it was good that we exist. We find ourselves already in existence. We are invited to accept what we are or to reject it. If we reject it, we are allowed to live with this rejection as what forms our being for the rest of eternity. This consequence is but another way of affirming how important our lives really are. Christ, the Son of God, rose from the dead. In that brief sentence, if we look carefully enough, we can discover the whole order of being and our place within it.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 157 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

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