Reflecting on Easter: Part II
As citizens of the 21st century world, I’d suggest we don’t think much about the significance of Easter. We have lived through 1,500 years of Christendom in the West, meaning that our foundational identities are built upon layers of tradition that we are simply unaware of. The story of Easter is taken for granted by just about every person who lives in the Western, contemporary world.
When we remove these layers, however, we are reminded that Easter is truly a remarkable event. We celebrate the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of a man whom we believe was (or is) the Son of God, one of the Trinity, of one substance with God. When viewed from a different perspective, the events of Easter seem outlandish, even ludicrous. Let’s briefly unpack this.
First of all is the acceptance of Jesus as the Son of God. The idea that a person was fully divine and fully human was not unusual in the ancient world; however, this idea was generally believed about the privileged few who were born into a royal family, or about the mythical heroes of Greek legend. The early Roman emperors, for example, were generally conferred with divine status upon their death, making the still-living emperors the ‘Sons of God’, or divi filius. (This makes Jesus’ claims to be the ‘Son of God’ particularly dangerous, because many would have interpreted it as a possible challenge to the Roman emperor!)
Next is the issue of Jesus’ humble origins and death. Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph, who by all accounts were ordinary, common people. Most biographies in the ancient world began by telling the story of their subject’s family in order to demonstrate their noble credentials or qualifications to rule, and included a genealogy that emphasised prominent people. While genealogies are certainly included in two of the gospels, they are rather more modest — Matthew’s genealogy could even be said to be highly controversial, because not everyone included were paragons of virtue. Jesus was born in a common setting, and according to Luke’s gospel, was visited by a bunch of questionable shepherds, people on the lower rungs of society and generally not well regarded.
While Jesus led a life that was, by any reckoning, an extraordinary one, the story does not end as one would expect. Where most would expect a noble or heroic death, or at the very least a peaceful death from old age, Jesus is put on trial and sentenced to die a criminal’s death. He is mocked, spat upon, and generally mistreated, and his death is a humiliating experience for both him and his followers.
Even the fact of Jesus’ death is peculiar: for a god to encounter the depths of mortality and take on a permanent human form was highly unusual. For a god to die as a human was almost unheard of — in the ancient world, two narrative deaths were common: mortals or semi-divine figures could transcend to divinity after death, or gods could die in their divine forms. For a god to be humiliated and executed as a criminal was simply unimaginable to an honour-focused society like that of the Greco-Romans. For a god to spend three days in the mysterious limbo of death was all the more unconscionable. Small wonder that Pliny the Younger dismissed the Christian faith as ‘depraved, excessive superstition’!
However, Jesus’ resurrection and ascension were powerful, significant moments in history. Here, divinity had tasted death yet had triumphed against it. Jesus’ words, teachings, and prophecies were vindicated, and for the first and only time, God had become man and experienced humanity at its worst. Despite this, Jesus reiterated his call to his followers, and sent them out on a mission: to bring the good news of salvation to the whole world, regardless of gender, culture, language, or people group.
This brings us to the present, as we draw closer to Easter. Our familiarity with the story of Jesus can make us oblivious to its significance beyond the Christian faith; the story of Jesus taking on humanity means that he is a Christ who is able to relate to each of us and our own sufferings. As we remember his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, I urge each of us to also remember his calling: to sow lasting change wherever we walk, to teach ourselves and others to love God and love others, and to alert others to the good news of the immanent Kingdom of God.