If you go to Greece or Russia for Easter you will find it goes with a bang. The Easter vigil is kept through the night. With the dawn the cry 'Christ is Risen, He is Risen indeed!' issues forth to be greeted with cannon fire, fireworks, clanging bells and cheers to be followed by a day of feasting and celebration. The nearest we get in England to anything like that is the cacophony of New Year's Eve. It is not in our tradition to make so much of Easter. The Western Church has always put much more emphasis on the Crucifixion, with Easter as a rather muted finale to the story.
As a young man I was often disappointed with Easter. It seemed low key and often rained. I wanted an emotional high and sunshine. As I have grown older I have come to realise that Easter Day as it is described in the Gospels was not a day of great joy. That came later and gradually. At first there was shock, grief and bewilderment. The discovery of the empty tomb added to that. Had Jesus' body been stolen? The disciples were incredulous when they heard rumours of Jesus appearing to their colleagues and struggled to make sense of it all when Jesus appeared to them. Thus the proper exuberance of an Orthodox Easter comes out of the maturation of faith, of long years of reflection, something for which the Orthodox Church is particularly noted.
Behind my adolescent disappointment lay the question,' Was it true, did Jesus really rise from the dead?' Doubts added to that sense of disappointment and anti-climax. Well, I believed and still do, that Jesus did rise from the dead. Why? To answer that I always turn to chapter 15 of St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians. Most scholars date this letter to c54AD. Thus Paul was writing only two decades after the Resurrection of Jesus, setting down what was already commonplace in the churches. He reminded them of the Gospel he had already proclaimed to them. In their receiving of it they were being saved through it. Some though were denying the core message, hence the need to repeat it, then and now. So let's look at Paul's letter more closely. We can pick out his key points.
- 'For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.' This good definition of oral tradition in the church reminds that written documents like the New Testament follow the spoken word. Paul is not innovative. The Gospel has already come to him from others, from the first witnesses of the resurrection. This receiving and handing on of faith remains the only means of Christian continuity. We believe that it is trustworthy and reliable.
- 'That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures'. Here we have a reading of our O.T., the scriptures, in the light of the death of Christ on the Cross, giving meaning to that event. He died for our sins. Thus Paul continues a process of reflection on and interpretation of things that actually happened.
- 'That he was buried'. Paul makes it clear that Jesus died, that he was, as we would say, 'dead and buried'. There were those in the Corinthian Church who emphasised the spiritual at the expense of the physical, a Gnostic tendency that Paul was quick to reject. Such views are not unknown today but there can know Risen Christ without a dead Christ first.
- 'And that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.' Again Paul looks to Scripture and tradition as the authority for what he is saying. At this stage there is no reference to the empty tomb. Whilst the Gospel accounts of the empty tomb belong to a later date and are much embellished, it seems wrong to take this, together with Paul's silence, as evidence that the empty tomb does not matter, as some have suggested in recent years. Given Paul's Jewish background and his concern with the physicality of faith, we can take his belief in the empty tomb for granted. The Jews of that time believed in the resurrection of the body. It was the Greeks who believed in the immortality of the soul. ('John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave but his soul goes marching on.') That is isn't the same thing at all, even if the two views have both been incorporated into later Christian thought.
- 'And that he appeared...' Of greater importance for Paul were the appearances of the Risen Christ. An empty tomb in itself proves nothing; the body could simply have been stolen. It was the appearances of Jesus, in such away as to convince those who saw that he was alive, that form the bedrock of traditional Easter faith. Later in 1 Cor. 15, St. Paul goes on to explore his understanding of the Resurrection body. The risen Christ was not a ghost; his body was real, if transformed. For now Paul lists those who witnessed those appearances, Cephas (Peter), the twelve, five hundred believers at once, James, all the apostles and lastly Paul himself, despite his background as a persecutor of the Church. Sometimes Christ appeared to individuals, at other times to groups. We cannot verify the claims being made, but we do know from St. Paul that they belong to the very beginning of the Church. We rely on the testimony of witnesses and on the authority of Scripture and tradition. We receive the message in faith and test it against our own experience. In turn we hand it on to those who follow. It is on this, trustworthy witness to the appearances of the Risen Christ that I am convinced of the truth of the Easter Story. Yes, Christ is risen from the dead.
Our celebration of Easter with its movement from sorrow to joy takes us forward from such discussion. As the Paschal Candle reminds us, the Risen Christ leads us from darkness to light. In the renewal of our Baptismal vows we are reminded of our baptism into Christ, of our own passage with him from death to life and of the gift of the Holy Spirit who assures us of the presence of the Risen Christ in our lives. In the Eucharist we know him in the scriptures, in the breaking of the bread and in our fellowship with him and with one another.
Fired-up Mediterranean excitement would do our Easter celebrations no harm but the joyful truth of the Easter Gospel is no less true at the heart of our more reticent and understated Church of England keeping of the feast.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.
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Last updated 11/04/04 09:00:00 Author: David Shepherd