Long before her last name was Day, Easter was the goddess of the dawn who arose in the East. She was also the goddess of fertility whose blessing was especially invoked at the spring equinox when planting was getting under way. She was so important that centuries later Christians in Germany and England kept her name for the celebration of the crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus.
The message of Easter is the Lord is risen. Most Christians are familiar with the stories in the Gospels and many verses in the Epistles declaring that the Lord is risen. Many people believe the stories of the resurrection of Jesus are historically true. Others have difficulty believing they are true in that sense but understand them as metaphors pointing to the truth. Either way, whether you believe or understand, the issue is what do these stories mean? We can begin our search for the meaning of the stories by knowing that New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan has stressed: “Never, ever separate the life from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Ever. Not the life from the death, not the death from the resurrection.”
Jesus was born in a colony of the Roman Empire. The Empire was a classic example of what is called a “domination system” characterized by political oppression, economic exploitation and social fragmentation – all established and maintained by violence. Jesus began his life work proclaiming, “The time has come; the Kingdom of God is upon you; repent and believe the Gospel.” (Mk 1:15, N.E.B.) The Kingdom of God, paraphrased by Walter Wink as “God’s Domination Free Order,” is a vision of life and society as it was intended by God to be lived individually, socially, politically and religiously. So when we pray, “your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth and it is in heaven,” we call into question before God all human rule and social order. And we dream and work for the Kingdom of God, a “domination free order” of political power sharing, economic equity and an inclusive community.
John Dominic Crossan has emphasized that Jesus focused on three ideas. First Jesus claimed that the Kingdom of God, the “Great Divine-Clean Up of Earth,” was not in the future, but had already started. Second, he said that the Kingdom of God meant doing God’s will on earth and that people were called to make it happen. And third, Jesus told his disciples and companions to do exactly what he was doing.
It is obvious that the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, lived by Jesus and shared with others would be a threat to the Kingdom of Caesar and his minions King Herod Antipas and Caiaphas the High Priest. The teachings of Jesus, his
parables and aphorisms, point to a world of radical egalitarianism. If the vision of God’s domination free order became a reality it would be the end of the world for them and the Empire. So Jesus had to be eliminated. It has been said that the “most certain fact about the historical Jesus is his execution as a political rebel.” He was executed by crucifixion on the Friday, which from the perspective of the resurrection, we now call Good. The death of Jesus was the consequence of the passion of his life doing the will of the God of justice and compassion in the Kingdom of Caesar.
At the conclusion of the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John there are stories reporting that Jesus had been raised from the dead and was alive. What would these stories mean for first century Jews? In particular, what would it mean for them to use the term “resurrection?” For centuries, since the time of Alexandria the Great, Israel had been a conquered country, struggling for independence against one invader after another. During the years of resistance, thousands of people were persecuted, tortured and martyred. The searing question people struggled with was where is the justice of God? Would there be punishment for the perpetrators? And would there be justice for the victims? Over the centuries the hope arose in Judaism that some day there would be a bodily resurrection when God would vindicate the martyrs.
With this understanding, the declaration that He is risen is a way of proclaiming that Jesus, rejected by the Jewish authorities as a false prophet and executed by the Roman authorities as a threat to the domination order which was the Roman Empire was vindicated by God. The vindication of Jesus by God means that the way of Jesus, incarnating justice and compassion, which resulted in his crucifixion is the will of God for the world. So it could be said that the resurrection is the celebration of the crucifixion.
In the liturgy for Easter in The Book of Common Prayer, the celebrant begins the Eucharist with Alleluia, Christ is risen. And the people respond, The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. To declare Christ is risen, The Lord is risen are declarations of commitment to the way of Jesus incarnating justice and compassion as the will of God in the world. In the Gospel of Mark, it is reported that Jesus said to his disciples and the people, “Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mk 8:34) Taking up your cross is seeking justice and offering compassion for the oppressed and exploited in a domination order.
In the Liturgy of the Eucharist we come to kneel before the Altar to receive the body and blood of the crucified and risen Jesus. Kneeling on the same level, side by side, we are all equal. The clergy are servers distributing of bread and wine equally to all. All receive the same amount of bread and wine. When the priest says, The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven, I hear The Body of Christ, the bread of justice. When a chalice bearer says, The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation, I hear The Blood of Christ, the cup of compassion. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer writes, “It is in food and drink offered equally to everyone that the presence of God and Jesus is found. But food and drink are the material basis of life, so the Lord’s Supper is political criticism and economic challenge as well.”