The word Easter of course has a relationship to the word ‘eastern’. It is the time in the church calendar when Western Christians look to the east, to Jerusalem, from whence comes their help. This same sort of geographical orientation explains why cathedrals and churches point east, so to speak. As you look down the transcept to the high altar and beyond to the back of a cathedral or proper church, the sun comes up through the rose window or stained glass, reminding us all of our ‘eastern’/’easter’ orientation.
Easter is of course a moveable feast, because it is related to the Jewish celebration of Passover, which moves around because of following the lunar, rather than solar, calendar. This year Easter comes on the very last day of March, something Easter rarely does.
Easter means a great deal to me personally. Some of my greatest worship experiences have come at Easter— memorably in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge in 1996 when I was seated in the choir stalls with the choir boys….. and when the service concluded I was heard to say “just take me now Jesus”. Exhilirating worship is only appropriate at Easter. It is after all the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.
I remember one Easter Sunday in the late 70s I was sent to a little Methodist chapel near Durham (U.K.) in a pithead (i.e. coal mining) village. I got off the bus early that morning and the chapel steward came running down the hill to meet me. He said, rather breathlessly, “I must ask you something please before we go any further,” and I said “go ahead”. He asked “You do believe in the resurrection don’t you?” And when I replied emphatically in the affirmative, you could see the relief written all over his face. He said “I’m ever so relieved. The chap we had last year didn’t. Went on and on about spring, and return of the flowers and so on, but that’s not really what Easter is about.” I agreed whole-heartedly with the steward. Easter is about a unique miraculous historical event without which there would be no Christianity at all. But it is a prospective event… one that foreshadows a later one, because Christ’s history is our destiny. Jesus is but the first fruits of the resurrection.
Lot’s of people get confused about the implications of Easter. Some think it has mainly to do with Jesus guaranteeing that his followers, when they die, will go to heaven. Actually, dying and going to heaven is never really directly linked to Easter in the NT, if we are talking about our dying. What it is linked to in 1 Cor. 15 is our future resurrection when Christ returns, and that is a very different matter than dying and going to heaven.
Some of the confusion has been caused because of unhelpful translations of the phrase ‘pneumatikos soma’ too often rendered spiritual body. The problem with such a rendering is that adjectives with the -ikos ending in Greek do not describe the material characteristics of the noun they modify. So for example a psuchikos soma (also mentioned in 1 Cor. 15) is not a body made out of psuche or soul/life breath. Rather it is a body vivified by natural life breath, and so a mortal ordinary body. By contrast the ‘pneumatikos soma’ is a body totally animated, and empowered forever by God’s Spirit. It is not a body made out of spirit.
Sometimes folks have fruitlessly puzzled over Paul calling Jesus the first fruits of the resurrection. I mean— doesn’t Paul know the OT stories about Elijah raising the dead, or Jesus doing so etc.? Of course he does know some of these stories, but they are irrelevant because Lazarus or the daughter of Jairus etc. were raised back into mortal bodies, and went on to die once more. They continued to have mortal bodies subject to disease, decay, and death once more. Jesus is the first fruits because he is the first one to get a resurrection body which is powerful, glorious, immortal, immune to disease, decay, or death.
Easter has become important to me and more meaningful to me precisely because of what the church has historically affirmed— Jesus’ resurrection augurs our own, if we are in Christ. This is not because I get to read my own meaning into Easter, but because I get to read my own, and my daughter Christy’s (of blessed memory) future out of Easter. I look forward to a day when I will no longer experience the vicissitudes of bodily life and aging, because there really are days after 50 when you realize your body is working against your desire to go on living. But what brings me even more joy is that at that great getting up morning when Jesus returns, I will see my Christy again in the flesh, and be able to give her a hug, and tell her to her face, how much I love her and how very much I have missed her (now for over a year). If it is not true that God’s yes to life outweighs and overrules death’s know, then as Paul says our faith is futile, and we are still in our sins, and our death will indeed be THE END of us. Fortunately, there is serendipity beyond death we may look forward to, and the risen Jesus gave us the ocular proof of it.
Someday all those millions of Christian graves will be empty, since the dead in Christ rise first when Jesus returns, and the rest only much later (see Rev. 20). Someday Jesus and his flock really will be the majority of those on earth, a huge number after thousands of years of church history. Someday there will be a new heaven and a new earth. And the first foretaste of this came on a Sunday morning when a shell-shocked deeply grieving woman named Miryam from Migdal heard her name called by her Master Jesus, and cried out Rabbouni and was sent to preach the first Easter sermon to the 12 (now 11). So on this Sunday morning as I head up the hill to Durham cathedral I think of these things. I think of the days Christy who was born in Durham and I used to sing in the Methodist choir, and I head up the hill to get in tune, so that soon and very soon I may be made God’s music.