Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter is about more than bunnies and Spring

There are a lot of symbols associated with Easter: chicks, bunnies, flowers, newborn lambs, chocolate eggs and chocolate rabbits.  They all point to the new life which spring brings after the cold and apparent stillness of winter.  They remind us that Easter is a word derived from the pagan goddess Eastre, the goddess of spring.  For the earliest Christian missionaries this was an obvious cult to latch onto when trying to find links to tell the story of Christ's rising at Easter, to build a bridge to the new life he brings. Spring shouts new life with a natural affinity.  But Christian Easter is not the same as a celebration of spring regeneration and awakening after winter, of the cycle of reproduction.

The symbol which speaks to me most powerfully is the Paschal Candle, the candle brought into the church as part of the Easter Liturgy and which is lit throughout the 50 days of this season.  The word paschal is derived from Pasche, the feast of Passover.  This retells the story of the rescue of the Hebrew people from slavery and oppression in Egypt.  They are described in the Old Testament book of Exodus as being held in oppressive and squalid conditions, paid less than those on zero hours contracts, below the minimum wage let alone the living wage.  They were treated like many of those trafficked by the unscrupulous today.  There are contemporary resonances in this story.  Moses was sent to demand their release.  Crossing the Red Sea as part of their escape came to be seen as a passing through the waters of death and doom to a new life of promise and hope, to freedom and liberty.   Politicians wanting to building on the Easter message would do well to look here for their inspiration for justice, liberty, freedom from oppressive conditions and all that enables people to flourish.

Baptism picks up on this passing through the waters of death to new life and so the paschal imagery features strongly in our baptism liturgies.  Easter is a time to recall the vows made at our baptism and recommit to them.

But chicks and signs of renewed life, the proclamation of liberty and justice do not in themselves capture the heart of the Christian Easter, even if they spring from it.  The natural order of things means that Good Friday should be the end of the story of Jesus with a good man doomed to die on a cross.  A tragic end to a life that promised so much.  The big surprise is the resurrection.  The earliest disciples were not expecting to find anything other than a dead body when they made their journey to the tomb on the first Easter Day.  Exactly what they found cannot be revisited and therefore remains unknowable.  An empty tomb is easier to build the case on than one with a body clearly decaying, as with Richard III, whose bones were dug up in a car park.  To claim that someone is alive again, in any way beyond some kind of ghostly presence, would be ridiculed if the bones could be produced.  As St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, if Christ is not raised from the dead then we are deluding ourselves and our faith is bogus (my paraphrase!).

For me the transformation that took place in these broken and shattered followers to become champions of a faith that sound so utterly implausible is a powerful attestation to something having taken place and to the experiences of the risen Christ having substance behind them.  I don't begin to be able to explain this but I am convinced that those early disciples did not make it up and were not deluded.  As a metaphor of how life is and of its ultimate value and goal, this faith speaks to me in ways that nothing else does.  Easter is for me the heart of my faith with its resonances with liberation and justice, freedom from oppression and hope in place of despair.  It is also an affirmation of new life beyond our imagination and that too is a radical message for policy makers and those who would seek to shape our common life.

Easter is about so much more than just bunnies and spring.  It is the hope that the life we have touches the eternal and is held in a way that goes beyond bones in a car park or passing on genes through reproduction and spring reawakening.  Spring is expected, the paschal Easter is a disruption to that order of death and reproduced life.  It is the hope beyond all expectations and imagining and so we talk of salvation.  The light of the paschal candle shines as a beacon to this hope in the otherwise darkness of futility and purposeless passing existence.  Christ is risen, alleluia!

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