The name Easter derives from Eostre or Eastre, the pagan Goddess of Spring. Her month was April and this became the Paschal month of the Christian Church. This was grafted on the celebration of the Greco-Roman celebration of the dead and risen God of Spring, Adonis, and it is interesting that the New Testament refers to Jesus as ‘Adonai’, the supreme being. For Christians, ‘Pasg’ in Welsh or ‘Pasque’ in French, begins with the Feast of the Resurrection on the Day of Jesus’ rising from the tomb, and its timing is directly related to the Jewish Feast of Passover, or ‘Pesach’ in Hebrew. It is by far the oldest of the Christian festivals, dating from the time of Cedd in the Celtic Church in Britain, before the Anglo-Saxon invasions and the missions of Cuthbert and Augustine to them, hence the different name in Welsh. The monks arriving after the Norman Conquest enriched the festival and the pageants grew more elaborate, with instrumental and vocal music being added. For some, they grew too splendid for some. In 1470 the properties provided for the Easter Play at St Mary Radcliffe, Bristol, included:
a new Sepulchre, well gilt with gold, an image of God rising from the sepulchre; Heaven, made of timber and dyed cloth; Hell, made of wood and iron; four pairs of Angel’s wings of well painted wood; the Holy Ghost coming out of Heaven into the Sepulchre’.
In some churches, the Paschal Candle forms a focal point, with its five grains of incense inserted in the form of a cross. It is lit at midnight as Easter Day begins, and remains lit until the Ascension, reminding us of the period the Risen Lord spent on earth, revealing himself to his disciples in various metaphysical form to his disciples, as referred to by Paul. It’s generally accepted that Mary Magdalene entered the garden containing the tomb and made the first encounter with the risen Lord ‘at the rising of the sun’, and it was common at one time for people to get out into the fields at dawn and greet the sunrise from the top of a nearby mound, such as the Wrekin in Shropshire. So, at Easter, we don’t go ‘all round the Wrekin’, as the Black Country saying goes, describing the way the lengths some people go to avoid confronting the truth. The challenge of the central truth of our faith, the Resurrection, needs to be met head-on.
The Resurrection of Christ, 1 Corinthians 15 vv 3-8:
‘I handed on to you, as the central fact of our Christian faith, the account I was given…”He died and was buried. On the third day he was raised to life. He was seen by Peter; then by ‘The Twelve’. After that, he was seen by more than five hundred at once; most of them are still living, but some have since died. He was then seen by James, his brother; then by all his close friends. Last of all, long after anybody could have hoped, he was seen by me also.’
Paul is writing to Christian friends who even some twenty years after the execution of Jesus are finding it difficult to understand what ‘the resurrection from the dead’ means. Whatever happened was a fact, but it remained difficult to describe or explain to those who had not themselves experienced seeing the body of the risen Christ. My son, aged eight, watching a cartoon version of the resurrection yesterday asked ‘was he body or spirit?’ He wanted to know how he could suddenly appear and disappear like that, through locked doors and walls. Like Paul, I felt a sense of passing on what was ‘handed on’, rather than simply expressing my own opinion.This was the authoritative account given from the beginning. His description of his own experience is quite brief, but he says it was like that of Peter and the others. This is our earliest written evidence that something very unexpected had happened ‘on the third day’, something contained within the ‘most important’ statement given to Paul at his baptism two years later. Various accounts had been circulating among the Christian communities of how on our ‘Easter Sunday‘, the tomb had been found empty. No description of the disappearance of Jesus’ body exists because we presume that nobody witnessed it, unlike the raising of Lazarus from his tomb by Jesus about ten days earlier. Only his ‘appearances’ are described. The accounts differ very much among themselves on many matters – who was the first to see Jesus, what the women did when they got to the tomb, where the appearances took place – in/ near Jerusalem, or in Galilee. But all agree that the tomb was found empty with the stone rolled away. After Paul, Mark’s earliest gospel account runs like this:
‘When the Holy Day of the Jews was over, three women friends of Jesus – Mary of Magdala, Mary who was James’ mother, and Salome, brought sweet-smelling oils to anoint his body. They got to his grave very early on Sunday, just as the sun was rising. “Who will roll away the stone from the cave’s mouth for us?” they said to one another. It was a very big stone. They looked up and saw that it had already been rolled away.
They went into the cave and they were amazed to see a young man in white clothes sitting on the right-hand side. “Don’t be frightened,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was put to death. He has risen. You won’t find him here; you cannot see where they put his body. Go and tell his friends that he will be in Galilee before you and you will see him there, as he told you. And don’t forget Peter.” They ran out of the cave trembling with terror. They were so frightened that they didn’t say a word to anyone.’ (Mk 16, vv 1-8)
It is important to remember that it was not the empty tomb that convinced his friends that Jesus had been ‘raised from death’ but the new experience of God which Jesus made possible. What they believed God had done was the ground of their conviction. The empty tomb, by itself, doesn’t prove anything. It looks as if these first friends had their hands on an early report that they didn’t know what to do with, and there is no reason to doubt that the women among them found the tomb empty, as Jewish scholars also confirm, and that they were certain that it was the tomb in which they had seen Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus place the body the evening before.
But the convincing evidence, as Paul saw and stated, was the fresh experience of God which changed the whole way in which the friends of Jesus lived and thought, and which made them new men and women. This fresh experience of the risen Christ is something which his millions of followers can now share this day and on every day. Each one experiences the Resurrection in his own way, but it is also a common experience which binds Christians together and which they pass on from generation to generation, from regeneration to regeneration, as in Baptism we die with Him and are raised with Him to immortal life.
Prayer: To me also (1 Corinthians 15 v 8):
We thank you, Father, for every Christian who bears witness to the power of the risen Christ. We have not seen as the apostles have seen, but we have met him in our lives; and we shall never be the same again. That meeting has changed us. As faithful ambassadors, may we be able to introduce others to him, that they too may meet with our Lord and Saviour Jesus. Amen
Ian D. Bunting