13 April 2006

My Easter Entry

Easter is this weekend. Many people will attend church this Sunday, for the first time this year, possibly one of two times total that they will darken the doorway of the church at all this year.

Others will watch while children scramble after brightly colored eggs, barely obscured by shrubbery and new-mown grass. They will fill these same children’s heads with visions of a cute little rodent hopping around, incongruously distributing these eggs. (Why an Easter Bunny? Why not an Easter Chicken?)

Some Pagans will be celebrating new life, the emergence of spring, and growth of Nature, a rebirth.

Oddly enough, these last are celebrating a holiday closest in meaning to what I, as a Christian, consider to be the real meaning of this Holiday. Before the other Christians out there castigate me, permit me to explain.

Easter is, in my never-to-be-humble opinion, the most important holiday, or Holy Day, in Christianity. It is this day which is the culmination of all of the work that Jesus did while he was living His mortal life here on Earth, and prior to that as well. For thousands of years He has been preparing for this one event. He has given revelation to prophets throughout history, from the time of Adam, concerning His eventual Earthly mission. He has been misunderstood by most of humanity during all that time. When He finally got here, He was not just misunderstood; He was rejected by those who should have been there to welcome Him with open arms. He spent the first thirty some-odd years of his mortal life preparing himself to perform His ministry, which began with His purifying fast and subsequent temptation by Lucifer, and culminating in the events which we celebrate on Easter.

The thing is, even though I think on these events with some sadness, I can’t help but feel joy. You see, without the events of Easter morning and the few days that preceded them, the whole concept of Christianity would be useless. Allow me to elaborate.

On the Sunday prior to Easter, Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on the back of an ass’s colt. He was walking into the city, and He sent some of his disciples on ahead, telling them where they would find this creature. They did as He told them to do, and found the beast as He said they would. As He entered the city, the people, the common people, paved the way with their cloaks and waved palm fronds and shouted “Hallelujah!” He was celebrated and welcomed as the King of the Jews. There were various other events which happened during that week, such as the cleansing of the Temple, Mary washing his feet, several parables taught and confrontations with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Finally, He retired into an upper room, and in accordance with the traditions of the Jews, celebrated the Passover. Then, in a sacred and solemn ceremony, He washed the feet of His Apostles, and instituted the sacred ordinance of the Sacrament, saying, “…this do in remembrance of me.”

Later, He journeyed to the Garden of Gethsemane, and there, while His weary disciples slept, He prayed. He prayed for you, and He prayed for me. And not just for you and me alone, but for all mankind. For His sleeping disciples, for you, for me and for Saddam Hussein. For everyone. There He prayed, and in a way I will never understand, He took upon Himself all of our sins. His blood pressure must have skyrocketed then, under the stress of that burden, for we read in Holy Writ that He bled from every pore. Every microscopic opening in His skin oozed blood, soaking His clothing, probably running into His eyes, the way sweat runs into yours when you run a marathon. Only the marathon He was running was not as easy as running 26.2 miles. Yes, it was during this time that you and I were saved, if only we will accept Him into our lives. It was during this time that an angel from God appeared and supported Him. It was during this time that He submitted wholly to the will of the Father, and said, “Thy will be done.”

Then, the soldiers came. Led by a traitor, (notwithstanding the ancient texts that have been found recently) the soldiers came and after He was betrayed and identified with a kiss, the kiss of a once-trusted disciple, He was led away to be tried by His enemies.

Brought before Annas, who had retired and by Jewish Law no longer had any authority, He was first beaten, then “examined.” According to that same Jewish Law, the whole examination was illegal, being done at night. Then was He brought before Caiaphas, the current High Priest and son-in-law to Annas, and He was examined again. False witnesses were brought, and once again in direct contravention to the Law, He was then condemned by the words of His own mouth, when He declared to those assembled that He was, indeed, the Christ. Declaiming the need for further witnesses, they convicted Him of blasphemy.

Yes, Jesus, the Son of God, was convicted of blasphemy.

He was turned over to the Romans. Pilate, the Governor of Judea, found no fault in Him. After all, blasphemy against the God of the Jews was no concern to Rome. “Try again,” the enemies of Jesus said. “He is a seditionist.” Weak-willed and ambitious, Pilate did as they requested. Then, he presented both Jesus and Barabbas, who was a robber, to the multitude. On this holy day, he would release one prisoner to be pardoned of his crimes. The other would be crucified.

“Release the robber!” came the cry. The same voices which had earlier in the week proclaimed His divinity were now roaring with the cry, “Crucify Him!”

So, the Romans beat Him. They flogged Him with a whip with shards of stone, metal and other sharp objects braided into the lash. They flayed the skin off His body. One of them took some thorny vines and plaited a wreath. This he pressed down on Jesus’ head, forcing the thorns into the skin. Jeering, mocking, the Romans called Him “King of the Jews.” To them, this was a significant insult. Little did they know, He was.

Loading a heavy cross onto His shoulders, the Romans forced Jesus to walk through the streets of Jerusalem on his way to Golgotha, The Place of the Skull, also called Calvary. On the way, weary after a sleepless night, and the weight of the sins of humanity upon Him, He collapsed. One of the watchers, Simon from Cyrene, was compelled to carry the cross the rest of the way.

On the barren hilltop, He was thrown down on the cross, and there, using a method which they had perfected over hundreds if not thousands of instances, the Romans nailed His hands and feet to the wood. Long, thin nails were used, one driven into each of His hands through the palms, and then through the great median nerves in each wrist. Excruciating pain must have coursed through His entire body when they did that. (Try this: take the point of your thumb, place it on the tendons on the inside of your wrist, and press. Now imagine that your thumb is a nail, and you cannot stop someone from driving that nail all the way through.) Then through His feet, or really through His ankles, in such a way that He could relieve the weight of His body hanging on His arms only by putting all that weight on the nail through His feet.

Hanging there on the cross, He forgave those who drove the nails. He pledged Salvation to a thief, and gave over the protection of His mother to one of His disciples. He spoke only once about his own discomfort, saying “I thirst.” In the final moments of his torture, He cried out that even God the Father had abandoned Him. Then, after all that, He said, “It is finished” and “Father, into thy hands I commend my Spirit.”

Then he died.

The Romans were surprised. Usually, a man, especially a strong and healthy man like Jesus, would last several days on a cross. When the end came in a crucifixion, it was usually due to sheer exhaustion, asphyxiation, or sometimes dehydration. But Jesus died in only a few hours. So, the Roman soldier who was responsible for this particular crucifixion, in order to ascertain that Jesus was truly dead, pierced Jesus’ side with his spear. Blood and body fluids, the fluids that had built up in His chest cavity during the agonizing hours hanging on the cross, gushed out.

Jesus, the Son of God, was dead.

The sky darkened, stones cracked and the Earth trembled in shame. The veil in the temple was torn down the middle.

The Centurion exclaimed, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

Joseph of Arimathaea went and begged Pilate to let him have the body of Jesus, which Pilate did. It seems Pilate had no will of his own, when strong men required things of him. Joseph took the body and entombed it in a sepulcher he had purchased against his own demise, wrapped in a linen shroud and anointed in scented oil.

Then, it was the Sabbath, which for the Jews, starts on Friday night at sundown. The burial preparations were not complete, but according to Jewish Law, no further preparations for interment could be accomplished that day. Jesus body lay in the tomb, undisturbed, during the whole day of the Sabbath.

The morning after the Sabbath, Sunday, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, and an undetermined number of other women went to the tomb to complete the anointing of Jesus’ body. They were concerned, because Caiaphas had set a guard over the tomb and sealed the tomb with a stone, ostensibly to prevent Jesus’ followers from stealing His body, thereby being able to claim that Jesus had risen from the dead.

This is significant, by the way. It proves that Caiaphas understood and knew exactly what Jesus was preaching when He was living. It also shows even more of the character of Caiaphas. Just as the habitual liar continually suspects others of lying, and the thief is always the first to accuse others of stealing, Caiaphas, who would have stolen the body to prove his own beliefs, suspected that the disciples of Jesus would do the same. So he placed the guard and had a huge stone rolled in front of the tomb as well.

So while the two Marys and the others walked to the tomb, “they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher?” They assumed that the guards set by Caiaphas would be little help. And they still went, feeling deep sorrow and the need to finish the burial preparations which had been begun two nights earlier.

But when they reached the tomb, the stone was already moved. At first, they must have celebrated their good fortune, but when they entered the sepulcher, that feeling was dashed: the body of The Master was gone. The burial clothes that he had been wrapped in were there, the linen robe in one place and the napkin which had shrouded his head in another.

While they sat wondering what had happened, two men appeared suddenly, wearing shining garments. They were angels, special messengers from the Lord. “Why seek you the living among the dead?” they asked. “He is not here, but is risen!” They instructed the women to go and tell the other disciples. They ran to do just that, all of them except Mary Magdalene. She must have had a special relationship with Jesus, for she sat at the door of the tomb, weeping, tears blurring her eyes, sobs racking her body.

Then, a voice asked her, “Woman, why weepest thou?” It was Jesus, risen from the dead as the angels had said. Through her tear-blurred vision, she assumed that He was a groundskeeper for the garden in which the tomb was situated, and replied, “Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him and I will take him away.”

Jesus said, “Mary.” Such love in that simple name. When He spoke that word, she knew who He was. How many times had she sat at His feet, heard Him speak her name, listened to His voice. She knew Him. That is all He has ever asked of us, you know. To know Him.

Then she was instructed to go and tell the other disciples that Jesus had indeed risen, and that He was going to be with His Father.

Of course she did just that, and following this there were several other events in which Jesus appeared to His faithful disciples. But the simple fact is this glorious message: He is Risen.

He is risen, and will never die again. He is risen and has made it so that we all will rise again. He is risen and has prepared the way for us to return to our Father. He is risen and showed us the way to live. He is risen and has saved us from our own sins, if we will just follow Him. This is the message we should celebrate on Easter. Not bunnies and eggs. Not candy. Not baskets and new dresses and bonnets. Not the first of two times you will attend church this year, but a justification for you to attend every week, and work towards your own salvation through Christ.

He is Risen!