Easter: a living ‘experience’
a PRESENT event
It is quite impossible to imagine the range of emotions that the disciples of Jesus moved through over the days of his final suffering, crucifixion and resurrection. Such heights and depths of emotional trauma and joy cannot be imagined. They must be experienced. And “experience” is the key to understanding the Holy Week – Easter event. The Christian Faith is not primarily an historical religion. Yes, Christianity began with an actual and real historical event: God became human in Jesus (the incarnation). In Jesus God lived and breathed, he walked and worked. He loved and was loved. He was hated and suffered. Jesus was put to death as a criminal. Yes these were all actual historical events. We know this to be true since even the accounts of secular historians verify these happenings. But with the Easter event in which God raises Jesus from death, we celebrate Jesus Christ as a living and present event. Jesus is a real and living contemporary “experience”. What does this mean, to speak of Jesus as living and present: a ‘contemporary experience’?
moralism & legalism?
Jesus is alive! This present reality is the heart of our faith – thanks be to God.
Old history books don’t do too much for me. Many of those old tomes do little more than recount past events. They tell the tales of the adventures, successes and failures of people who are now ‘dead’. However there are an increasing number of lively historians who are able to see the implications of these past events and lives for our own situations and lives today. Such historical reflections and applications certainly make history more relevant and interesting. But just as the Christian Faith is not a dusty old book, neither is it simply applications and reflections from Jesus as a wise moral teacher. Such a misunderstanding would reduce Christianity to a moral and legal code for life. Very quickly this method descends into oppressive moralism and legalism. This is not the Catholic Faith! Jesus Christ is ALIVE – and so can we be Instead, Jesus Christ is alive today! This is the meaning of the resurrection. The stone was rolled back. That Good Friday tomb, the place of ultimate and permanent darkness was now penetrated by the light of day. In our own lives we have experienced death. We have also experienced life. There are days when we feel like death and we cannot see the way ahead. Anxiety and depression threaten to overwhelm us. The nights can be long. We lie awake in interminable darkness. This feels like death and our darkness entombs us. And then, at last, comes dawn. Yes, we desired this. We longed for it. But we could do nothing to hasten it. The dawn rising of the sun is a daily divine gift. The first sign of light is a taste of hope.
When you think back to the first months after the Easter event, the followers had a range of timing options available to them for their weekly remembering and worship.
They might have chosen to gather each week on a Thursday evening. This would have made sense since they knew the Eucharist (initiated on Holy Thursday evening) to be the source and summit of their human existence. They could have chosen Friday afternoon at three o’clock since this was the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross. They might have agreed to meet on the Jewish (Saturday) Sabbath as a sign that their Christian Faith was fulfilling all previous Covenant hopes. But they did not choose Thursday or Friday or Saturday. Our first Christian ancestors chose the morning of every Sunday to be the time of their worship. Why did they make this choice? Timing is everything! The death and resurrection of Jesus are events that affect the entire cosmos. The moment of the death of Jesus was marked by an earthquake. The cosmos was shaken. So too the
rising of the sun is the cosmic sign of the resurrection of the Son of God. Light overcomes darkness. Life triumphs over death. This is why Christians have always been known as people of the dawn and people of the day. This is why my Grandmother would get me out of bed early on Easter Sunday morning to see the sun dancing!
This is why Churches were built to face the East, and the priest would face East at the altar: the direction of the rising sun. Too often we thought that the ‘old’ rite required the priest to have his back to the people. In fact in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, (because the basilica had to be built into the hill over the tomb of Peter), the pope always celebrated Mass facing the people, since this was ‘ad orientem’ (ie, towards the East). St. Peter’s is built so that the rising sun would illumine the entire church right up to the altar through the large entrance doors. As the psalm reminds us “at night there are tears, but joy comes with morning.” (Ps.30) Because of our Catholic Christian Faith, the dark moments of our lives are illumined by the invitation and hope of personal and real relationship with Jesus Christ who is alive and present. We are never alone. Jesus is with us. In every sacramental celebration we begin by acknowledging our need for Him. And, especially in our darkest moments, he gifts to us the light of morning: the hope of Easter dawning.