Thoughts for the Soul

A Great Mystery

Posted on: Mar 31, 2022

There are 110 holidays in April (according to www.calendar.com). Saturday, April 23, has the largest number with nine, including Lover’s Day (perhaps to balance National Ex-Spouse Day on April 14th), National Take a Chance Day and National Picnic Day.

Other notable days include National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day, observed on the same day as National Reconciliation Day. That makes sense—who can stay angry with someone who shares a PB&J sandwich with you?

Major religious holidays are also all in April this year.

Islam observes Ramadan as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community, commemorating Muhammad’s first revelation. This year, Ramadan lasts all thirty days of April. Muslims will not eat or drink anything after sunup or before sundown. (Exceptions from the fast include infants, the seriously ill and the aged.)

Judaism holds Passover on April 15-23 this year, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Integral to the exodus story were the various plagues imposed on the Egyptians by Yahweh. The tenth (and last) plague called for the death of the first born in every family.

According to the book of Exodus, God commanded Moses to tell the Israelites to make a mark in lamb’s blood above their door in order that the Angel of Death will “pass over” them (i.e., that they will not be touched by the death of the firstborn). When the deaths of the firstborn occurred among the Egyptians, including the Pharaoh’s first son, he ordered the Israelites to leave, taking with them whatever they wanted.

We celebrate Easter on April 17 this year. For people of faith, Easter memorializes Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, described in the New Testament as having occurred on the third day of his burial following his crucifixion. Easter is clearly the highest and most holy day of the Christian calendar.

In our country, Easter has historically been both a Christian festival and a cultural holiday. The cultural aspect has become quite diminished in recent years. Fewer and fewer people participate in the secular activities of earlier decades.

This isn’t the case in Europe, where Easter-related festivities fill streets, squares, and stores. Outside of church, it means fasting, candy, games, and the Easter Bunny! (See “Easter Customs in Europe” on page 8.)

So what does Easter mean for us in the 21st century?¹ The imminent arrival of Good Friday and Easter is a good time to both recall some facts easily overlooked and then reflect upon what they might mean. The facts fall into four categories.

#1. The economic, social and political situation in Galilee was one in which the rich and powerful, be they Romans, priests of the temple, or landowners, oppressed the poor, constantly demanding more in taxes and in crop share.

Into this situation came Jesus with his disciples, living and teaching an egalitarian community for all. His followers included women and men, slaves were non-existent, and the group shared whatever resources they possessed, quite the opposite of and challenge to current social norms. However seemingly insignificant the movement may have been, it posed a threat to the establishment, and so Jesus was crucified and the disciples were persecuted.

#2 The Romans practiced crucifixion for about 500 years, often with thousands of victims at a time. The total number over that long a period is unimaginable, but huge as it must be, there is only one instance of an intact buried, crucified skeleton. The inescapable conclusion is that the tormented bodies were left to scavenging animals or thrown into mass graves. Denial of proper burial was part of the punishment, and Pontius Pilate was not the type of person to have pity and do things any differently.

#3 The New Testament writings called Matthew and Luke share a great deal of material. They both use the earlier writing by Mark to provide the structure of their gospels, and additionally they both contain verses so similar, if not identical, that the consensus is that they had before them another source common in the early church. Scholars call this source “Q”, from the German word Quelle.

The fact that Matthew and Luke include “Q” in their story about Jesus means that it was a reputable source and that the community that produced it was a reputable and acceptable group of disciples.  Remarkably, the “Q” source has no reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus. So what we have is an early community of disciples of Jesus who either knew nothing of the last days of their leader and teacher or for whom those days did not matter. Furthermore, their testimony was willingly accepted, integrated with, and placed equally alongside the gospel of Mark.

#4 As the 1st century progressed and thoughts about Jesus proliferated and spread, at least two lines of thought can be found in the Writings. One continues the egalitarianism of Jesus and is found in two places. First, the book named after James, who was leader of the Jerusalem church and likely the brother of Jesus. Second, Paul, who wrote that, “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” In other words, all are equal.

The other line of thought represents a return to the normative oppressive social structure that Jesus had tried to overcome and replace. Its starkest expression is the book of Timothy, but is also found in many other late writings of the developing church. This line of thinking subordinated women, required slaves to be obedient, and commanded everyone to obey the authorities who, of course, represented the financial interests of the dominant rich and powerful.

So much for the facts, but how do we put them together? There are many different perspectives, and what follows is one possible scenario.

It was during his life that Jesus impacted many who then became his followers, some of whom stayed with him while others moved on. How and why he had such a profound influence are questions for another day, but the short answer is that he presented to them both an image of what human, loving life was, and also an image of a God separate from and independent of the constrictions of temple religiosity¹.

These concepts of loving humanity and loving the divinity inspired and infused both groups of disciples. For those who stayed with Jesus, even though he had suffered the most horrible death imaginable, those disciples felt him to be alive in their midst as they continued the community he had created. It was a mystery beyond understanding and comprehension, but for them a certainty nonetheless. Jesus has lived, died, and now lives again.

They were convinced that the evil and death manifested on the cross was not the final word, that cosmic Love overcomes evil and death, and that ultimately everything returns to God who makes all things right. For those who moved on, such as  the “Q” community, knowing nothing of the death of Jesus, they also were certain that he was still with them even as they traveled, a spiritual presence that continued to convince them that Love is the underlying essence of the cosmos.

In the attempt to illuminate this certainty and this mystery, there evolved from the group who stayed with Jesus images of an empty tomb and stories of appearances to the disciples, neither intended to be taken literally, but intended rather as tools to help others understand the mystery.

Unfortunately, as time passed and new generations joined the nascent church, the images became identified with the thing itself, and resurrection came to mean resuscitation rather than renewal on a cosmic scale. And the revolution called for in Jesus’ proclamation that the equitable Kingdom of God was at hand, succumbed to the old way of patronage and patriarchy, the shift in thinking no doubt encouraged by the vested interests of the wealthy.

Resuscitation and the power structure we find in Timothy go hand in hand as they push aside and replace the initial gospel story.

Even as we consider all the facts, the basic story that emerges is quite simple. The disciples were re-born while they lived with Jesus, and his death neither deterred nor discouraged them. Instead, they turned to one another and embraced, fully aware in their hearts that he was not only still with them, but also that the newness he embodied embraced the universe. This was the bedrock of their faith and forms the foundation for the day we call Easter.

¹The following paragraphs of "Thoughts for the Soul" come from the theologian Rev. Dr. Carl Krieg, downloaded from https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/understanding-easter/.

 

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