It is Good Friday as I write this. Easter and the events leading up to it are the central religious festival of Christianity. And the story itself is very powerful, the drama of Jesus triumphal entrance into Jerusalem during the Passover festival, the overturning of the tables of the money changers, the painful, searching prayers in the garden and then, of course, the trial and crucifixion and then the empty tomb. Over the years I’ve gone through many phases in how I make sense of all this. I have come to believe that this sacred story is true even if much of it is not factual.
The old “atonement theology” that I was brought up with never made any sense to me, even as a child. It went that because mankind had sinned and deserved punishment then Jesus, the innocent one, substituted himself so that God wouldn’t punish the rest of us. This whole way of thinking assumes a fairly bizarre kind of God very different from the one that Jesus taught about.
I recently learned that this teaching of the church did not emerge until sometime around 1000 CE; it had no place in earlier Christianity. It was also a new idea that the salvation Jesus offers is that if we believe in him we will go to heaven after we die. That belief was born in the middle ages, when life was short, violent and miserable and most of the population was kept in poverty by the feudal system. There were no obvious rewards in this life for living a good life, so the focus shifted to the next life. Surely God will reward us for our faithfulness after we have died.
(By the way, did you know that before about 1000 CE there was not a single example of Christian art that portrayed Jesus hanging on the cross? Not one! That image of violence began as the same time as the atonement theology as a way of encouraging people to do what the elites wanted them to do, such as going on crusades to supposedly liberate the Holy Land from the infidels. But I digress.)
I do find the re-enactments of the events leading up to Easter moving and beautiful in a melancholy way. Political action (challenging the religious and civil authorities in the name of justice) is followed by suffering and ultimately by a kind of triumph. The way to new life is through death. That is the reality of our lives and that is why the story resonates with us. We feel its truth and the historical accuracy of the details is unimportant.
The times in my life that have resulted in the greatest emotional and spiritual growth have been the dark times, the times when things were not working for me, when I questioned myself. I’m not talking about a physical death, but each time that I have been able to move forward, something in me has had to die. I remember a time when I was having a very difficult time in my work and I felt that my reputation in the community was suffering. That gave me a great deal of pain. What helped me to come out of it was a decision that my reputation (i.e. what others thought of me) was unimportant. I could let go of that. That part of my ego could die and when it did, I felt lighter and stronger and empowered to come back with energy and strength. In fact it’s usually the ego that has to take a hit so we can grow.
So the cycle of suffering, a death of some kind and the new life of resurrection resonates with how life works. That is why the story has power. That is why it is sacred story.