But What Exactly is Easter? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | CWR
"Christ, the Son of God, rose from the dead." In that brief sentence, if we look carefully enough, we can discover the whole order of being and our place within it.
As a general principle, an honest man will want know what something is, or is said to be, before he decides whether he thinks it is true or that he must do anything about it. Take one’s relation to a doctor. Insofar as we deal with a doctor qua doctor, we want him to tell us the truth about what is wrong with us. If we didn’t, we should not bother him. We do not, if we are normal, want him to lie to us. Unless we know what the problem is, we cannot decide what, if anything, we need to do about it. And if we decide the doctor is incompetent, we still have to find one that is.
Definitions are good things. They are intended to tell us what a thing is in words we understand. Generally, we want to know what a thing is whether we like it or not. Indeed, we need to know what things can harm us and which ones help us. We understand that it is dangerous for us deliberately to choose not to know the truth about something. On the basis of what they are and of what we are, our knowledge relates us to everything that is not ourselves.
In the Easter season, someone who does not know much about what it means might well ask: “What exactly is Easter anyhow?” Accurate knowledge of it is not always easy to come by. Indeed, we have the impression that many people do not want to know what it really is lest it make a demand on them they are not willing to consider. Still, what would be a fair and accurate answer to an honest inquiry about Easter that had no further purpose but to hear accurately what this word and the reality to which it refers mean? On hearing the explication, the inquiring listener might say: “So that is what it means!” or “Makes no sense to me!” or “I had it all wrong” or “It’s really complicated” or “Run that by me again...” In any case, the question—“What is Easter?—is a worthy one.
The word Easter can have several origins—an Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, a Frankish way of referring to the East and the rising Sun, a reference to the Jewish Passover. For Christians and anyone who wants to know about its meaning, it recalls the day on which Christ rose from the dead. Each of the three words—Christ, rose, dead—refers to a specific reality.
Taken in itself, “Christ rose from the dead” is a straight-forward statement of what Easter means, of what it is to which the sentence refers. Spelled out, it recalls that a young Jewish man, called Jesus Christ, claimed to be the Son of God. He was executed in Jerusalem under Roman authority about thirty years after his birth in Bethlehem. Contemporary witnesses maintained that three days after his execution on a Cross, he rose again from the dead. The same witnesses initially had a hard time believing this event, but they also had more difficulty in denying what they saw and touched. So they concluded that it was a fact that they witnessed.
“To rise again” means that the same individual, who was actually dead, reappeared, identified himself as the same person who died, though in a transfigured manner. Dead means what dead means. Life had ceased in him.
Once we understand what Easter means, we are not asked to accept this unexpected truth as if it had no justification. No one denies that most dead men stay dead. Even the two dead men whom this Christ was said to have brought back to life—the widow’s son and Lazarus—subsequently died. This did not happen to Christ.
Throughout subsequent history, many efforts have been made to explain how this event and its testimony could not be true. These efforts have their value. Each time this Resurrection is denied, something new about its reality comes to be understood. Muslims, for example, maintain that God cannot suffer. Therefore, Christ was not God and was not crucified. Some Jews just after Christ’s death were worried that the disciples would claim that he rose again, as he said he would, so they paid some soldiers to testify that the body was carried away at night. The disciples, in this scenario, only pretended that it rose again.
Many different theories were subsequently developed to explain what happened as if it did not or could not have happened.