In an often-quoted exchange, the Hollywood comedy Talladega Nights shows protagonist Ricky Bobby saying grace to “Baby Jesus.” His father-in-law, Chip, takes issue, reminding him that Jesus grew up and had a beard. Irritated by the criticism, Ricky shouts, “I like the Christmas Jesus the best!”
Ricky is not alone in his sentiment. In the popular imagination, “Christmas Jesus” easily eclipses “Easter Jesus,” and it’s not hard to see why. Christmas promises joy, as well as celebrations with songs, presents, and food. The Christmas Jesus is born to be a king who will rescue mankind, a popular trope that’s easy for us to embrace—as long as we forget that rescue will mean a journey through suffering and death.
“Easter Jesus” comes on the other side of that suffering and death. He brings joy—and freedom, too—but his body bears scars that show what joy and freedom costs. And he also bears the difficult message that receiving his new life will require a death first.
But the truth is, Christmas and Easter Jesus are one and the same. But Easter must outshine Christmas as “the king and lord of days” because Jesus was born to suffer, die, and rise again on Easter. And that fact underlies the faith that makes Easter much more than a single day.
02. Celebrating Easter
The end of the Gospels are almost breathless in their recounting of Easter morning. Mark tells it quickest, in just 8 verses. Women come to the tomb in darkness, planning to complete the burial preparation they’d abbreviated on Friday. Instead, they find the tomb open, its stone rolled aside, and a white-robed young man waiting to deliver the good news for the first time: “He is not here; he is risen just as he said!” He charges them to tell the disciples and Peter, who are to meet Jesus in Galilee. Instead, they flee in fear and confusion.
Matthew’s 10 verses add the women’s meeting with Jesus as they leave the garden. He tells them not to be afraid and sends them on to the disciples.
Luke takes 12 verses with his account, adding in the first response of the disciples: “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” But Peter, impetuous as ever, runs to the tomb to see for himself.
John piles all the initial discovery of the empty tomb into 2 verses, before relating an extended version of Peter’s run (with John) to the tomb. He also enlarges on Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus, whom she at first mistakes for the gardener.
The remainder of the Gospel accounts concerns Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection. Jesus meets with the disciples that first evening, and although his appearance is miraculous, they receive some proofs of his bodily resurrection. He shows them his wounded hands and feet, his pierced side. He eats some of their food.
As soon as Pentecost, just 50 days after these events, Peter has made Jesus’ resurrection the center of his first public message: Jesus was “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:23-24).
The connection to the Jewish Passover only intensified in subsequent years. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians (ca. AD 54) that “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival” (1 Cor. 5:7).These words begin the hymn Pascha nostrum in Thomas Cranmer’s 1628 Book of Common Prayer. The hymn was sung on Easter morning. No later than the second century, Christians celebrated a “Christian Passover” (the Greek word is pascha). Melito, bishop of Sardis (died about AD 180), explains how central Jesus’ resurrection is to the Christian faith. In his resurrection Jesus triumphs, Melito says, defeating death on its own terms.
- This one is the passover of our salvation. This is the one who patiently endured many things in many people: This is the one who was murdered in Abel, and bound as a sacrifice in Isaac, and exiled in Jacob, and sold in Joseph, and exposed in Moses, and sacrificed in the lamb, and hunted down in David, and dishonored in the prophets.
- This is the one who became human in a virgin, who was hanged on the tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from among the dead, and who raised mankind up out of the grave below to the heights of heaven….
- Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven.Peri Pascha (On the Passover). https://www.kerux.com/doc/0401A1.asp. Accessed on 4/13/2022.
Few disputed that Easter should be celebrated; deciding when to celebrate Easter, though, created one of the earliest church controversies. At the end of the second century, the Quartodecimans (following Polycarp and others) observed the Resurrection on the same day as the Jewish Passover (14 Nisan). Beginning with the Council of Nicaea, the church decided it should break from the Jewish calendar and set a uniform date for Easter. But it would take several centuries to settle on the “first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21.” But the church is not completely uniform in its celebration today. The Eastern church typically follows the older Julian calendar, which means Easter usually occurs later in the year. (For more on this, see “Why Two Easters?” in this “Telling Time in Church” series.)
|2022||17 April||24 April|
|2023||9 April||16 April|
|2024||31 March||5 May|
|2025||20 April||20 April|
The fourth century bishop St. John Chrysostom (AD 347-407) in his Easter homily, still read as part of Orthodox Easter liturgy, makes plain that Jesus’ victory over death benefits all who come to him:
“Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day; you who have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today. The table is richly loaded: enjoy its royal banquet. The calf is a fatted one: let no one go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of his goodness. Let no one grieve over his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed; let no one weep over his sins, for pardon has shone from the grave; let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free: He has destroyed it by enduring it, He has despoiled Hades by going down into its kingdom.”“The Paschal Sermon.” https://www.oca.org/fs/sermons/the-paschal-sermon. Accessed 4/13/2022.
A Feast of Light. Most of us enjoy a world lit by electricity, with light immediately and always available, so we may struggle to see the great hope that light means for a dark world. The pre-industrial world feared the dark, and the resources for light were limited, a fact which invests Jesus’ claim to be “the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12) with even greater weight. Consequently, Christian churches filled their services with light for the Easter Vigil, and the lights would remain lit until the morning.
And the light provides more than utility. It not only illuminates the worship but the worshiper. Sergei Bulgakov describes the church at Easter as “the temple shining with gleaming lights,” and the light symbolizes the risen Jesus whose life “is the light of men” that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). Bulgakov writes, “In the silence of arrested time and the glow of pure whiteness of Pascha all earthly colors fade, and our soul is smitten solely with the ineffable light of the resurrection.”Quoted in Alexander Schmemann. O Death, Where Is Thy Sting? New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003, 58-59.
The tradition of light continues in western liturgical churches, where the priest lights a large new beeswax candle and carries it in the procession. They will use the candle throughout the Easter season (until Pentecost), and they will continue to use it occasionally throughout the year. It’s a powerful reminder that Easter ought to light the Christian’s way and worship throughout the year. But that requires more than merely assenting to the facts of Easter.
03. Beyond Facts to Faith: The Meaning of Easter
Robert Webber calls Easter “the source event” for the Christian year. “Every event of the Christian year flows into Easter,” he writes, “even as all the events of the Christian year flow from Easter.”Robert E. Webber. Ancient-Future Time. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004, 143. But the faithlessness of modernity, and its subsequent obsession with proofs, threatens the experience of Easter. After all, many unbelievers acknowledge the existence of Jesus, his excellence as a moral teacher, and even that he was executed by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. But the heart of the Christian faith lies not in assenting to these facts intellectually.
Even agreeing to the theological facts of Easter does not give us a vibrant Easter faith. We can believe, for example, that Jesus died not because he threatened the Jewish leaders or the Roman empire but because God had determined to rescue and heal humanity—and all of creation. We can affirm that he died “once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin.” But if we do not participate in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, ours cannot be a living belief. “Faith itself is the acceptance not of this or that ‘proposition’ about Christ, but of Christ himself as the Life and the light of life.”Schmemann, 110. Easter invites us to just this kind of acceptance of and participation in Christ.
Participation in the life of Christ begins with Lent. Knowledge of and sorrow for sin help us to see God’s active mercy—the mission of Jesus—in the right light. We participate in Jesus’ death on Good Friday, and we go down to the depths on Holy Saturday. But that is not the end. The first words spoken at Easter Matins—“Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”—proclaim our hope. As St. Paul writes, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his…. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Rom. 6:5, 8). The Easter weekend mirrors our baptism. We die and are buried with Christ, passing under the water, and we are raised in Christ “to walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Living with Jesus is the fruit of Easter faith.
This life begins the moment we leave the Easter service. It is a door to the season of Easter, culminating in Pentecost. Like those who found the tomb empty on the first day of the week, we may leave the church armed with resurrection truth. But more is possible, desirable. As Pope St. Leo (ca. 400-461) writes, “he who is received by Christ and receives Christ is not the same after his baptism as before.”
If we have met Jesus and participated in death and resurrection with him, we embark on a renewed “Easter-ly” life in him that carries us year by year toward the final renewal of all things. Christ has risen! Christ has risen, indeed!
Mikhail Nesterov. The Empty Tomb. 1889.