Friday, March 30, 2018

Musings on Easter Weekend

There's an old saw that asks, "If you were arrested and put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"

I'm honest enough to admit that the answer would be "No" when it comes to me, but that does not make me an atheist or agnostic. I believe in God not on faith alone but also on evidence (though that's a whole other blog post) and my mind and heart always rev up when Holy Week comes around.

The notion that the universe was created by God (or "a higher power," if you won't say the G word because you're afraid of what the cool people might think) makes intellectual sense and is easy to accept. The story of Jesus as handed down over two millennia? Not so much.

The story of Jesus involves a virgin giving birth to a human baby who is simultaneously human and God, and who later makes a splash around the age of 12 then disappears for 18 years, then reappears as a grown bachelor who preaches radical sermons for three years during which he runs afoul of the Jewish religious establishment and Roman police state, resulting in him being executed atop a hill and his corpse being placed in a cave, only to come back to life three days later and then walk around preaching for another 40 days before rising from the ground and ascending through the clouds to a place he assured everyone was a kingdom.

That does not seem like a tough thing to believe -- it is a tough, perhaps impossible, thing to believe. Yet hundreds of millions believe it all the same, and they are not fools. They are doctors, lawyers, scientists, philosophers, astronauts, and captains of industry, and they know whereof they speak.

Ronald Reagan summed it up best back in 1978, when he was an ex-governor with a radio show who had not yet been elected president. In a letter to a minister who had expressed doubts about the divinity of Jesus, Reagan wrote: A young man whose father is a carpenter grows up working in his father's shop. One day he puts down his tools and walks out of his father's shop. He starts preaching on street corners and in the nearby countryside, walking from place to place, preaching all the while, even though he is not an ordained minister. He never gets farther than an area perhaps 100 miles wide at the most. He does this for three years. Then he is arrested, tried and convicted. There is no court of appeal, so he is executed at age 33 along with two common thieves. Those in charge of his execution roll dice to see who gets his clothing -- the only possessions he has. His family cannot afford a burial place for him so he is interred in a borrowed tomb. End of story? No, this uneducated, property-less young man has, for 2,000 years, had a greater effect on the world than all the rulers, kings, emperors; all the conquerors, generals and admirals, all the scholars, scientists and philosophers who have ever lived -- all of them put together. How do we explain that -- unless He really was what He said He was?

When I was in eighth grade we read Greek mythology in the English Language Arts class taught by Mrs. Ravas, and I noticed how tales of the Trojans and Odysseus and his return to Ithaca were not unlike biblical stories of the Philistines and of Jews returning to Zion from their Babylonian exile. But I also noticed a significant difference, for nobody in 1984-85 was praying to Zeus or testifying that Poseidon rescued them when they got caught in rip currents.

Whereas the Greek gods played dice with people, Jesus, the manifestation of the Hebrew God, sought to deliver them from evil. Belief in Zeus drove people to fear the wrath of his thunderbolts, while belief in the Hebrew God drove them to care for the downtrodden.

Though belief in the Greek gods long ago went extinct, belief in the Hebrew God spread from tiny Judea and went all the way around the world eons before the invention of anything resembling mass media.

In a religious sense, Holy Week, the period from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday, conveys more vivid images and more acute feelings than any other time of year. It, more than any other succint period of time, links the ancient past to the modern present and makes the former not only obviously relevant, but close enough to touch.

In your mind's eye, picture Jesus entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. He was a common man riding a donkey, not an aristocrat riding a horse, yet people exulted his arrival and spread palm fronds in front of him. Hence, Palm Sunday.

Flip to a nighttime several days later and envision the same Jesus praying by moonlight in the Garden of Gethsemane, anguished over the death He knows is at hand. Flip immediately forward on that same night, to the moment when Judas betrays Him in exchange for thirty pieces of silver, identifying Him to the Roman soldiers who place Him under arrest.

Skip forward to the following day, when He appears before Pontius Pilate for trial. Suddenly, many of the people who had praised Him when He entered the city are now calling for Him to be executed by crucifixion, one of the most brutal means of death ever devised by the minds of our "civilized" species.

Given a choice between freeing Jesus or freeing the rioter Barabbus, the mob chooses Barabbus. Pilate confirms Jesus's death sentence after symbolically washing his own hands and declaring that Jesus's fate is the will of the people, not of him personally.

Move forward from there, probably just one day forward, and you see the final stages of what has come to be known as The Passion. You see Jesus forced to walk through the city streets while crowds jeer, carrying the heavy cross to which he is soon to be nailed.

He carries that cross to Golgotha, where it gets laid on the ground and He gets tied to it. Then, nails get hammered through his wrists and feet and the cross is erected with him hanging upon it in what would appear the most helpless and pathetic of positions.

Two other crosses, one on each side of His, are also erected, holding common thieves whose names will quickly be forgotten in the mists of time.

Jesus's mother, Mary, is present for the crucifixion and watches in agony. So too does the enigmatic Mary Magdalene.

But it is likely that none of His disciples were present, for of the four gospels, only one (John) mentions the presence of a disciple and it gives no name. The Gospel of Luke says some of them watched from a distance, but it too gives not a single name. Meanwhile, the gospels of Matthew and Mark make no mention whatsoever of disciples even viewing the crucifixion.

Death by crucifixion came slow and torturously, and usually resulted not from bleeding per se, but from suffocation as the lungs and heart stopped working due to the purge of blood.

At 3:00 in the afternoon, Jesus died and an earthquake rent the area around Jerusalem, tearing in half the veil which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of Solomon's temple. Death by suffocation while bleeding on a cross would seem to be a defeat -- but the Bible describes it as a victory, and the tearing of the veil represents the ultimate message of Jesus's ministry; namely, that every single person may communicate directly with God rather than being separated from Him and being forced to use rabbis as intermediaries. Hence, Good Friday.

The crucifixion was long but took place all on one day, though we don't know if it was a Friday... Then there was a second day, which in our current observation of Holy Week is a Saturday... Then there was a third day, which in our current observation is Easter Sunday. This is of course the day that Jesus was resurrected, when He rose from the dead and exited the tomb borrowed from Joseph of Arimathea, when His divinity was made undeniable to those who were witnesses.

Side note: If you think that dyeing Easter eggs is a modern secularization of the holiday and is meant to separate children from its real meaning, you are incorrect. The giving of eggs to celebrate Easter originated early in the Christian era, in that expanse of land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that was then known as Mesopotamia and where you will now find the nations of Iraq and Kuwait. In those early days the eggs were stained with whatever red coloring was available, in memory of the blood shed by Jesus on the cross.

But back to my main point: Holy Week, with its climax on Easter Sunday, is the most goosebump-rippling week on the calendar.

I am the grandson of a preacher man, and Granddaddy gave marathon sermons at sprint speeds, the kind of which Lyle Lovett apparently has some knowledgeGranddaddy was a white man who grew up in Jim Crow North Carolina, but I think he had a bit of black preacher in him and I always wanted to see him and Sherman Hemsley get down together.

Baptists are thought of as stuffy prudes who oppose premarital sex because it might lead to dancing, but Granddaddy was a Baptist and there was freewheeling singin' and dancin' and pulpit-smashin' in the church whenever he hit his groove -- which, unfortunately for those of us who wanted to eat lunch, was every Sunday starting at 11:00 a.m. with the possibility that it might continue past 1:00 p.m.

Where was I? Oh yeah, right. The Holy Week that climaxes with Easter is the most vivid and palpable of all Christian observances.

Granddaddy did vivid and palpable, but he also knew when to suppress his personality and let somebody else hold the baton, and one of my clearest early church memories is from an Easter sunrise service at which he stepped aside.

I think it was so far back that Jimmy Carter was president and I had yet to reach double digits. The sermon was delivered outdoors by George Walters, who then went by Brother George, and it was delivered with a blast of fervent optimism that I still think about every year when Easter draws near.

I have no idea what Brother George said -- remember, I was in single digits -- but I remember the glint in his eye and certainty in his voice like it was yesterday. I still remember exactly how the early sunlight looked over the oaks in Oldsmar, Florida, and how it shined off the sweat on his forehead and how he smiled as he ministered.

Today I am 47 years old, and struggling internally over whether I know how to raise my daughter who is in puberty and my son who likes to manipulate... yet I still remember the feel of that sunrise sermon like it was yesterday, and I would not remember it if it was not divinely inspired.

Though I don't recall the words of that sermon, I do recall its authenticity and the gut knowledge which powered it, the gut knowledge which communicated that God is real and Easter is His biggest, most artful tap on our shoulders -- the tap which lets us know He is here in the now, not far away in the yesterday.

As this weekend unfurls we should open our hearts, appreciate our loved ones, observe the beauty of the world around us, and let ourselves smile.

We tend to worry about life in this broken world, but we shouldn't, because the worry causes us to ignore our blessings.

Note: This post was originally published last year, and the only change I made this year was to update my age.

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