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Easter Reflection 2020

By all counts, this is the strangest Easter in memory – one of the two most important holy days in the year for over two and a half billion people in the world, the vast majority of whom cannot celebrate it together for the first time in their lives.

Even so, for many of these Christians this particular Easter, with the message it brings, could not have come at a better time.  And even for those of who are not Christian, the season brings a powerful message, worth reflecting on.

Even as a committed Christian, I always had a surprisingly ambivalent relation to Easter.  For the first thirty years of my life, I was very active in the Church; as a young adult I was not just a faithful attender of church who was engaged in worship and Sunday School, I became actively involved in church ministry as a youth pastor, head of Christian education, assistant pastor, and pastor (of the Princeton Baptist Church).   But I was never as joyful at Easter as everyone else in my circles appeared to be.

Like most Americans, I suppose, I much preferred Christmas, even though I did feel a bit guilty about it, since, well, surely Easter and the resurrection of Jesus is the *point*, right?  But more than that, I always (and weirdly in the eyes of most my friends eyes), always preferred Good Friday to Easter, and always thought it got completely undersold.  Almost no one would go to church for it, in comparison with Easter.  But I thought it was the day that really mattered:  Christ’s sacrifice of himself for the sins of the world.  What could be more important?

I realized Easter was much better for him, of course.  We might call it “good” Friday, but it was obviously the most horrible day of his life, as he spent a good part of it being tortured to death.  It was “good” only for us.  But rather than making us feel good, it should (I thought) make us feel horrible.  It was because of *us* that he had to do *that*.   To some extent that made me feel guilty, but more than that it produced gratitude, ultimate gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice, and I never understood why other Christians didn’t see it that way.  They just were eager to get past it to the glories of Sunday morning and the big Easter celebration of what really mattered to them: the resurrection.

I always thought the death was far more important.   And it always seemed to me that jumping too quickly to Easter was getting salvation on the cheap.  It was all good news, and no bad news; all glory and no pain; all happiness and no misery.  It always seemed weird to me going to church with everyone ready to celebrate the victory without having reflected on the costs of the war.

All sorts of other analogies came to mind.  Focusing on Easter was kind of like watching part of a World Series game but seeing only the rally in the 9th inning with two outs and not watching all the game before then to see why the rally was so flippin’ unbelievably unlikely and amazing; or reading a long novel with a happy ending but actually reading only the happy ending and not the entire novel to see why the ending was so spectacular and uplifting.

So I never really enjoyed Easter services because I never was sure that my fellow parishioners were taking it all very seriously, for what it really meant.  And so I went through the motions with some gusto as required (though I never, ever liked that sunrise service thing….), but at the end my emotional register and mood was somewhat the opposite of what it was on Christmas  With Easter I was always glad it was over with, instead of feeling a kind of drawn-out sense of joy, happiness, and contentment in its aftermath.

OK, so that wasn’t everyone’s feeling.   At the same time, and possibly a bit oddly, I stressed and felt the real importance of the Easter message, not just on Easter Sunday but throughout the year.  And as I said, it is a message coming at an extraordinarily good time this year.   It is a message worth reflecting on, not only for Christians but even for those of us who do not (or no longer) identify with the Christian faith.

It is the most powerful message that the Christianity brings to the world, in large part because in its original and deepest form it takes the real situation of the world very seriously and addresses it head on without shying away from it.   It is a not a message that skips the pain to get to the happiness, that avoids the misery by focusing on the pie in the sky in the bye and bye.  It is a message that resonates most with those who are in the midst of their pain and misery, whose suffering is very real, tangible, physically and mentally agonizing.  It is a message that does not minimize, justify, or mollify the reality of human suffering.  The horror continues.   The pain persists.  The darkness is everywhere.

But in the end, evil will not have the last word.  There is hope.

This is not cheap solace.  It is not facile advice or simplistic solace given to someone in the depths of despair about a child who has died, or has been disfigured in an accident, or is in the throes of agony with cancer.   The crucifixion of Jesus was real, and he felt it.   Writhing in agonizing pain.  He didn’t take it calmly knowing that he’d be fit as an immortal flea in a couple of days.  The torture was real torture for him, as it is for so many others, every day, throughout the entire world.

For most of the many billions of people who have ever lived in the world, life has of course had good moments; but most of existence has been a lifetime – usually a very short one – of perpetual pain and suffering.  The material world is unaware of our existence and not at all concerned about the sentient creatures who dell on it, doesn’t give a damn about them, in the least.  Pandemics, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, crop failure, leading to starvation, homelessness, disease, and and and…

And that is not considering the pain humans inflict on one another – war, torture, oppression, injustice that leads to pain and death, inequalities that create massive starvation, lack of concern for those suffering and dying horribly because they are not “one of us.”

The pain is real, even if most of us who are in our personal, comfortable situations can turn it off.   But during the greatest international crisis of our life time, it is now suddenly very hard indeed to turn it off.  It is all around us even if it has not yet invaded our personal space.  And we realize that good Friday is not so good after all, when we ourselves, those we love, or those we ceaselessly hear or read about are  living and dying  through it.

But still.  There is the message of Easter.  The message does not  — or at least should  not — justify the pain or soften the suffering, per se.  But it is still the Christian message.   There is a glimmer of light in the world of darkness.  Evil does not have the last word.  God does.  Death is not the end of the story.  There is a different ending, beyond our understanding, not one we can conjure up through our own efforts, but one that comes from forces far beyond our ability to understand let along control.   In the end, love wins.  Suffering ends.  Pain disappears.  Good triumphs.

This is not a message I literally believe.  But it is a message that resonates in my heart, in a period of pain and darkness.  And one that I choose to live for.

I wish you all a very happy Easter.


A Good Time for Wisdom!
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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Rthompsonmdog  April 12, 2020

    Mark Goodacre theorizes that the centurion’s remark in Mark 15:39 “ Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” is likely meant sarcastically. Reading the remark this way is another source of irony in Mark’s message.
    I can see some reason for this reading, but what are your thoughts? Is this a common view?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2020

      Interesting idea, but I doubt it. I’d have to see his whole argument. But the striking thing is that Mark brackets Jesus’ life with the declaration he is the Son of God, by God himself (1:11); and ends it that way, by the centurion. And right in the middle (ch. 9, transfiguration) it comes again. It’s a way of stressing, he *really is* the Son of God. And who recognizes it? Not a Jewish leader. A gentile. That’s where the mission’s going (for Mark)

      • Avatar
        fishician  April 13, 2020

        I think Luke’s conversation on the cross could be interpreted sarcastically: “Oh, WE deserve to be crucified, but not YOU (goody-two-shoes who’s hanging on a cross just like us). Hey, remember me when you come into your ‘kingdom’ (snicker)”. Jesus responds, “Hey, you’re gonna be dead just like me by the end of the day.” But I don’t think that’s how Luke really intended it. I doubt anyone recorded anything said while Jesus was on the cross, but it’s fun to speculate how such comments could be interpreted over time.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 14, 2020

          Maybe so. But Jesus didn’t hear the sarcasm then! And since it’s Luke who is the only one conveying the account (i.e., it’s not something that actually happened), and since he doesn’t take it that way, well, seems unlikely? Hey, unless Jesus is using sarcasm in response! Now we’re getting into interesting territory….

      • Avatar
        Rthompsonmdog  April 15, 2020

        I believe I heard Dr. Goodacre present the idea on his podcast, here is a blog post where he supports the idea that the centurion’s “Truly this was the son of god” comment in Mark is sarcastic.
        https://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2009/04/centurions-sarcastic-cry-in-mark-1539.html

        “To read the text in this way coheres with the rest of Mark’s Passion Narrative, which is commonly regarded as rich in irony. Jesus is repeatedly mocked as a king (15.9, 12, 18, 26, 32) with purple cloak, crown of thorns and mock homage (15.17-20), but the reader knows that he really is a king. He is mocked as a prophet (14.65) while his very prophecies are being enacted all around him (the mockery itself, fulfilling his Passion predictions, and Peter’s denial, fulfilling Jesus’ Last Supper prophecies). Given this context, it is difficult to think that the centurion’s remark can be intended as a “confession” of faith in Jesus. Reading the remark as the crowning element in the dramatic irony of Mark’s Passion Narrative makes good narrative sense.”

        The blog post admits that this interpretation is not popular. He mentions John Fenton and Donald Juel as potential proponents.

  2. Avatar
    exPCman  April 12, 2020

    Just change the last sentence to wishing us all a “Joyous Easter!” and I will offer a hearty “Amen”! In fact, I will “amen” this most appropriate and up-lifting sermon from this member of your congregation, because you have done a good a job as could be done on this day and unhappily likely better than most. So I am truly most grateful!

    Thanks

    Frank

  3. Avatar
    rivercrowman  April 12, 2020

    Thoughtful post. … And put “Easter” in the blog’s search box to get a chance to read (or re-read) Bart’s 2018 thoughts.

  4. Avatar
    Jimmy  April 12, 2020

    Thanks Bart, that is something I needed to hear. Do you have any copies of sermons you gave when you were a pastor? I am sure alot of us would love to read them.

  5. Avatar
    gbsinkers  April 12, 2020

    You have company in not finding Easter as exhilarating as others. I too found it lacking. Personally the Maundy Thursday services always moved me more than Christmas (which is TOTALLY made up) or Easter. During my run today I listened to Christian music that was important to me during the years I was a believer and it gave me some sense of peace. I reflected that, unlike Christmas, this holiday is based upon at least partially true events of the crucifixion, the supposed discover of an empty tomb and the mystery and response that surrounded it. And then the world changed forever. So yes, Easter is significant whether you are a believer or not and it is worth our reflection. Thank you for yours! Stay well!

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 12, 2020

    There’s a story about an Eastern sultan who asked his vizier to give him a message that would make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. The vizier searched all over the kingdom, until he came to an old jeweler. The jeweler said that he knew what message would do that and engraved it on a ring. The message was “This too shall pass.”

  7. Avatar
    godspell  April 12, 2020

    I’m not sure how one *literally* interprets any great truth. LIteralism is about facts, and facts matter. Facts are necessary and unavoidable (like viruses, though I’m trying my best). But truths are more important, because while facts are reality, truth is the meaning behind it–and meaning is something we create. Without consciousness, there is no meaning. We make it for ourselves, as do our animal brethren, in their own way, with their own forms of consciousness.

    This is why fundamentalism is wrong, because it confuses the true and the real. But this is also why we can’t run away from the many truths (religious, philosophical, metaphysical, metaphorical, poetical) we and our ancestors have created together, which shaped the world we live in, and which have improved our lives, and at least given us the chance to overcome the worst in our natures, and evolve, over time, into the beings we were meant to be. Which I fully believe is what Jesus was trying to do, and we don’t need to worship him to feel his pain, to try and understand his truths, and be inspired by his sacrifice.

    Now I’m going to self-distance some more. Happy Easter.

  8. Avatar
    annetrue  April 12, 2020

    Thank you for words I needed to hear today. I was missing the old me. The me who used to feel joy. You reminded me that there is hope.

  9. Avatar
    willito28  April 12, 2020

    Brilliant. Thank you, Bart.

  10. Avatar
    veritas  April 12, 2020

    Wow. If I threw out your sentence near the end,” This is not a message I literally believe”, I would conclude it is a message from your first thirty years of life. I concur with all of your sentiment. I have felt the same way for most of my life. Good Friday, was the most important day for me as well, not understanding what it meant to dye for the sins of the world. One man’s sacrifice to redeem us. I was sad and maybe as you say, guilt overtook my emotions as well. My mother would always make fish of some sort on Good Friday, never meat, claiming it represented Jesus in the flesh. Oddly, ” The Ten commandments” was one movie that uplifted me, seeing the power of this supernatural God at work. Easter for me was more about eating normal again and never really grasped its celebratory effects on believers. Because I was young, the effect of the resurrection did not penetrate my heart yet. Being healthy and strong early in my life made me invincible and oblivious to the efficacy of its message, eternal life. Someone once told me, ” Love is the external manifestation of
    hope and faith”. I never forgot.

  11. Avatar
    aar8818  April 12, 2020

    This shows how you were a true Christian. Great post. Be blessed and stay well Bart.

  12. Avatar
    abuladeen  April 12, 2020

    Thank you, Bart. Touching and honest. I’m thankful to find my own feelings about Good Friday and Easter affirmed and substantiated.

    There’s a strong “light at the end of the tunnel” predisposition in the American psyche. That has often served us well, but it doesn’t square with the message of the Gospels, or of the Old Testament scriptures either.

    The aversion to looking deeply at evil and suffering is likely behind what has sometimes seemed to commentators outside our culture a kind of superficiality in the American spirit.

  13. Avatar
    Apocryphile  April 12, 2020

    This theme of the suffering of Good Friday you talk about resonated with me in a special way this year – not because I am Christian (I am not), but because of a very common experience – the loss of a pet. One might think, c’mon, a cat passing away after a long and happy life – what’s the big deal? Yet it was a big deal for me, since she kept me company for many years when I lived alone, and I was in profound mourning for 3 whole days. During the time she was with me, my father passed away, and, I’m a bit embarrassed to say it, but I felt nothing like the pain and deep sense of loss I felt when my cat died. Be that as it may, mourning a loss is such an intense feeling that, reflecting on it now and at the time, it seemed to be pregnant with such a deep sense of meaning, even a kind of beauty, that I couldn’t deny the sanctity of the moment. I knew on a profound level that the suffering I was feeling in those moments had a deep purpose – what I didn’t know – I simply *knew* that it did. How my experience applies to other’s lives and situations I can’t say, but perhaps Pathos serves a purpose beyond our understanding?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2020

      I completely understand. We lost two cats and a very much beloved dog over the past year. It seems weird on the outside that such things can have such an effect, buut they do….

  14. Avatar
    Judith  April 12, 2020

    In this beautiful post you have managed somehow to express the ineffable.

  15. Avatar
    Sixtus  April 12, 2020

    This is one of your most magnificent columns. Thank you from NYC, a city truly in agony.

  16. Avatar
    batteryZ  April 13, 2020

    Hey Bart. Just registered for your 2-month trial a while back. This is a bit off topic but I just wanted to ask you about the “blood moon” prophecy that the Bible talks about. Many Christians would see a red moon one night and say that the end times are coming soon. They take passages from Joel, Acts 2 and Revelation to support this theory. Is there any insight you can give on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2020

      Yup, it’s been happening for as long as there were Christians, and so far, for nearly 2000 years, no one has been right yet! That sould at least give one pasuse.

  17. Avatar
    3Timothy  April 13, 2020

    I enjoyed listening to your recent interview with Terry Gross!

    Quality of the audio seemed a little off (distant)–in contrast with some of your previous Terry Gross interviews.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2020

      Yup, world crises change things! This one was on Skype instead of in a studio. I hated the sound quality, but others said they got by fine with it considering everything going on. Glad you liked it anyway!

  18. Avatar
    AndrewJenkins  April 13, 2020

    Dear Bart,

    Thank you so much for your message that resonates in my heart, also, and I will share it with friends in our village congregation, many in the ‘at risk’ age group and now supporting each other on-line, by phone and through sending Easter cards via our wonderful postman.
    We wish you a very happy Easter too!
    Andrew.

  19. Avatar
    GodlessGranny  April 13, 2020

    My problem with the Christian response is the idea “you can’t handle this, you need God.” It teaches you to depend on a god because you can’t depend on yourself and others. But the god offered by Christianity doesn’t do anything that can be shown wouldn’t have happened without a god (I refer to answer to prayer). People are handling their problems with the help of other people then attributing their own actions as the work of a god. People are stonger and better able to handle this if they let go of the god idea and use the resources within themselves.

  20. Avatar
    Kavsor  April 13, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, It’s a bit off topic , I learned from you among other things that the historical Jesus believed that when kingdom of God came his twelve desciples ( including Judas) would rule over the twelve tribes and Jesus himself would rule over them.
    Jesus also believed that people who were dead would be raised from the dead bodily to live in the kingdom of God.
    So Jesus must have thought that he would rule over Abraham and Moses…..and John the baptist in the kingdom of God.
    It wasn’t so modest of him then ! if that was the case I wonder what was his reasons for thinking so highly of himself ?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2020

      It’s usually thought that he believed God had informed him of all this.

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