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Easter Reflections

During the Easter weekend professors, students and some of the neighbors of Andrews University in Berrien Springs gave multiple representations of scenes of the passion of Christ to large crowds which, in groups of about one hundred, were guided along a path with rest areas where dramatic representations of main events in the life and passion of the Lord could be observed. This celebration of Easter has become a yearly event for some time already, and is a significant break with the Adventist tradition which purposely ignores the Christian calendar. It brings together, better than any other, the university and the surrounding community.

Among the evangelical accounts, without a doubt, the Gospel According to Matthew is the one that gives the resurrection narratives the most dramatic scenes. The author adds to the Marcan narrative two earthquakes and eyewitnesses. The roman guard that suffered the earthquake and fell in awe before the angel of the Lord witnessed in total confusion, defenseless and in fear the disappearance of the body that had been deposited and sealed in the sepulcher. In this account, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” are witnesses of the burial, the earthquake and the first appearance of Christ as they were running “with fear and great joy” to give the good news to the other disciples. When the Risen Christ confronts them, they “came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him” (28:9).

The author of Matthew, writing about the year 90, tells us that in his time the Jews were saying that in fact the disappearance of the body was due to a robbery carried out by the disciples while the roman guard slept. To this the author has a ready answer: the guard had been paid to tell this lie. Surely, by the time this controversy between the Pharisees and the Christians took place, the members of the guard where no longer in Palestine.

The Gospel According to Matthew portrays a Christianity that finds itself in a vitriolic struggle with the Pharisees. In the year 70, with the destruction of the Temple, Judaism had ceased to be. With the death of the mother religion, the two surviving daughters, Pharisaism and Christianity, became entangled in a bitter struggle for the wealth of the inheritance. The most undesirable passions that normally flare up in family feuds are easily observed here. The way in which Matthew represents the Pharisees fully exposes the bad blood between the contenders.

Among the four canonical gospels, Matthew is the one that most openly appropriates Judaic traditions, presents a Christianity firmly based on Torah and demands from Christians the most perfect obedience to the Law. The justice of Christians must be superior to that of the Pharisees (5:20).

But the justice of God has been questioned on account of the martyrs of the Maccabeean War. That crisis of faith brought to the forefront the apocalyptic perspective to justify God’s ways by means of the resurrection of the saints, those who died for their faithfulness to Torah. On this account, the author of Matthew views the resurrection of the Lord in the context of the martyrs of the faith. When Jesus expires on the cross, an earthquake opens the tombs of the faithful martyrs who have been awaiting God’s justice. In this way, Matthew expresses the truth at the heart of the resurrection. The good news of the resurrection was never reduced to the re-appearance of Jesus. From the beginning, preaching the Gospel Christians affirmed the resurrection as a cosmic event in which God had done something decisive to reveal God’s character and God’s relationship with humanity.

For Paul, the resurrection is the founding of the New Creation by the power of the Spirit. All Christians participate in the New Creation at their baptism. In the Gospel of Mark, written about the year 70, it is not necessary to tell of the resurrection because the Parousia that is expected to take place in connection with the destruction of the Temple makes such an account anticlimactic. (Mark ends in 16:8.)

The author of Matthew ties the resurrection of the Lord to the resurrection of the martyrs. These saints appear to many in Jerusalem after an earthquake, that took place at the moment Jesus breathed his last on the cross and the veil of the Temple was ripped from top to bottom, opened their tombs (27:51-53). The resurrection of the martyrs and the resurrection of the Lord are brought about by earthquakes that open tombs to reveal the justice of God. Modern Christians often allow cultural currents to guide their understanding. These wish to understand the resurrection of the Lord as a symbol of the resurrection that each spring takes place in nature. Easter eggs laid by miraculous rabbits may be very special for children who enjoy listening to fairy tales before falling asleep, but Christians should not let themselves be confused. The resurrection of the Lord is not tied primarily to nature.

The first Christians left us a good model for understanding. They immediately saw that the resurrection of Christ was an event with significant consequences for the historical community, not an event in accordance with, or contrary to, nature. This is the significance of the earthquake that in Matthew accompanies the ripping of the Temple’s veil. The appearance of the Maccabeean martyrs is the demonstration that God had concluded justly the business still pending with the Judaism that ceased to be with the destruction of the Temple. Those who lost their lives prematurely on account of their faith in God had received their just reward at their resurrection. Let us, therefore, also be just as God is just. This is the message of the resurrection in Matthew. The resurrection is an event in the community of faith, not only an event in the life of Jesus.

The author of the Letter to the Colossians, who sees things in a way similar to the author of Matthew, insists that Christians must understand “according to Christ” and not be deceived by empty deceits “according to human traditions, according to the elemental spirits of the world” (2:8). To see things according to Christ is to understand that the death and resurrection of Christ is the way in which the world has been circumcised. That which made possible the accumulation of impurities has been eliminated. Now Christ is “the head of all rule and authority.” By his resurrection Christ “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in Himself” (or “on it” = the cross [the Greek pronoun is ambiguous] 2:15). That is, instead of viewing the resurrection in the context of a Jewish theodicy, this author sees it in the context of the triumphal entry of a general who brings in his train the vanquished powers and principalities of the air, the elemental spirits of the world that prevent free communication between heaven and earth. The rulers and authorities that governed the celestial spheres had been publicly shamed at Christ’s triumphal procession. They no longer ruled as agents of evil in the universe.

This perspective, with some important modifications, is developed by the author of the Letter to the Ephesians, who obviously wrote his letter following closely the outline of Colossians. Instead of using the image of baptism as participation in the “circumcision of Christ” by means of which those dead in sins receive God’s forgiveness, this author picks up the idea of the triumphal procession with its train of vanquished rulers as the occasion for the victor to shower goodies acquired in his battles to the admiring and cheering public along the triumphal route. He bases his description on Psalm 68:18, where Yahweh is seen ascending to the mount of the Sanctuary with twenty thousand chariots and even more thousands of angels, having “captivated captivity” and having received gifts among men.

In Ephesians, the victorious general who returns bringing home booty does not come from a campaign to neighboring land and the important thing is not that he accumulated great wealth by his victories over other men. Since the Psalm refers to an ascent, this implies that there had been also a descent. This descent had been to the subterranean regions of the earth and the captives that now march in shame are not prisoners from neighboring countries but captives of death itself. Another change is that instead of pointing out the accumulation of material wealth, Ephesians tells of the distribution of divine gifts among Christians. That is, the campaign that culminated with the death and the resurrection of Christ, and that included a disturbance of the abode where the dead were being held captive, enabled the Christ to distribute among the saints the fruits of the Spirit that bring about the unity of the Church and the unification of all the spheres of the universe under the rule of the Risen Christ. More than any other New Testament book, Ephesians sees the Church as a cosmic body, and the resurrection as a cosmic triumph. On this basis, the Apostle’s Creed, some years later, included the phrase, descendit ad inferos.

Both in the Jewish context concerned with the injustice of the premature death of martyrs of the faith, and in the Hellenistic context of a vertical universe with a hierarchy of spheres governed by different rulers of the air, the first Christians did not understand the resurrection of Christ as another miracle, similar to the resurrection of Lazarus or the son of the widow of Nain. For them, it had to do with the cosmic triumph of the justice and the love of God. It may be noted, however, that, while the earlier references make clear that the main actor in the event is God, with the passage of time, Christ came to occupy this role. The certainty of their faith was unmovable. For its expression, they used mythological language capable of communicating how they saw the transcendent event they had experienced. The important thing was not the language being used, but the lived experience and the eternal consequences of the present being lived by those who had witnessed the justice of God, or had been circumcised with the circumcision of Christ, or had received the gifts of the Spirit. Modern debates whether the biblical narratives of the resurrection are to be read literally or symbolically reflect anachronistic concerns and overlook the importance of the resurrection as a community event. To celebrate Easter is to confess that we live in a community continuously created by the power and the justice of God. Faith communities rather than Creeds celebrate and reveal the power of Easter.

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