Easter - the Christian Pasch


Mary of Magdala in the garden

Easter is the Christian Pasch, or Passover, although the term itself has passed out of common use. The Holy Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Saturday night Easter Vigil form together a single celebration - the single historical event of what we understand as our human salvation or redemption from sin.

The central and most significant event is Jesus’ willingness to give Himself up, in spite of the betrayal of His closest followers, to a rigged trial by His own people, to a political sentence admitted as unjust by the Roman Governor ordering it, and to a spectacularly cruel Roman death sentence.

Huge numbers of criminals and those who opposed imperial Rome were executed by crucifixion, so what was it that made this crucifixion so special both immediately afterwards and two thousand years later? It is an important question whose answer is partly what Christians believe to be the real identity of this man Jesus, partly how Jesus chose to identify Himself, and partly what we as Christians have come to believe was the real meaning of His sacrifice of Himself for us.

To take its meaning for us first: at the time of Jesus’ arrest preparations were being made for the Passover. Jewish families sacrificed a lamb on this day every year in commemoration both of the sacrifice of the first born Egyptian children, and God’s “passing-over” of the Hebrews to enable them to escape with Moses to the Promised Land. Jesus changed the whole nature of this sacrifice by fulfilling its original meaning once and for all.

Jesus identified Himself as ‘the Lamb of God’, to be sacrificed during His last Passover supper, when He identified the broken bread as His body, and the final cup of wine as His blood. Through His resurrection and His gift of the Holy Spirit to the followers who had deserted Him, they came to realise that He was not only the Christ, the anointed King foretold by the prophets, but God Himself who had come to rescue His people in human flesh and blood.

Although Jesus accepted His followers’ identification of Him as the promised Christ, He seems simply to have referred to Himself as ‘the Son of Man,’ never as the ‘Son of God,’ – which was the title given Him by Peter and the early Church. As ‘the Lamb of God’ His role was clearly self-sacrificial, but not in the way Passover lambs were traditionally sacrificed. A sacrifice is something made holy by being set apart for God. As Christians we already recognise Jesus as the Son of God and therefore as the complete human image and likeness of God.

Jesus’ offering of Himself as the Lamb of God was borne of His love for His people who had, through the evil in their hearts, sacrificed Him. God His Father accepted His mystical offering because it was made wholly out of his own divine love. As a human offering that was also divine it is one in which we are still able to participate by receiving His life of love in a real communion with His sacramental flesh and blood.

In our turn we offer ourselves to God by accepting and imitating Him in life, and He in return enables us to overcome the human weaknesses and limitations that prevent us from entering the life of the kingdom of God. So the Christian Pasch is above all a celebration of divine love, in which love sacrifices itself for love. This love is the only ultimate value, the pearl of His kingdom that we seek for in our lives.

This is why Good Friday is called ‘Good.’ On Good Friday we celebrate the victory of Jesus’ self-sacrificial love over evil. The reason why the Gospel of Mark ended originally with the women’s discovery of the empty tomb, is that we ourselves become the principal part of Christ’s resurrection. The Risen Christ shows us the many gifts of love that flow from the life-giving Holy Spirit.

The narratives of the resurrection form in a very real sense only a kind of afterthought, for they were only the signs and examples of Christ’s resurrection shown to His closest followers so they could understand and continue to carry His message. But Good Friday remains the real climax of what we celebrate at Easter. Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday (and Whitsunday) simply explain its meaning and the implications for our lives.

The resurrection narratives are offered in noticeably vaguer outlines than the more vividly dramatic accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death, a kind of postscript to the Passion narratives. Lesser known disciples are involved. Jesus is not immediately recognised and appears and disappears mysteriously. The women take centre stage in every initial Gospel resurrection scene, continuing from their presence at Jesus’ crucifixion. The presence of the women as the primary witnesses of both Jesus’ crucifixion and His resurrection has significance which was not fully theologically appreciated or explored in the development of the early Church.

The lack of any reference to the witness of the women in the earliest ‘official’ summary of the resurrection appearances apparently given to St Paul in his Letter to the Corinthians (1Cor.14:3-9), together with the prejudicial insertions qualifying restrictions of women apparently added later, should perhaps give us pause for thought in considering the significance of gender in the Church’s subsequent forms of leadership, especially as Easter Sunday’s resurrection narratives effectively mark the beginning of ‘the age of the Church.’  

This is symbolised in the Gospel of John as the people of God being born again out of the side of the crucified Christ as the Church, in the blood and water of baptism, as well as the ‘handing over’ of the Spirit in Jesus’ dying words, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit”.  These words have been questioned by Gospel commentators, who have raised anachronistic theological speculations whether Jesus’ human spirit and the gift of the Holy Spirit at His baptism, are here being treated together as one.

But is this distinction relevant to the key message of the Word continuing to be made flesh in the lives of His people? We should take care not to identify the knowledge of the earliest Christians with the stricter theological definitions established for different reasons later. Taken at face value, this Gospel sees the passing on of the Holy Spirit (with divine love) as the real significance of the resurrection, and the sacramental rebirth of His real presence in the lives of His people through the work of his followers. By the waters of the Sea of Galilee He finally feeds them again with a miraculous haul of fish and renews His commission to Peter in terms of ‘feeding’ His sheep. In this way the real final purpose of the incarnation of God among His people is fully realised.

Bob Styles SJ