Easter arrives each year as we turn from winter's darkness to springtime's renewal and is often acknowledged as the holiday of hope. Yet this commemoration is incomplete. When we Christians contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ each Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter morning, we are reminded of the singular nature of these events. In addition, we are reminded that there is not only hope within these events—but something well beyond hope.
Scholars variously attribute the name "Easter" to a derivation from Eostra (a Scandinavian goddess of dawn or spring) or Ostern (a Teutonic fertility goddess), both pagan figures honored at festivals celebrating the vernal equinox. Eostra is one of many similar names of Euro-Mediterranean pagan goddesses, with the form Ishtar most often associated with the region around the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia. Traditions associated with these festivals include the Easter rabbit, a symbol of fertility; and Easter eggs, painted with the bright colors of spring, signifying growth and new life.
The Christian holiday builds on the traditions of the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach (the derivation of Pascha, another name for Easter), celebrating deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. This week, Passover begins on Thursday, when we're reminded that Jesus traveled with His followers to Jerusalem in observation of the feast He came to fulfill.
Victor I (c.189-198 A.D.) standardized Easter as a Sunday holiday, and in 325 A.D. the Council of Nicaea set Easter's date in relation to the paschal moon. The Gregorian calendar correction of 1582 placed Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, falling between 22 March and 25 April.
Hope without object is for Good Friday—an inchoate yearning. Hope that is intransitive can be ephemeral, evanescent. Christ's followers were frightened and demoralized at His death. Lasting hope, however, is transitive. Just as faith is no mere sentiment or loose conviction, the resurrection of Easter is about liberty—liberty from sin and bondage—and a freedom almost beyond comprehension.
From the beginning of His earthly ministry, Jesus claimed His mission as Deliverer: "So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
'The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To preach deliverance to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.'
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, 'Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing'." (Luke 4:16-21) While the Jews anticipated a Messiah coming in glory to vanquish their enemies, restore political rights and usher in a kingdom of justice, Jesus Himself provided a different, fuller and more heavenly explanation.
The liberty He brought was, for the time being, a hidden liberty: "Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, 'If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.' They answered Him, 'We are Abraham's descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you say, "You will be made free?"' Jesus answered them, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed'." (John 8:31-36)
God created us as beings of liberty; but in our fallen state we are neither fit nor fitted for freedom. Misunderstanding of liberty abounds. The inability of the human mind to wrap itself around the concept of real freedom is manifest, with tyranny often offered up in the guise of false freedom. Man is forever fashioning prisons, failing to note that the warden is as confined as his charges.
Indeed, consider the political conflicts raging across our nation, threatening to destroy the very liberty permitting their expression.
We see it in the Catholic Charities adoption controversy in Boston, and in the demand from the state of Massachusetts that this Christian organization disobey its Catholic principles and kowtow to state government beliefs about homosexuality. Here, religious liberty itself is at the mercy of government edict—on the claim that state-coerced normalization of homosexuality trumps freedom to believe that homosexual conduct is a wrongful act of sinful will. As Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation warns: "If religious institutions are forced by the new regime of laws to withdraw from the adoption business in order to preserve and protect their liberty and religious faith, what about marriage itself? What about the tax-exempt status, or free-speech protections, of religious institutions that advance teachings contrary to the new regime? I think we have entered a new phase of the battle, in which the larger implications of the heretofore abstract debate about marriage are becoming disturbingly clear."
A year ago, we recounted the contention over San Diego's Mt. Soledad War Memorial, where a 43-foot cross graces the center of a 170-acre parcel dedicated for public use in 1916 as "Mt. Soledad Natural Park." A redwood cross first stood at this site from 1913 until 1924. A wood and stucco cross replaced the first in 1934, but windstorms took it down in 1952. The War Memorial Cross currently standing (the third such emplacement there) dates to 18 April 1954, when the monument was rededicated to World War I, World War II and Korean War veterans during an Easter Sunday ceremony.
Since 1989, atheist Philip K. Paulson has endeavored to cut down this War Memorial Cross, using litigation to further his objective. The lawsuits have traversed the courts for a decade and a half, while voters have repeatedly approved maintaining the veterans' memorial site and cross intact. In the latest public mandate, more than three-fourths of voters last summer affirmed transfer of the memorial into federal jurisdiction as a national war monument. Alas, Superior Court Judge Patricia Cowett soon thereafter issued her imperial edict that the people of San Diego may not preserve the memorial but must instead bow before government-enforced atheism. The appeals are ongoing, with defenders of religious liberty maintaining that the cross is a veterans' memorial symbol—and a veritable symbol of the liberty for which our servicemen have risked, and too often sacrificed, their lives.
Finally, let us consider another event—the recent threatened execution of Abdul Rahman, the Afghani Christian who had converted from Islam. Rahman was promised by Islamic lawyers and religious leaders that his life would be spared if he recanted his conversion. Here we're reminded of a similar episode: While praying in Gethsemane after Passover dinner, Jesus was seized and taken before Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, and condemned as a blasphemer, too.
Though each of these instances may discourage us, take hope because our liberty—true liberty—is hidden in the richness of Christ's resurrection. Indeed, has not Abdul Rahman traveled that same road from humiliation to exaltation, humbling himself before death that he might live with Christ? Abdul, you see, understands this hiddenness.
Why is liberty so difficult for us to comprehend? It is because of its hidden qualities. As Jesus lived through the days leading to the first Easter, even those closest to Him failed to grasp the import of His foretelling of coming events. They feared that Good Friday was the end of the story. They should have known better—but would we? When Lazarus lay dead and Jesus said he'd rise again, his sister "Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.
"Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
"And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? --- John 11:24-26.
The Resurrection is the central event and tenet that distinguishes Christianity from all other faiths. Only God Himself could ransom us from our sin-slavery through His sacrifice on the cross, fulfilling the requirements of the Law—we can do nothing to aid Him. All other faiths add human works into the equation. Our Risen Lord then returned to deliver unto His followers the very freedom He'd paid His life to secure.
Do we yet comprehend liberty? The rising, after death, of the physical body bearing the personal soul conveys eternal liberation. We have this liberty even now, though it is still not yet fully revealed. In truth, this liberty is too great for anyone to comprehend. What we do know, though, is that on Easter Sunday, our hope is realized. Death has died, and we are free forever. Consider the words of the Apostle Paul to the Colossians:
Colossians 3:1-4 --- "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.
"Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.
"For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.
"When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory."
Hidden with Christ, appearing with Christ. This is our liberty!