So many Easters. There’s the western Easter of my protestant childhood, full of passion plays and easter lilies, new dresses and ham dinners. There’s the eastern Easter of my adulthood, a midnight candlelit service with harkening cries of, “Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!” We prepare red pascal eggs and baskets blessed with feasting foods we’ve denied ourselves for 40 days of Lent. Only sometimes does it fall on the same week as western Easter, because of the difference in the Julian and Gregorian calendars, and because of Passover: Pascha always follows Passover, whereas Easter may proceed it. There’s the secular Easter– candy eggs and egg hunts, marshmallow peeps and chocolate bunnies. There’s the quiet Easter, a Spring holiday and weekend away from work, without kids around to fill baskets for and without any tradition to create a sequence of predictable events to mark it as any different from the days around it.
I’m in the space between. I’m all of them. I’m juggling and balancing. People pleasing. Doubting. Watching. Buying chocolate bunnies and jelly beans to fill for egg hunts, watching for lamb to go on sale for the Pascha picnic, and sitting in the sun on my favorite swing wondering if any of it really matters.
It’s not unusual among my Orthodox friends, many of whom are converts with protestant or catholic families, to feel like we have a foot in each world. It’s dicey every year. Do we break our fast and have ham dinner with the baptists, when their Easter comes before ours? Do we try to do our midnight service and then their Easter morning as well, when they fall on the same week, a lesson in exhaustion if there ever was one?
To this muddle I’ve added angst about the cross, which upended my basket of carefully decorated mental eggs. While Easter celebrates the resurrection, there’s a lot of focus on the cross, the method of death, and the journey of Jesus as he lived through the weeks that led up to it. “He died for our sins,” both East and West say. In the East, we retrace every step towards the cross during Lent. In the West, they make movies and stage plays depicting the trauma.
I hit a point when I realized it all seemed too cruel.
To Mary: what mother can endure the method of her son’s death retold and reenacted in splayed, gory detail for two thousand years?
To children: we forbid violent movies but then expose them to vivid imitations of the Via Delorosa and Golgotha?
To trauma survivors: who recoil at the sound of a whip, at the sound of a hammer as it strikes a nail into a hand– trigger sounds to anyone who has lived in violence.
And yet, there’s an attraction to wallow in, with pristine historical accuracy, the inhumane treatment Christ endured, purportedly on our behalf. Mel Gibson is making plenty of money from The Passion and there are crosses raised in churches all over the country. The cross and the empty tomb: conjoined images of the branded Christian Easter.
One of my theories is that this is a consequence of boys writing the bible. They’ve majored on violence. Blood. Gore. Justice. Atonement. The bible is largely an action movie full of swords, chases, plagues and death. Missing is the nuance a female writer might have brought to the story. So much of the interior thought life is missing. We know the external events of the miracles but are left to use our imagination to figure out what it might have been like to experience them. The impact of history is masculine as well. If women weren’t so busy grinding wheat and drawing water and washing feet with their hair, perhaps one of them might have stopped Herod from slaughtering the innocents. Or changed the fact that the Romans were nasty barbaric beasts who utilized a systematic practice of crucifixion to kill people by torturing them for as long as possible first. C’mon girls. Slip a little poison in their water. Tell them enough is enough. How much suffering throughout time has come because half the population has allowed themselves to remain subjected and silent? How many stories are lost along the way?
I recently attended a passion play in which someone thought it would be a good idea for the audience to join in the cries of “Crucify Him!” The directions were flashed on the giant projection screens. I was familiar with why: the bible teaches we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that we’re all depraved and lost and in dire need of a savior. Jesus, the spotless lamb of God, allowed himself to die on a cross for our sins, and when we believe in Him, we are saved from eternal damnation. Any human could have been those humans, part of the mob, screaming to free Barabas and nail an innocent man instead. From the time I was small, I was taught we needed to realize this about ourselves. We all crucified Christ because we are all sinners in need of a savior.
It was while watching those words on the screen when I wondered if they’d missed the whole point. “They” as in us. All of us. The “Us” that became evangelized mankind for the previous two thousand years. What if all of Christianity missed the point? Bodacious thoughts often come all of a sudden.
The passion play, like the bible itself, demonstrates a litany of Christ’s miracles worked in the last three years of his life. These miracles: stopping a twelve year flow of blood. Healing sick children. Resurrecting Lazarus. Feeding thousands. All of them relieved suffering. All of them pointed to hope. To life after death. To vitality and health, peace and victory. (The bible holds no account of his teen and young adult years. Was nothing the Christ did in his twenties beneficial for humankind to know? I doubt it. Dang those curators. Oh, women of the bible era! Had Mary been a literate letter writer, wouldn’t you love to read her Gospel, in her own thoughts and words? Maybe a conversation with her son, after a day’s carpentry work, while having a sandwich. Wisdom, let us attend, the developmental years when Jesus aged and became a grown man.)
These miracles build in their complexity. He starts by turning water into wine at a wedding. He ends by resurrecting a man four days in his grave. The climax? His own resurrection. Rising from the dead after three days in the tomb. Evidence that life goes on. The electricity of our souls is eternal. There’s a collective we enter. He came back to prove it.
What does it matter the way he died?
Jesus Christ died on a cross in a time and place where crucifixion was commonplace. Crosses lined streets and stood on hills. They were reused. Jesus was by all accounts, a threat to the establishment, a political dissident due to his widespread loving kindness and healing.The grace he embodied was popular to people who were starving, suffering and oppressed and the political leadership saw that popularity as a threat. A sort of mock trial took place. He was convicted. Reason was discarded. Rabid blood thirst took over. The action sequence began.
This time he didn’t flee to Egypt. He didn’t knock the temple pillars in a temper over sin. He sat in a garden and prayed and waited to be betrayed by a friend, traded for silver. The bible is written to explain Jesus understood he was a sacrificial atonement, that his death was necessary to cleanse the sins of the world. The same bible also says, “Thou shall not kill,” but the Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat and this stressed them out. The Romans used crucifixion and torture to maintain order. And the population needed a savior, lest we all burn for eternity in a lake of fire. Two thousand years later, we replay and reenact it and never choose a better way.
What if the lesson of the cross is, “Hey Humans, don’t kill people in order to alleviate your own suffering?” What if the point of Easter is life? Full stop.
Crucifixion is wrong. Killing is wrong. Torture and betrayal are wrong. In a duel between life and death, Jesus “won.” Why is humanity still focused on the loser? The campaign is over. Let it go. Life won.
In 2019, I’m not joining in some cry to Crucify Him. I didn’t. I wouldn’t. I don’t think it’s okay to kill someone innocent so that my own suffering can be alleviated. I grew up hearing I should be gratefully repentant for making Christ’s crucifixion necessary but I don’t think I did. If sin did, we know better than that crowd now. We’re in post-resurrection times.
I think Jesus Christ died on a cross because that’s what the Romans of his time did to people. He landed in their custody and they did to him what they did to thousands of others, for lesser crimes than stressing out the Pharisees. What happened after, what didn’t happen to anyone else who died on a cross, is the thing all these Easters should be celebrating.
The timing of his death, at 33, nudges its way into my mind. Lambs were slaughtered for Passover, not grown sheep. If death was the point, then Jesus, as a spotless, lamb of atonement could have been killed at any point in his life and done the same job, couldn’t he have? What about when he was a toddler, the only surviving male infant after Herod’s insane slaughter? What about during the missing years of his life story, around thirteen to thirty? The legend of his death and glorious resurrection, that spread throughout the land of redemption, could have happened at any point. He could have been slit across the throat like a lamb and still risen days later. But– that doesn’t work in the story narrative at all.
If the real point of the life of Christ was eternal life, then the miracles and their progression are crucial to the story. The miracles can’t be skipped. He couldn’t die in his youth. Virgin birth wasn’t enough; lots of other prophets report that too. His ministry, the hope of a better life, an eternal life, an end to thirst and hunger, an end to pain…that was all an essential part of the hero’s journey. Likewise, a tight story needs conflict (persecution), a mission (save the masses), sidekicks (the disciples), a villain (Satan and his agents: Pharisees and Romans), and some heartbreaking subplots (the women: washing feet, observing the cross, washing the body, witnessing the resurrection) and the sad and ultimate betrayal of a friend (Judas, with a lesser reflection of denial in Peter). It’s a riveting adventure story of the highest order, the stuff legends are made of, with the highest emotional journey known to mankind. Does it get more tragic than an innocent friend being brutally crucified? Could the stakes be any higher than eternal damnation from the fires of hell? Could he be any purer than to go willingly? Could it get any better than the innocent victim rising again to new life?
Did he die “for us,” or did he just die because the bad guys got him? Did he go willingly to demonstrate a new way, a third way, a turning of the cheek, because he knew his outcome, the resurrection? Suffering, hardship, and death are coming for all of us. Jesus proves it’s not the last word. Life goes on. It’s the life, and then the eternal life, of Christ that seems to matter most. Life wins.
Something I appreciated about this year’s passion play, at a church where I grew up and have seen almost as many passions as years I’ve been alive, was that the story line was woman-dominant. Called, “The Well,” it centers on a group of modern women who travel to Jerusalem together as friends, a trip they’ve long dreamed of taking. Each brings their own invisible baggage with them. When they are left stranded by their shady tour company (the plot is already more complex than any passion play I’ve ever seen), they find an old well and start contemplating what an old well in the Holy Land could have witnessed, had it eyes to see and ears to hear. Stories abound as they recall the miracles in scripture, many of which were shared and discussed by women. The characters were complex and drawn true to life. As I’m engulfed in the memoir I’m writing, about fundamentalism, domestic violence, and toxic gender roles, I’ve meditated deeply on the memories of what it used to be like at that church and the role it played in my development. The Well would not have been produced in the 80’s or 90’s at First Baptist. It felt like no small miracle to see progress in this area, to see some diversity on stage, working women characters, sad outcomes included, and no man-splainin’ in the script. The women at the actual wells throughout history had more power than they knew and it was refreshing to see the window cracked open on that world.
This year western Easter came first, the same weekend as Passover. Pascha is this next weekend. It’s Holy Week. The scripture readings in the services retrace the steps on the journey to Golgotha, to the tomb, to the resurrection morning. The Lenten season is coming to an end. I’m home, sitting in the sun on my favorite swing, listening to the birds. I’ve bought chocolate bunnies and jelly beans to fill for the egg hunt. I’ve watched the sales on lamb for the Pascha picnic. I’ve juggled. Balanced. People pleased. Doubted. I live in the space between.
Maybe you do too.
In pencil, love, and pages,
The image for this post is, “Young man, I say unto thee, Arise,” depicting the resurrection of Lazarus, by J James Tissot.