It’s not about bunnies. It’s not about coloring eggs. It’s not about chocolate. It’s not about flowers. It’s not even about spring or signs of “new life” in nature after a long winter. So what is Easter about?
It’s about something almost terrifyingly serious: Jesus rose from the dead.
That’s one reason why Easter hasn’t been completely subsumed by the consumer culture. (Though department stores and cheesy movies like “Hop” try their best to do so.) Christmas, which can be cast as the cozy story of Mary and Joseph and their little baby Jesus surrounded by cuddly animals in a manger, is easily domesticated. Easily tamed. More easily sold to the masses.
Easter, on the other hand, is untameable. The man whose followers imagined him to be the Messiah, the one who would forcefully, even violently, deliver them from the hands of their oppressors (For isn’t that what the Baptist said?) was tried, beaten and executed like a common thug. What’s more, after the crucifixion the Gospels portray the disciples not as stalwart stewards of their master’s legacy, but as abject cowards, cowering behind locked doors for fear of someone trying to arrest them.
Then on Easter Sunday everything changes. It changes so much that it’s hard for them to take it in. In one of his first of Jesus’s many “appearances,” one of the women doesn’t even recognize him. Several disciples refuse to believe the story—one until he actually touches the man. But Christians believe, and I believe, that it’s true: Christ has risen from the dead.
Sounds strange said so bluntly, doesn’t it? But the resurrection is the heart of the Christian message. If you don’t believe it, then you’re not Christian. Not really, as St. Paul would say elsewhere: “If Christ is not raised, your faith is in vain.”
About that new life: it is in fact “new.” Christ is not simply “resuscitated,” that is, brought back from the dead with the understanding that he’ll die some time in the future. No, he lives “forever and ever,” as the Bible (and Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus) say. It’s a completely new kind of life. And a completely new kind of reality.
That may be one reason why the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s appearances after his resurrection are so confusing. As I said, in one passage he is mistaken for the gardener. But for the disciples he was the most important man in their lives: How could they not recognize him? In another account, he seems like a ghost—for he seems to pass through doors and suddenly appears before the disciples. And in another passage he is clearly physical. “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke. What’s going on?
To my mind, the confusing accounts point out impossibility of describing what the disciples were seeing. What was it like? Well, he was like a ghost…but not really. He was flesh and blood…but something else. No one had ever seen anything remotely like this; no words could encompass the reality of what theologians call the “glorified body.”
So everything changes on Easter. And what Jesus said during his earthly ministry (love one another, pray for your enemies, give to the poor) now takes on added meaning for the disciples.
Easter is not about bunnies or chocolate or eggs. It is an event that makes a claim on you. Either you believe that Jesus did not rise from the dead (or his body was stolen, or the Gospels are made up, or the disciples simply “remembered” him and passed on his message). Or you believe he was raised from the dead. In which case everything changes for you, too.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America, and author of the bestsellers The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and My Life with the Saints .
May your Easter be filled with the hope of His resurrection.
Peace and Joy,