This morning, people across the country will gather with their families for a quiet spring dinner, send the kids out into the yard to gather pastel-colored eggs, and perhaps exchange gifts. Some people may go to church who would not ordinarily go. But overall, it will be quiet.
Easter is not a holiday like Christmas. Whatever it means inside the church, it means far less to those outside. The fierce, merry joy of Santa Claus may capture some of the joy, the wonder, the sense of a gift received and something magical breaking into the ordinary that rightly belongs to a holiday intended to celebrate Christ’s birth. The Easter Bunny, on the other hand, is vague and meaningless, an uncertain step up from the Tooth Fairy. And as confused as we are by the presence of this anthropomorphic bunny with his basket of abnormal, painted eggs, that confusion seems to carry over to the holiday itself.
I often wonder what non-Christians see when they look at what in some churches appears to be a laid-back celebration of spring, a celebration of some vague hope about a teacher who seems to come back from the dead, float around for a while, then disappear Jedi-style, becoming one with the Force. Is it symbolic? Is the point that his teachings live on? Or that we all live on in the hearts of our friends? Or that maybe, hopefully, we too can ascend into some unknown, but conscious existence in the clouds when we die?
The point is, a man stopped being dead.
Scrap vague moralism, and think about that. Christians know what dead is. We know that biological processes stop for no man. We are all unraveling, our hearts will stop beating, our brains will stop functioning, and we will begin to rot. Decay is built into the order of the universe as we understand it. All things die, all things pass away, and all the might of every civilization, every attempt by king and conqueror to make themselves live on in story or song, in a building project, or some new polity, it all crumbles to dust, and is forgotten. The cracked and fallen statue of Ozymandias, like that of all kings and great men, lies half-buried in the sand. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Death wins. Everyone will die, and nothing we do can change that. There is no cure for death. The graveyards, the battlefields, the vast and roaring sea are full of evidence.
We believe that a man stopped being dead.
His heart did not stop beating for a minute, and then start back up. This was no resuscitation. He was whipped till the flesh came off his back, had large thorns shoved into his forehead, his hands and feet were nailed with spikes to a rough piece of wood, he was hung from that makeshift tree and mocked until he strangled. And then, to be sure, they put a spear to his side until blood and some inner fluid that looked like water poured out. Then they took him down, wrapped him in burial clothes, and left him in a tomb for the better part of three days. If he was not dead in every sense of the word, then no man is.
We believe that this man stopped being dead.
We are not naïve. The laws of nature do not permit death to reverse itself. Decay does not go backwards. Gashes do not heal on their own, after the heart has stopped beating. A corpse cannot replenish its own supply of blood. Once turned off, the brain begins to die almost instantly, and that damage is not lightly undone. Cells that burst throughout the body, muscles that come unknit, chemicals that only hold together under the right temperature, the right supply of oxygen, all these begin to fail. When you rot for three days in the grave, you do not come back. It cannot happen.
We believed that a man stopped being dead.
The force that kills the poor and the rich, the force that humiliates the best of us, that weakens the strongest of us, death was beaten. Natural law, the world as we know it, was violated, reversed. The impossible happened, a miracle beyond miracles, nothing simply strange, but something supernatural—“above nature.” A dead un-rotted, a dead man un-bled, a dead man healed, and a dead man lived. He rose in his tomb and folded his burial clothes, walked outside passed armed guards who were preventing the theft of his body, and lingered in the area long enough to surprise his friends who had come to practice the local approximation of embalming.
A dead man stopped being dead.
And that’s not all.
That dead man claimed to be God. He claimed to know why everyone dies, why we’re trapped in this unraveling world. We sinned, he said. We rebelled against the God that created us. He gave every good thing imaginable, our very lives, and we slapped him in the face. Then for a thousand years, and a thousand years again, and on and on, through generation after generation, we set about killing each other, humiliating the weak, being cruel to man and beast and world at large. We deserve death, and death comes for us.
But God would not let the story stop there. The God who made us, and gave us every good gift, the God we hate, whose creation we seek to destroy, whose image-bearing people we constantly dehumanize, that God still loves us. He came to earth in the person of his son, walked the rough and thorny ground that we walk, faced every temptation and trial we ever faced, and at the end of the day, the people he came to save seized him, spit on him, beat him, and crucified him.
That was the punishment we deserved.
He went to the cross willingly. He took on our sins, our evil, the shame of every hateful thing we’ve ever done, the guilt of every crime, the penalty for every line we crossed, he took it on himself, and died. But as he died, he experienced the true thing that makes death hard for us, the thing that makes living this world unbearable. “My God, my God,” he said, “Why have you forsaken me?” For a moment, it seemed he was cut off from his Creator, from his purpose and meaning, from the source of all life and happiness, from the source of any hope in the future.
But he stayed on the cross. He died. He took on our penalty, our humiliation, he said, “It is finished,” and he died.
And it was finished.
Everything we had ever done wrong, everything that separated us from our Creator, from a life worth living, from hope in the future, everything that ever meant we had to die—it was finished. Over. Done with.
And they placed him in the grace.
He was dead.
And then, he stopped being dead.
The story did not end with the penalty paid, with a final humiliation. No, he came back, alive, whole healthy. Death itself reversed, the impossible happened, he rose from the grave, and he lived.
Think about that. Our sins are done with, over, finished. And so is death. If we died in him, if our penalty was paid in him, then we rise with him. We, too, receive the promise, we, too, receive the hope. If sin could not hold us, then death cannot hold us.
All of creation, all the slow decay, the dark unraveling, the doom of man and beast and every green thing, all death, is coming undone.
Christ the Lord is risen today.
We, too, shall rise.
Death—humiliated—Death, too, shall die.
That is what Easter means. Not a warm feeling in our hearts, not the survival of the teachings of a kind, young teacher, and not merely the hope of a vague, bright consciousness beyond the grave. No, the reign of death is ending. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, rose to heaven—not the cloud-filled afterlife, but the throne-room of God—and sits at the right hand of the one who rules the universe. All things that look bleak and hopeless, all evil in the world all death, their time on earth is limited. The one who runs the show is guiding things to better a place, a grand finale, a great and hopeful conclusion. Death is dead. The way of the universe is changing.
In Christ, all died.
In Christ, all shall rise.
And that is what Easter means.