April 5, 2007
In the late 19
th century, archaeologists discovered an ancient mosaic map on the 6
th century floor of St. George's Church in Madaba, Jordan. It is the oldest extant map of the Holy Land. It pictures the Holy Land as seen during the Byzantine period. At the very center of the map is the walled city of Jerusalem. Dominating the city stands the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built by the Emperor Constantine two centuries before.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built over Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus. This is the place where Jesus died and rose from the dead. The position of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the center of the Madaba map, therefore, is more than simple geography. It is theology. For Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the central truth of faith. The resurrection is the truth that transforms the world.
In liturgies reflecting local traditions and ancient rites, each Easter Christians celebrate their fundamental belief that Christ has been raised from the dead. In Catholic tradition, the celebration of Easter begins with the Easter Vigil, celebrated always after dark on Holy Saturday. The liturgy dramatically announces that the Risen Christ comes as the Light to shatter the darkness of sin and despair. It is the most joyful and solemn of the Church’s celebrations. New members are baptized. All members are renewed. Again and again in song and prayer, the Easter rites rejoice: Christ has been raised from the dead.
The Egyptian pharaohs built their pyramids and preserved their dead, because they believed in an afterlife. They placed household utensils in their tombs, trusting that life somehow goes on. But, on Easter, Christians remember an empty tomb. They listen to the gospel accounts of the women and the disciples going to the tomb on Easter morning and finding it empty. No one saw the Resurrection of Jesus. In fact, the empty tomb left those first followers of Jesus empty. Seeing the tomb, they were perplexed. They did not understand. They did not believe.
The New Testament sources made it clear that faith in the Resurrection of Jesus only came about by the repeated appearances of the Risen Jesus to his disciples. And this in itself lays bare what Resurrection truly means.
It is about presence. The Lord is with his people. He meets them where they are in the disbelief and the despair. He comes to them in their weakness and their wandering away from him. A person may fail. But the person is still meant for greatness. What a needed truth at a time when cynicism at others’ failures destroys humanity’s hope in the future. Every person, created by God, is good. There is life after death. There is forgiveness after failure. We are not meant to be cast aside forever. All are destined to something more than this world can give.
We are a world torn apart by wars and divisions, by disagreements over the fundamental issues of life and death. These conflicts and tensions cast their dark shadows over us. In the last three decades of the 20th century, journals have published 46,000 psychological papers on depression and only 400 on joy. We face the darkness.
The tragedies and sufferings of this world do not disappear like the mist before the rising sun of Easter morning. Disappointments and even failures are part of the world in which we live. But for the Christian, they are not the defining element of life.
Jesus still bears the wounds of the crucifixion. But faith affirms that he is raised from the dead. There is continuity between this world and the next. This creation, this body, is taken into the realm of God. Resurrection faith affirms the goodness of creation.
From year to year, the Easter story remains the same. But the people who hear it and believe do not. The Easter story is a challenge to believers to live this life against the horizon of a new life that does not simply happen at death but is begun here and now. Easter morning
is the birth of Christian optimism.