Any given Sunday it’s not. When dawn broke on the first day of the Jewish week two millennia ago, something earth-shattering unfolded: an empty grave and a disappearance that defied explanation.
Ever since, people the world over have pondered the puzzle celebrated on Easter Sunday. Had divinity truly been in humanity’s midst?
Believers struggle to interpret the cataclysmic event; skeptics insist either it didn’t happen the way the Gospels say, or it didn’t happen, period. The burden of proof duels with the burden of disproof.
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“And so begins the story of Christianity — with confusion, not with clarity; with mystery, not with certainty,” Jon Meacham wrote in Newsweek magazine.
“(Yet) without the Resurrection, it is virtually impossible to imagine that the Jesus movement . . . would have long endured. [T]he [R]esurrection was the hinge of history, the moment after which nothing would ever be the same.”
According to a Newsweek poll, 78 percent of Americans believe Jesus rose from the dead. This Sunday, Easter Sunday, many of them will profess that belief in church services specifically tailored for the occasion.
Whereas Christmas marks the birth of Christ, Easter marks the birth of Christianity. So monumental is Easter that in the Roman Catholic hierarchy of feasts, it holds the first place.
Though less beloved than Christmas, Easter is liturgically superior. It’s a reminder that every person has a birthday, but if in fact Jesus rose from the dead, he did something no person had done before or has done since.
“Easter is the proclamation from God that life wins out over death,” said Christopher Warner-Carey, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Ukiah. “Death no longer (has power) to hold us. In a culture that seems to worship death in some ways, Easter is a strong and, in some sense, subversive message.”
Many biblical events have parallels in other religious or cultural traditions. The notion of a great and destructive flood, for example, was almost universal in the ancient world. Also, many religions, ancient and modern, call attention to healers and holy people who perform superhuman feats.
But as Meacham points out, the resurrection of Jesus has no precedent. Across the vast spectrum of belief systems that have existed in human history, Christianity alone claims that a person brought himself back to life — and makes it the foundational tenet of faith, no less.
“It’s really a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy,” said Dean Rowley, pastor at Ukiah’s First Presbyterian Church. “There are allusions to the resurrection in the Old Testament, but I don’t know that Isaiah knew what he was writing about.
“The essence of Easter is that Christ is risen. I’m trying to delineate between the cross and the Resurrection, but I can’t. While it is the cross we preach and teach, it’s the Resurrection that gives it its authenticity.”
A preliminary period called Holy Week, characterized by restraint and at times profound sadness, ushers in the unfettered joy of Easter.
Prior to the paschal celebration, Christians observe Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, all of which commemorate the series of events known collectively as the passion of Jesus.
Like many religious holidays, Easter has been subjected to secularization and commercialism — see Exhibit A: the Easter bunny.
But Christianity actually took advantage of its own long period of cultural dominance. It catalyzed ancient pagan rites of spring into a celebration of the risen Jesus.
And in 325, the Council of Nicaea fixed the date of Easter as the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or next after the vernal equinox. So the range of possible dates for Easter spans almost a month, from March 22 to April 25 inclusive.
All Western Christian churches recognize the Easter holiday, which inaugurates a joyful season known as Paschaltide.
“To me it’s the only holiday that Jesus himself instituted. That’s why it’s significant for me,” said Garry Zeek, pastor of First Baptist Church in Ukiah. “Though we do celebrate his birth, he chose for us to celebrate his death and resurrection.”