You could be forgiven for thinking it strange that a pluralist, secular society such as 1990s Australia has a national holiday to celebrate Easter. It isn’t really strange at all—we are still the land of the long weekend. Australians still love public holidays, whatever the occasion. In fact, pluralism in religion lends itself to the Aussie way of life—the more accepted religions, the more public holidays!
What is strange is the manner in which we celebrate the Easter public holiday. Everything about it seems bizarre. Fertility myths and Spring rituals are the order of the day, even though we celebrate during Autumn (a telling demonstration of our independence from the north). We exalt the Rabbit as our symbol of fertility, notwithstanding that our country has, for centuries, been devastated by these pests.
Easter has become the ideal religious holiday for Western pluralist relativists. We can no longer (if we ever could) hold the nation together in an exclusively Christian celebration, but our desire for national unity is still strong. We need a reason for a national holiday, so we opt for something so unbelievable that it couldn’t offend anybody. We all attend the Feast of the Chocolate-laying Bunny.
Facts won’t do
Christians can thoroughly spoil a good religious holiday. They are always so concerned with history and facts and realism. The first Easter, we are reminded, had nothing to do with Spring, chocolate, rabbits or the Sydney Showground. It was about a Jewish itinerant preacher who, in the first century, was executed by crucifixion. The documentary evidence that this happened is overwhelming. There is so little doubt that in the first century a man called Jesus was crucified that those who refuse to acknowledge it are drawn into intellectual perversity or cynical nihilism.
But facts won’t do. To agree to the facts of Easter is not to say that you are a Christian. The documentation of Christ’s death goes far beyond incident reporting. That Christ died tells us nothing about why the history of this particular Jew should so radically transform the history of the world. Millions of Jews have died in horrendous circumstances; why is the whole course of history divided into BC and AD by this one man? The fact of Jesus’ death doesn’t explain why today’s Australians are taking a holiday. Nor does it explain why many of them have given their lives to the service of this man and his cause. It is not enough just to know that Jesus died.
It is the interpretation of Jesus’ death, which we find in the Scriptures, that has transformed Judaism, undermined the Roman empire, changed the course of Europe and rewritten the lives of millions of people. The historical veracity of the crucifixion is essential—a mythical reading of the gospels will not do—but it is only the beginning of the Christian message. The death gives the interpretation value; the interpretation gives the death meaning. ThatJesus died is important, but why he died is what we Christians are keen to tell the world.
His dying words
People are fascinated by last words. We record and remember a person’s dying utterances, as if we hope to somehow find a clue to the hidden truths of life and death as the person crosses from one to the other. We tend to imbue them with a special meaning and understand them to summarize that person’s life.
Jesus’ final words as he died on the cross are recorded in the New Testament in the language in which they were spoken:
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34
Jesus dies feeling godforsaken. ‘Godforsaken’ is a term of derogation, as we use it today, to describe something that seems barren and abandoned by all that is good. It evokes a mood of desolation and loneliness. And it is the worst type of loneliness—the loneliness of a lost relationship. Anyone who has had a good relationship with someone and then lost it knows how crippling it can be. The irrational sense of a tangible void, eating away at your livelihood can drive you to despair. Some psychologists call the first two years after a divorce the ‘normal crazies’, as they observe people who were bonded most intimately rage recklessly about in an attempt to cope with the loss—the forsakenness.
As Jesus dies, he perceives himself losing his relationship with God. Gradually, all his friends have left him. His nation has disowned him, the law wouldn’t acknowledge his innocence, his disciples—even the stalwart Peter—have deserted him. Now he is losing God. This hurts most of all, for Jesus’ relationship with God was so close and intimate that the Jews called it blasphemous. “I and the father are one”, Jesus claimed, and now that unity isbeing torn apart.
Perhaps, as some people have suggested, Jesus was simply suffering a loss of ‘God-consciousness’. His idea of the divine was being buried in the nothingness of death. His sense of transcendence was failing him at the last minute. A closer examination of what Jesus says demonstrates that, if anything, at this moment of death, the Christ is most conscious of God and God’s plans.
As he cries out, Jesus is making a literary allusion. He is quoting the first line of Psalm22. It was normal practice amongst the Jews to refer to a psalm by saying the opening line. Jesus is saying, in verbal shorthand, “Look at this psalm. Interpret my death according to what it says. That is the true meaning of what is here taking place.”
In Psalm 22 we meet a man who is suffering persecution and death. He is being attacked by his enemies, who gather round him and gloat over their victory. The suffering man is aware of his innocence, aware that he deserves no punishment and acutely aware that God is not protecting him. Jesus’ predicament seems to closely parallel this scene.
But the mood of the psalm changes as he appeals to God for help:
But you, O LORD, be not far off;
O my Strength, come quickly to help me.
Finally, the suffering man starts to express confidence that God will vindicate him and justice will be done:
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honour him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
A psalm that starts with a moan of oppression and dereliction, which we hear from the mouth of Jesus, transforms into a tremendous statement of faith that God will save him and he will live on to declare God’s praise, telling people what God has done and leading the whole world into praising God for this act of salvation.
What we read in Psalm 22 expands our understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ dying words. He is not only conscious of being forsaken by God, but he is also confident of vindication. His cry is not the outcome of losing faith in God, nor an insensitivity to God’s existence. It is, rather, an indication of a deeper knowledge that this death he is dying is not the end. These words he is shouting are not the last word on his relationship with God.
Is Jesus’ death absurd?
Death is normal, but it is dreadfully unnatural. It takes a good deal of time and/or personal pain to acknowledge that death has anything to do with me. It is that foreign horror, a devastation that happens all around me but feels a million miles off. When death does come close, as it does for every single person who has ever lived, its unnaturalness bears down upon you. It turns your life inside out and laughs at it. All you have done and seen and said and thought seems to be worth nothing. Death makes your life absurd and obscene. You spend your time struggling to live and yet you won’t win the battle. You can’t win.
If death has drawn close to you, or those you love, you will know that it generates the bewildering question: “Why? Why is death inevitable?”
The short and comprehensive answer is that God, the author and source of life, chooses that we will die. God chooses to cut us off from himself.
But this hardly satisfies us in our suffering. We cannot imagine why a good God would do such a thing. The simple and most profound answer to that question is that we ask him to cut us off.
When we choose to live as if God did not exist or did not care, God ‘rewards’ us by withdrawing from us, as we desire. It seems to us best to live our own way: we have to lie sometimes, we are justified in harbouring malicious thoughts about our bosses, we have to look after number one. God allows us to do this, ‘honouring’ our choices, and he grants us the fullness of our request. The author and source of life gives us our heads. God has already partially withdrawn from the world, and that is what he will do at your death, at my death and at the end of the world. He withdraws to let us carry on in our self-rulership and self-centredness. Mercifully, God is slow to withdraw and there are still signs of his goodness here; this world is not totally godforsaken. But when we leave the world, we are totally godforsaken and, in time, God will totally withdraw.
But Jesus was not like us. In stark contrast to us, he did not oppose nor resist nor reject God. He did not turn his back upon the life-giver and live for himself. He claimed that he had come to do the Father’s will and that he was one with the Father. If death is a consequence of our rejection of God, then there seems to be no reason why Jesus should die? Is his death absurd?
The apparent absurdity is resolved in the meaning of Jesus’ death. Jesus was not dying his own death, but ours. Jesus was not forsaken by God because of what he had done, but because of what we had done and what we are doing. Mark figures Jesus’ death to be a ransom, a payment to redeem rebellious people who were getting their just deserts. Some years later, the Scripture says to the church in Corinth:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.2 Cor 5:21
Jesus was not a mere martyr. That would not explain how his death has directed history and branded the lives of people today. Nor is it simply an example of self-effacing love in which one man lays down his life for others. Jesus was a sacrifice. Killed at the time of the Jewish Passover, when the nation of Israel celebrates the Exodus, the sacrificial symbolism of Jesus’ death is both straightforward and profound. Just as a Passover lamb was killed in place of condemned people, so Jesus, the Lamb of God is killed to acquit the guilty and set them free. In this event, on the cross at Calvary, we discover an interpretation of the whole of Scripture.
The godforsaken God
Christians occasionally face the charge that the death of Jesus was unjust. How could God allow Jesus to be killed instead of those who deserved death? Surely God cannot punish an innocent man and let the guilty go free?
At this point, the interpretation of Jesus’ death is world-shattering. God was not punishing a third party; God was in Jesus, reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). Jesus’ claims about his intimate relationship with God here come to the fore. Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus was not just a man, but God become man. On the cross, therefore, God is forsaking God; the author of life is dying. The perfectunity of God is being torn apart, in order to save us. This is how seriously God takes our sin; this is how seriously he takes our salvation from death.
The crucifixion then makes sense—and yet it doesn’t. The inconceivable has happened, God forsaking God, and the world has been divided by it ever since. A Christian is someone who grasps the truth of this Easter story. Someone who is amazed at how very valuable we are to God, that he might demonstrate hislove for us through such a terrific act of liberation. Someone who is relieved that, amidst the persistent sufferings of this world, God is in control. Someone who, in the here and now, praises God and wants the world to know of his glorious salvation.
Where is God in this world? He is in the crucifixion of Jesus. God lets people shut him out of their lives, but he has not left altogether and he will not tolerate ongoing rebellion. Our appeal this Easter must be this: be reconciled to God for, if you are not, sin and death will claim you.
Adapted by Greg Clarke from an address by Phillip Jensen