Growing up, Easter was Cadbury eggs and pastel ties. It was The Ten Commandments on TV. It was hymns like “Low in the Grave He Lay” and “In the Garden.” It was Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the grave. And it was Cadbury eggs.
Luckily I’m older now, and I’m beginning to see the full meaning of this holiday, this ultimate remembrance. And it’s kind of a headtrip.
These events—these shocking historical events about one Jewish prophet’s brutal death and resurrection as recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and others—truly reoriented the trajectory of the world, something even nonbelievers can concede.
But for those of us who believe not just that Jesus Christ was real but that he spoke the truth (for example, that he was the Son of God and the savior of all humanity), the events of Easter did more than change history; they ripped open the fabric of the cosmos. When Jesus rode that donkey triumphantly into Jerusalem and then was systematically butchered less than a week later, he was living the most significant week the world has ever seen.
It’s hard to grasp the magnitude and meaning of this moment—this apex of history. But symbolism has always helped us understand the incomprehensible, and there are some really great symbols in this story.
My favorite has always been the image of the temple veil being ripped completely down the middle at the moment of Christ’s death. Matthew 27: 50-51 records it in this way: “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom...”
Holy #&*$. Can you imagine being in the Temple when this happened? This, after all, was the veil separating God’s house (the Holy of Holies) from where men could go (the rest of the Temple). It was the ultimate symbol of man’s separation from God by sin (Isaiah 59:1-2). Only the High Priest, once a year, could pass through the veil and enter into God's presence for all of Israel, making atonement for their sins (Leviticus 16). The rending of the veil at the moment Christ sacrificed himself, then, gives us some idea of what the cross meant: Christ’s own blood was a sufficient atonement for sins forever. The way into the Holy of Holies was now open and accessible, for all people, for all time, both Jew and gentile. Jesus made God personal.
I’ve been doing a small-group bible study of Luke over the course of Lent, and the theme of our studies has been the various “meals/communions” Jesus had throughout his ministry (dining with Pharisees, the feeding of the five thousand, etc). The last example we are looking at, appropriately for Holy Week, is the Last Supper. Here again we can see the presence of symbolism in Christ explaining the meaning of his impending sacrifice to his followers. Here’s the Luke version (22: 14-20):
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God."
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, "Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes."
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me."
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
What an absolutely bizarre, dumbfounding thing that would have been to witness! I can’t imagine what the disciples were thinking. I mean, what does one do with “This cup is the new covenant in my blood”? The audacity! Thousands of years of Jewish covenantal tradition usurped in a few moments around a dinner table…
Still, within hours the disciples would see all too clearly that Jesus was serious. Sadly, beautifully, graciously: Jesus’s words proved all too literal. He was the new sacrifice: the once, future, and final sacrifice. And it was for everybody.
Here is the truly radical, mind-blowing thing about Easter and what it represents: it means that everyone—even the most despicable, lowly sinners among us—can enter into communion with God. It means that our imperfect notions of worth and value and conditional love are rendered moot and passé. His love (thankfully) has nothing to do with our deserving it. C.S. Lewis clarifies this revolutionary idea when he says, in his essay “Membership”:
"God did not die for man because of some value He perceived in him. The value of each human soul considered simply in itself, out of relation to God, is zero. As St. Paul writes, to have died for valuable men would have been not divine but merely heroic; but God died for sinners. He loved us not because we were lovable, but because He is Love. It may be that He loves all equally—He certainly loved all to the death—and I am not certain what the expression means. If there is equality, it is in His love, not in us.”
I can’t admit to fully understanding the mind-blowing mysteries of Easter and all that it means, but I do know this much: we are all invited to the celebration.