RICHMOND, Va. – Of all the Christian holidays, it’s Christmas that gets the most attention. And can you blame us for that? Light and life in the dead of winter, gifts galore, and cookies to boot – no wonder it’s a favorite. Yet Easter is the most important Christian holiday and was celebrated long before Christmas became what it is today. We can be comfortable with Christmas, its jollity and twinkling beauty, the stable, newborn and serene mother.
Easter, on the other hand, is different and a bit unsettling. For one thing, it is preceded by a gruesome, torturous death by crucifixion. What’s more, it’s based on an utterly unnatural event – the coming back to life again of a definitely dead man. Let’s face it, being born is nothing special. We’ve all done it, and in every case at least one person was on hand to witness the occasion. But resurrection?
That Jesus was born, all four of the gospels agree. He was a man, after all. And they all agree that Jesus died. But exactly what happened after he died, well, the biblical accounts do not agree. Composed and transmitted by people who believed that Jesus was more than simply a human being, the New Testament texts strive to make clear that Jesus definitely died so that they can also tell the remarkable news that he rose up again, alive in a new and enduring way.
The four gospels tell in remarkably similar ways the details of his crucifixion – a very public event; but they differ in their narratives of what happened next. For one thing, none of them includes a firsthand witness to the actual resurrection.
Our earliest reference comes from Paul, but he’s disappointingly uninterested in the nitty-gritty. He simply states that it happened “according to the scriptures” (without citing which scriptures, exactly), and focuses his attention instead on the significance of the resurrection. In Mark, the earliest gospel, three women visit the tomb and find it empty, except for an angel. The emptiness seems to be what matters.
In Matthew, two women go and see an angel actually open the tomb, thereby derailing any argument that the body was stolen. Luke includes more than three women, who arrive at an open and empty tomb in which two men suddenly appear, declaring the happy news. And in John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene alone sees that the tomb has been opened and runs back to tell the others. When she returns, she sees two angels sitting inside.
Of all biblical women, Mary Magdalene gets a lot of attention these days, especially after Dan Brown’s provocative suggestion that she was Jesus’ wife. Although she has gained a reputation in the manner high school girls are warned against, nowhere in the Bible is she described as a prostitute. Rather, owing to some confusion in the centuries after the New Testament became Bible, she got mixed up with a few other women – the anonymous sinner-woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair (and with Mary of Bethany because that Mary does a similar thing) and with the woman caught in adultery. That confusion has endured.
Although the prostitute riff is titillating, Mary’s actual presence in the gospels is even more intriguing. For one thing, ironically, we can be more confident about a real, historical basis for her character than for any of the other gospel women. More than any other, Mary Magdalene appears consistently in every one of the four gospels, and she does so as witness to the moments of greatest significance for defining Jesus as the Christ.
The gospels are in remarkable agreement about her presence at the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Not only that, but according to the longer ending of Mark and to John’s gospel, it is to this Mary alone, out of all his followers, that the resurrected Jesus appears first.
Elsewhere, we know that resurrection appearances lent authority to the witnesses and confirmed their legitimacy as leaders in the early Christian community. Some suspect, then, that Mary Magdalene’s role may have been more significant than simply that of a devoted follower. She may have been a bona fide leader, an authority even over some of Jesus’ male followers. The discovery of the gnostic Gospel of Mary further supports such a conclusion.
In this gospel that did not become part of the Bible, in part because it represents a kind of thinking deemed heretical by the early church, Mary’s claim to have seen the risen Jesus was called into question by Peter (who, some think, represented orthodox Christianity). But lest we think that this is a feminist-friendly tract, note that in good gnostic style, Mary is described as thrilled that Jesus liberated her by making her into a man.
Contributing to the question of the resurrection, then, is this matter that it was women, and only women, who first discover the curious absence of Jesus’ body. In the patriarchal world of first-century Palestine, that alone would have sown doubt for the story’s audience. So did it really happen?
That question is the unsettling of Easter. The biblical texts don’t say definitively with a flesh-and-blood witness to the event. Then again, that’s their point. Written not by disinterested historians but by people passionate about sharing what they took to be good news, the biblical texts push their readers to believe. If they spelled it all out, what need would there be for faith? Should one (can one) prove the scandalous possibility of a radically free God, who knows death and yet remains exuberantly alive?
So we get the Christian Paschal season, with its roots deep in the greatest story of liberation ever told – the Jewish Passover (Hebrew Pesach), first celebrated when the ancient Israelites were freed from bondage to be servants of God. Its alternative name, Easter, probably reflects the fecundity of a Saxon goddess Ostara (or Eostre), celebrated at the spring equinox, and may be related to the word “estrus.”
Its association with new life makes the trappings of Easter sensible – randy rabbits, chicks, and those brightly painted eggs. Cultures all over the world and going as far back as we can imagine have featured eggs in creation myths. A transparent symbol of fertility, eggs also share with other Easter symbols a round shape. Circles and cycles suggest everlastingness – life, in this case.
Easter is a spring holiday, and not by accident. It celebrates Jesus’ triumph over the dark winter of death. Easter grows out of its Jewish roots in Passover, whose liturgy marks that event as immediate and personal, not buried in ancient history. And Easter reflects its pagan roots in celebration of the new-life goddess of many names. Jesus’ resurrection means not only one-time life after death to Christians, but the renewal of life, hope, and vitality right now.
For Christians, it reminds that God can break into conditions of death and hopelessness with something radically novel and transformative. It is, then, a turning point and reason for the generous wonder of hope in things as yet unseen.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Kristin Swenson is associate professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of “Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time.”