The days around Easter make up the greatest Christian festival. They also point us, indeed almost drive us, into consideration of the most profound insights that our faith offers about human experience, because Easter is all about how we see life and what we are to make of death.
I have sometimes begun my Good Friday homily with the short statement, “Jesus did not want to die.” It is surprising how often believers find that a novel thought, how often we lapse into the ancient heresy of thinking of Jesus as the Son of God walking around pretending to be like us. But no, he was a young man of thirty-something. He was deeply engaged in life: travelling, teaching, healing, sharing meals all over the place, delighting in company and, at times, in solitude. We see how he observed nature and human foibles, watching the lilies of the field, the habits of farmers, the changes of the seasons, weaving these bits of everyday life into his teaching as parables. And, of course, he had a great sense of having a mission to complete. Anyway, we hear it from him in the Garden, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass me by.” He did not want to die. His passionate way of living reminds us that just being alive is a great gift of God, and that it entails many other great gifts like friends and home, the beauty of nature, the experience of love and kindness. Death is a massive loss of good things. Death, especially untimely death, is a personal disaster.
And yet, Jesus was prepared to die. He said to his disciples once, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” There is more to being alive, then, than just breathing. The word ‘soul’ has a quaint ring to it today, but we still realise that there is something to ‘me’ that makes me the person I am, some ‘self’ that I can lose, can betray, can sell short. Jesus, when the time came, retained his integrity, which is pretty close to the meaning of ‘soul’. He would not deny his life’s work, recant his teaching, back down from his truth. He didn’t want to die, but he believed there really was ‘a fate worse than death’. He would not betray his God, his own beliefs, the truth he had lived by. He would not lose his ‘soul’, even in the face of death.
And, of course, the message of Easter Day itself is that Jesus was right. God raised him from death. We are not just fragile bodies subject to destruction by violence or disease or the sheer wearing out of our flesh and bones. We are more than that. And that ‘more’, that ‘me’ that is mind and heart and spirit and person, is in the hands of God, whether my body lives or dies. Not everyone can believe this. Not everyone believed it in Jesus’ time, either. But it is the message of Easter, the message passed on by those who, to their great surprise, encountered Jesus again after his death.
We live at a time when people question what makes life worth living. We tend to undervalue the things that money can’t buy and to have exaggerated hopes that the things we can buy will one day deliver happiness. We go to extraordinary lengths to make our bodies last a few years or months longer, but we won’t think or talk about death itself, almost superstitiously believing that if we ignore it, it will go away. Yet we are still faced with the ancient human questions: What gives meaning to life? What is a good life? What might be worth dying for? What is death, and is it all there is in the end? Christians believe that the life, death and rising of Jesus are highly significant to our deepest human ponderings. We call his history simply ‘the Good News’.