For all of us Easter means the passing of cold, winter days and the coming of spring, summer and, hopefully, some nice weather. For the Christian, however, it is about more than the weather. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the assurance that God can overcome every fear we have, including death itself.
Bernhard Langer, one of the world's leading golfers throughout the 1980s and 1990s, had no doubts about the day: "To a Christian, Easter Sunday means everything, when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
This is not an easy hope to embrace, and some find it almost impossible, which was the initial response of the apostles, according to St Luke. His account of that first Easter day tells us that those closest to Jesus rejected reports of the resurrection as absurd. The women who discovered the empty tomb “told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to be an idle tale and they did not believe them.”
Such scepticism was not new among the followers of Jesus as we see from their dismissal of his earlier predictions of his death and resurrection.
This points to the authenticity of what happened as denial gradually gave way to belief because several of them saw Jesus, spoke to him and shared meals with him and then there was Paul on the road to Damascus. In time they would endure persecution and even death rather than deny what they had come to believe. It still happens, witness martyrs of the 20th century such as Romero, Kolbe, Bonhoeffer and Luwum.
Nonetheless we are left with questions, about the world as it is and what’s happening in our own lives. To us God seems at times unreachable like the man imagined by the poet and priest RS Thomas, alone in a church, wondering whether God is hiding there, “testing his faith on emptiness, nailing his questions one by one to an untenanted cross.”
At Easter 1986 a party of British and Irish Christians visited Russia to meet churches which were being persecuted under the then Soviet regime. The Rev Roy Jenkins, a Baptist minister, was a member of the group. He recalled the visit in a recent radio programme and one thing in particular: "Whether we were with Orthodox or Baptist or Catholic, the service would be punctuated with the shout, 'Kristos voskrese' – Christ is risen; and back from the congregation would come with great passion, 'Ystunno voskrese' – 'He is risen indeed.' It came from elderly women who stood for three hours at a time, lighting their candles, kissing the ikons, crossing themselves with dexterity. Who could tell what they'd lost, what suffering they'd seen? It came from younger people making a conscious decision . . . in a state which taught atheism as a creed, risking discrimination in work, education, housing. They would have known that few churches were open, and hundreds of their fellow-believers languished in prison or labour camp for acting out the teaching of their faith."
Later they were bussed to a cathedral which had been converted into a museum of atheism. Gloomy and dust-strewn, designed to show the folly of religion of all kinds.
Twenty years later Jenkins revisited the same building since restored to its former purpose. “It was bustling”, he said, “with long queues for candles, and services taking place in the side chapels. Outside, over the huge colonnades facing the main street, was a familiar message in lettering maybe ten feet high, Kristos voskrese – ystunno voskrese.” They understood what Solzhenitsyn meant when he said: “Life conquers death, and the past is overcome by the future.”
That resilient Easter faith sustained Archbishop Desmond Tutu through long years of violence and suffering in South Africa and much personal danger: "Easter says to us that despite everything to the contrary, his (God's) will for us will prevail, love will prevail over hate, justice over injustice and oppression, peace over exploitation and bitterness."
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.