This appeared on Easter Sunday in the Times Online.
Private Eye ran a cartoon some years ago of St Peter standing in front of Jesus’ Cross and saying to the other disciples, "It’s time to put this behind us now and move on." It was a satire, not on Christian belief, but on politicians and counsellors, and their trivializing mantras. The satire depended on the fact that Jesus’ death is not just an odd, forgettable past event – and on the fact that it was his Resurrection, rather than a shoulder-shrugging desire to "move on", which got the early Christians going.
Easter was the pilot project. What God did for Jesus that explosive morning is what he’s intending to do for the whole of creation. We who live in the interval between Easter and that eventual hope are called to be new-creation people, here and now. That is the hidden meaning of the greatest festival Christians have.
This true meaning has remained hidden because the Church has trivialized it and the world has rubbished it – reactions which feed off one another. The Church has turned Jesus’ Resurrection into a "happy ending" after the dark and messy story of Good Friday, often scaling it down so that "Resurrection" becomes a fancy way of saying "he went to Heaven". Easter then means "there really is life after death". The world shrugs its shoulders. We may or may not believe in life after death, but we reach that conclusion independently of Jesus, of odd stories about risen bodies and empty tombs.
But "Resurrection", to first-century Jews and pagans alike, wasn’t about "going to heaven". That’s a different matter. The word "Resurrection" always referred to people who were physically dead being physically alive again. Some Jews (not all) believed that God would do this for all people in the end. No pagans we know of believed this. Language about a post-mortem life in Egyptian religions, for instance, isn’t the same kind of thing. Nobody, including Jesus’ followers, was expecting one person to be bodily raised from the dead in the middle of history. The stories of the resurrection are certainly not ‘wish-fulfilments’ of that kind, or the result of what a somewhat dodgy social science calls "cognitive dissonance". First century Jews who followed would-be prophets and Messiahs knew perfectly well that if your leader got killed by the authorities it meant you’d backed the wrong man. You then had a choice: either give up the revolution, or get yourself a new leader. Going around saying he’d been raised from the dead wasn’t an option.
Unless he really had been. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly dead by the Friday evening; Roman soldiers were professional killers, and wouldn’t have allowed a not-quite-dead rebel leader, as they imagined him to be, to stay that way for long. When the first Christians told the story of what happened next, they were precisely not saying "I think he’s still with us in a spiritual sense" or "I think he’s gone to heaven" or "let’s continue his work anyway". All these have been suggested by people who have lost their historical, and well as their theological, nerve.
The historian has to explain why Christianity got going in the first place, why it hailed Jesus as Messiah despite his execution (he hadn’t defeated the pagans, or rebuilt the Temple, or brought justice and peace to the world, all of which a Messiah should have done), and why the early Christian movement took the shape it did. The only explanation which will fit the evidence is the one the early Christians themselves insist upon: he really had been raised from the dead. His body was not just re-animated. It was transformed, so that it was no longer subject to sickness and death.
Let’s be clear: the stories are not about someone coming back into the present mode of life. They are about someone going on into a new sort of existence, still emphatically bodily, if anything more so. When St Paul speaks of a "spiritual" resurrection body, he doesn’t mean "non-material", like a ghost. The word translated "spiritual" is the sort of Greek word which tells you, not what something’s made of, but what is animating it. The risen Jesus had a physical body animated by God’s life-giving Spirit. Yes, says St Paul; that same Spirit is at work in us, and will have the same effect – and in the whole world.
Now, suddenly, the real meaning of Easter comes into view, as well as the real reason why it has been trivialized and sidelined. Easter is about a new creation which has already begun. The creator God is remaking his world, challenging all the other powers that think that’s their job. The rich, wise order of creation on the one hand, and its glorious, abundant beauty on the other, are reaffirmed the other side of the thing which always threatens justice and beauty, namely death. Christianity’s critics, then and now, have always sneered that nothing has changed. But in fact everything has. The world is a different place.
And it’s up to those who follow Jesus to show that this is so. Easter gives Christians a double vocation. They are themselves to be part of that new creation, plunged into Jesus’ death and finding new life in his resurrection. But, second, they are to be agents of that justice and beauty, planting signposts in the Easter soil which point forwards to the renewal of all things. Conversion, symbolized in baptism (which the Church associates with Easter), isn’t just about "me being saved". It’s about all of us being given our various instructions as new-creation people.
Easter has been sidelined because this message doesn’t fit our prevailing worldview. For at least 200 years, the western world has lived on the dream that we can bring justice and beauty to the world all by ourselves. The split between God and the "real" world has produced a public life which has lurched to and fro between anarchy and tyranny, and an aesthetic which has swung dramatically between sentimentalism and brutalism. But we still want to do things our own way, even though we laugh at politicians who claim to be saving the world, and artists who claim "inspiration" when they put cows in formaldehyde.
The world wants to hush up the real meaning of Easter. Death is the final weapon of the tyrant, or for that matter the anarchist, and resurrection indicates that this weapon isn’t as powerful as it had seemed. When the Church begins to work with Easter energy on the twin tasks of justice and beauty, we may find that it can face down the sneers of today’s sceptics, and speak once more of Jesus in a way which will be heard.